Ethical … Roopa Pemmaraju with a model showing one of her ''easy, wearable'' designs featuring a print by an indigenous artist. Photo: Edwina Pickles
AN INDIAN designer has collaborated with Aboriginal artists for a unique cross-cultural collection to be unveiled at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Australia, which opens on Monday.
Roopa Pemmaraju has worked with indigenous artists from Desert Designs, Coo-ee Aboriginal Art Gallery and Warlukurlangu Artists Aboriginal Corporation to create a resort collection amalgamating their paintings with handmade Indian fabrics.
Pemmaraju moved to Australia from Bangalore six years ago, where she worked for American designer Tommy Hilfiger before founding her own eponymous label in 2006 with a vision to create ethically produced fashion working with Indian artisans.
"We have never seen a more grounded, inspiring project," said Stephen Culley, Desert Designs. Photo: Edwina Pickles
''My main interest has always been working with artisans, so when I came to Australia I began researching how I could work closely with Aboriginal artist communities here,'' Pemmaraju said.
But indigenous art gallery owners were initially resistant.
''A lot of people said, 'I don't know whether the artists would be happy for you to use their prints on fabric','' the designer said. ''Most [indigenous prints] are only sold as wall hangings or on T-shirts, so they didn't understand the niche high end market I wanted to work in.''
Finally, Pemmaraju made contact with the Coo-ee director, Adrian Newstead, a former president of the Indigenous Art Trade Association, previous head of Aboriginal art for Lawson-Menzies and the former director of Aboriginal Tourism Australia.
''Adrian was thrilled with my concept, and said he would come on board and help me because he'd never seen anyone take this onto international runways,'' she said.
''He helped me pick artists from different art galleries which, me being an outsider, I wouldn't have understood how to do.''
Judy Martin, Jimmy Pike, Ben Jangala and Lorna Fencer are among the nine indigenous artists Pemmaraju worked with from the initial concepts to the finished garments, which the designer will show on May 3 as part of fashion week.
''I started developing a collection with the artists' work, showing them sketches, styles and how their prints would look, so they would understand the why and how of what I was doing,'' she said.
The result is a collection of flowing kaftans, loose dresses and tops in earthy prints with flashes of burnt orange, cobalt and green. The digitally and block-printed garments are constructed from silk handmade in India, where Pemmaraju also worked with local artisans who hand beaded belts and trims.
''They're very easy, wearable pieces because we didn't want to do a lot of construction where we would lose the prints, because my main motivation was to showcase them.''
Stephen Culley, whose Desert Designs company licenses the work of indigenous artists to the textiles and fashion industries, said: ''In our combined 50 years in the industry, we have never seen a more grounded, inspiring project. Roopa has created a wonderful opportunity for cultural and economic collaboration across the Indian Ocean.''
The communities of the artists will receive 20 per cent of the price of each garment. Newstead said the venture was ''ethical, innovative and culturally sensitive. We are confident the range will have global impact on contemporary fashion.''