Entrepreneur and mentor Rhys Ripper is curating the First Nations runway show at Melbourne Fashion Festival and is determined to make Indigenous fashion mainstream. By Lucianne Tonti.

The future of Indigenous fashion

Designer, entrepreneur and mentor Rhys Ripper.
Designer, entrepreneur and mentor Rhys Ripper.
Credit: Clint Peloso

Rhys Ripper is gently spoken. When I meet him, he’s wearing various shades of khaki and his long hair is tied back in a low bun. He’s in the middle of fittings for the First Nations runway that will be part of Melbourne Fashion Festival on March 11.

In many ways, Ripper is a typical fashion stylist. He is charismatic, slightly loose with details, and becomes animated when talking about designers, clothes and travel. At one point he tells an assistant, “Email me, you’re backstage with me next week.”

What makes him different is the role he’s taken on as mentor and teacher to First Nations talent. Being backstage with him is part job, part tutorial.

Ripper is a Yorta Yorta man and familiar figure in the Australian fashion industry. He is a creative director and stylist whose client list includes Country Road, R. M. Williams, Aje, Christian Kimber, Vogue Australia and GQ Australia. He also runs his own men’s fashion magazine, called Cobber, and an agency called Mate Model Management.

Most recently, he was appointed the creative director of Kin, an accelerator project by Kinaway that supports Melbourne-based First Nations fashion and textile designers. He says, “My only mission is to help elevate First Nations brands in a more mainstream way, with, of course, that fashion flair so they’re seen on par with what else is happening in Australia.”

Nine designers were accepted in the first round of Kin, including Ngali, Amber Days and Solid Ochre. Ripper hopes the mentorship will help bridge the gap between the attention First Nations fashion is getting and the commercial reality each designer is experiencing. “We’re trying to teach people the real skills they need to succeed,” he says. “What’s important is that they need to be shoppable. With any small brand, if you’re not being consumed, you’re not going to last.”

While Kin’s focus is on Victorian designers, other programs operate nationally. One is Indigenous Fashion Projects’ pathways program, linked to the Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair. Ripper works with the fair as a stylist on its Country to Couture runway, which has been running since 2016. The other is a newer program named Mob in Fashion. It will launch alongside the First Nations runway next week.

Mob in Fashion was founded by Ripper’s partner, Nathan McGuire, a Whadjuk Noongar man from Boorloo (Perth) who is a model and the designer behind Solid Ochre. The goal of the program is to get more Indigenous creatives working on fashion sets and behind the scenes by providing internships and opportunities for entry-level experience.

Ripper is involved with this, too. In addition to curating the First Nations runway, he will have five First Nations stylists from the program with him backstage. “I’m teaching them how to do brand styling… everything,” he says. “I’m showing why I’m choosing this colour and this colour … There’s a boat back there that’s red, we’re bringing that red here because your eye will be drawn to the colour.”

The need for more support for First Nations people in the fashion industry was brought into sharp focus by the Black Lives Matter movement, Ripper says. “When BLM hit, I was getting asked to create First Nations teams for all these shoots and I couldn’t because there was no one around.”

While the requests for diversity were welcome, he was frustrated because “there was no pathway happening behind the scenes”. He found himself approaching people who “had never worked in fashion and getting them to shoot huge jobs”. Networks and mentoring are particularly important in the fashion industry, where the path to a successful career is often through people you know. “You have to assist and assist,” Ripper says. “You need to be supported to get into the fashion game.”

Ripper is 45. His own pathway into the industry was hardly linear. Without formal training, he launched the first iteration of his magazine and modelling agency in 2006. Five years later, he was invited to hang out at London Fashion Week with British fashion designer Paul Smith. The experience left him questioning his passion for the industry. He says Smith was “really pushing, ‘Are you in love with it?’ ” To Ripper, this was a clarifying question. “I had lost my passion. It was super challenging at the time.”

The realisation caused him to close the magazine and agency. He moved to India for six months and studied pottery in a studio with a view over the Himalayas. In 2014, he opened a paddock-to-plate cafe in Trentham with his mother, Joy. It was there that he met McGuire. The two have been in a relationship ever since.

In 2018, when McGuire was offered a modelling contract in London, Ripper stayed behind to close the cafe and then flew over to meet him. During the seven months he was abroad, he got back on set and decided to give fashion another go. “I started shooting in London,” he says. “When I came back to Australia, I was like, ‘Yeah I’m going to do this again.’ ”

Two years later, while working as creative director on an editorial of Indigenous designers for Guardian Australia, he realised something wasn’t right. First Nations designers were moving at a different pace and struggling to operate in a commercial way. There was a “kind of gap of knowledge” he says: “How to make a garment, how to do the lookbook, from delivery to wholesale.”

The First Nations Fashion and Design runway at Australian Fashion Week in June 2021 came next. The show made history with only First Nations talent on the catwalk, behind the scenes and designing the clothes. It was met with a standing ovation and glowing reviews. Ripper was head stylist. “It was a beautiful show,” he says, “but I could still see we needed to inject more into the behind-the-scenes to help these labels move forward and catch up.”

Most of the Kin designers use Indigenous artwork as prints in their collections, but Ripper is keen to impress upon me that storytelling runs deeper than relying on art. “They expect us to be artists,” he says, “and we don’t need to do art to be Black.”

Instead, he explains, depending on the designer’s heritage, it can actually be more about traditional techniques such as weaving, or the use of colour, because certain colours are signifiers of connection to land.

Ripper’s own Country spans the border between Victoria and New South Wales. He describes it as super-hot bush on the Murray River. He says as soon as he arrives home, “I don’t know what it is … but whatever’s happened that week disappears. If I’ve got too much going on I’ll go back to Country. It changes you.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 5, 2022 as "Rhys’s pieces".

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