From the outback to the runway: Kluge-Ruhe collaborates on indigenous Australian fashion show

Professor Marcy Linton helps designer, fabricator and model Ismaelia Dejoie with the muslin mock-up of her garment. Textiles in the foreground are from Merrepen Arts and Babbarra Women’s centers. Photo: Courtesy The Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection of UVA Professor Marcy Linton helps designer, fabricator and model Ismaelia Dejoie with the muslin mock-up of her garment. Textiles in the foreground are from Merrepen Arts and Babbarra Women’s centers. Photo: Courtesy The Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection of UVA

Fashion-forward isn’t how most would describe the local aesthetic in Charlottesville, which tends to center on khaki and collared prep or moisture-wicking running gear. The Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection of UVA is hoping to change that this month, by borrowing a bit of inspiration from halfway around the world.

On March 19, the museum will host the Culture Couture fashion show and performance at The Jefferson Theater, showcasing one-of-a-kind designs crafted by UVA students with help from some of Australia’s indigenous textile and costume designers.

More than a year in the making, Culture Couture grew out of an idea that came to Kluge-Ruhe Education and Program Coordinator Lauren Maupin after a visit to Australia. Inspired by the textile patterns and fashion that she saw during the 2014 Cairns Indigenous Art Fair, Maupin returned to Charlottesville with a desire to draw greater awareness to indigenous design.

She enlisted the help of others in the local community, including Marcy Linton, associate professor of costume technology in UVA’s drama department. After a series of brainstorming exchanges, the groundwork fell into place for an event that includes a design competition, UVA course curriculum and a finale fashion show open to the public.

In January 2015, Kluge-Ruhe launched the inaugural fashion design contest, encouraging UVA students to create sketches for garments inspired by and celebrating indigenous textiles and aesthetics. Indeed, one of the primary goals of the project was to share “ideas about what indigenous creativity looks like—that it’s contemporary, sophisticated and diverse,” says Maupin.

Between 20 and 30 designs were submitted by students, and 10 were selected and matched with a specific fabric made by one of four community groups in northern Australia.

Local seamstresses and patternmakers Dorothy Smith, Beth Neville Evans and Linton then translated the sketched designs into workable patterns over the summer. When classes started in the fall, Linton’s costume technology students began creating mocked-up versions of the garments out of practice fabric, then tweaked the designs under her guidance, before cutting and sewing the final products, which will be showcased at the fashion show.

“As the project continued, I felt more and more inspired and excited about the accomplishments of the students involved,” says Linton. “Each stage of the process for the students seemed to be met with excitement that the last stage had been finished successfully and looked better than they could have ever imagined.”

Throughout this process, Linton and Maupin engaged the students in an interactive study of indigenous aboriginal art and culture, which included Skyping with some of the textile designers whose fabric was incorporated into the designs.

“I’ve been really impressed with all the work and enthusiasm that the students have put into the project on their own time,” says Maupin. “We have students who have volunteered to do so many things, from photography to music production to graphic design to styling to modeling and model coaching.”

One of those students is Olivia Tritschler, a global development studies major who was president of the UVA Fashion Design Club.

“My role in this project started as a designer and fabricator of one garment, but in October I took on more responsibilities within the planning and the production of the fashion show,” says Tritschler. Since then, she has volunteered regularly at the Kluge-Ruhe and is co-manager of the project. According to Tritschler, an interest in museum and nonprofit work after graduation was part of her motivation to get more involved. Along the way, she’s experimented more with her own look and come to learn a lot about indigenous traditions. “I have gained some useful skills that will help me in my future career after college, but mostly I [have] come away from Culture Couture with inspiration for my own fashion, new knowledge about indigenous art [and] supportive relationships,” says Tritschler. “I hope my garment respects these talented artists’ work and culture.”

Strutting on catwalks in the Jefferson Theater, volunteers will model the final couture dresses—plus one pantsuit—made during the collaborative project. Garments and accessories by indigenous Australian designers will be highlighted alongside student work, and the evening will also feature live music by the aboriginal trio Biliirr, comprised of sisters from the Yuwaalaraay country of northern New South Wales (this will be the first American performance for the group). In addition, DJ Kris Cody will host an after-party.

The culmination of work won’t necessarily mark the end of the budding relationship between the Kluge-Ruhe and UVA’s drama department, however. “Lauren and I have already been brainstorming about how we could do certain things differently if we do it again,” says Linton.

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