Proud Poppy reveals process behind First Nations collaboration

One year ago, First Nations artist Caitlyn Davies was commissioned to hand-paint a canvas for new fashion collection.

It would be the second collaboration between Davies and Proud Poppy founder Tara McKeon.

With Davies’ permission, McKeon turned the artwork into a digital file and had it swatch-tested, ready to produce in six womenswear styles.

McKeon says the most crucial part of the production process was keeping the artwork’s story intact.

"With this particular painting, Davies tells the story of her father's upbringing. There's a purple line that runs through and that shows the flow of the Darling River. It shows the story of the land.

“In terms of choosing the designs, you need to make sure that the fabric is not going to be too cut up so that the story doesn't get interrupted.”

This is just one of the considerations McKeon placed on the project, a 12-month process to ensure the integrity of the joint creative partnership.

McKeon also wanted to name the individual pieces using traditional First Nations languages.

“I'd say the hardest piece was the Barkindji language,” she explains. “It's so rare - it's very hard to find someone who can then translate the names into what that means into common day English so that you can tell that story.

“If I was doing something like an Italian collection, or a Chinese collection, it would be very simple. But it was very challenging to translate the Barkindji language, which is sad.”

McKeon says the process took over a year to complete, which she admits is a long time.

“But it's just really important to get it right,” she says. “A lot of brands just want to work with our First Nations artists, tick the box and move on, whereas it's got a deeper meaning for me.

“I really wanted to make sure that I did the collection justice.”

Another inclusion in the design process was an acknowledgement of country on the hangtags. McKeon says these tiny little details matter; details that otherwise wouldn’t normally be an issue.

She says that a major part of the collaboration was opening up to the learning process.

“People are worried about doing the wrong thing, saying the wrong thing,” McKeon says. “People are so worried about offending people. I definitely made mistakes along the way with this collaboration.

“But if you're coming from the right place and your heart is there - that you're willing to learn and you're willing to ask questions, and you're trying to do better from a genuine place and not just in terms of missing out on sales - that needs to be encouraged.”

In one particular aspect, a lot of her non-Indigenous consumers were asking if it was okay for them to wear the collection, despite being white. McKeon says the answer is yes.

“The artists have designed these pieces to be ally-friendly,” she explains. “So by wearing them, they are starting the conversation; it's something that is okay.

“There are certain pieces of clothing that are designed for mob only, that only First Nations people can wear or are designed for them to wear. But this is definitely a collection that's designed to start the conversation and to get people asking questions about our culture in Australia.”

The first collection that McKeon did with Davies was over two years ago. McKeon says Proud Poppy donated 10% of the proceeds to Books and Boots. This year, 10% of the proceeds will go to the Star Foundation.

McKeon says the initial collaboration was buoyed by personal childhood memories of her father who had passed away a few years ago.

“When I was growing up, he was really invested in the culture of the people of the Tiwi Islands, which is an island north of Darwin,” McKeon says.

“We used to have the Tiwi people come down and stay with us, and we would get them into schools, and into the AFL, and just really talk to us about the culture and about the land.

“Now that he has passed away, it's really important for me on my own journey to try and keep his memory alive. And bring that through my brand and just get the conversation started.

“Once I was in a position to start looking at collaborations, I really wanted to work with an Aboriginal artist, and I found Caitlyn. There's so many out there, but her style just really resonated with me.”

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