By creating a platform for artists to share their stories and customs through the medium of fashion, Laura Egan and Maggie McGowan bring Aboriginal culture to a wider audience.
Before co-founding Magpie Goose, Maggie McGowan was working as a Welfare Rights Lawyer with NAAJA, a not for profit legal and justice service established to help Aboriginal peoples. Her work involved regular outreach visits to remote communities, during which she formed relationships with aboriginal community members and artists. Motivated by a desire to create tangible alternatives to the punitive welfare system, and rampant poverty she found prevalent amongst Aboriginal communities, Maggie founded Magpie Goose to present new economic opportunities and hope.
The Aboriginal people of Australia have experienced a long and bitter plight. Parallel with Native Americans and other indigenous peoples around the world. Aborigines have a deep connection to their environment in contrast to colonial invaders that disrespected their wisdom, leaving native ecologies and cultures isolated and marginalized. But as consciousness grows within the next generations of Australians, so does a deeper sense of responsibility for the historical wrong-doing against Aboriginal peoples. Throughout the world, examples of entrepreneurs using their privilege to help marginalized communities are arising. The fashion social enterprise Magpie Goose is one of those stories.
Maggie’s co-founder Laura Egan has worked with remote Aboriginal communities since 2006, and formed Enterprise Learning Projects (ELP) in 2011 to enable the creation of new economic opportunities through enterprise. Over the last seven years working with ELP, she has supported many remote communities in Australia in achieving their business aspirations. Starting Magpie Goose was a natural extension of this work.
AGB interviewed the founders,
Laura Egan and Maggie McGowan.
AGB: When you first started what was the biggest obstacle in your way?
MG: Neither of us had a background in fashion so we've had to learn everything along the way! There have been many challenges - probably the biggest was responding to all of the orders we received through our crowd funding campaign. We had set a target of $20,000 (we hit this in 24 hours) and the campaign finished with over $100,000 in pre-orders from over 600 backers.
AGB: Did you both need to move to the Northern Territory for this project?
MG: We are both based in Katherine, NT. I moved to the NT (Darwin) to work as a civil / welfare rights lawyer at the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency (NAAJA) in 2013, and discovered the fabulous textiles through my remote travel and work. Laura has been in the NT for over 5 years, between Alice Springs and Katherine. Being in the NT for some time has helped us to establish good relationships with communities, art centers, and artists.
AGB: What kind of relationship do you have with the textile makers?: Palngun Wurnangat Aboriginal Corporation in Wadeye, Tiwi Design in Wurrumiyanga Bathurst Island, Injalak Arts in Gunbalanya and Bábbarra Women's Centre Maningrida, to name a few. Do you just buy their textiles as established businesses, or do you work with them on designs?
MG: These art centers are all established printing facilities - some of them have been designing textiles and screen-printing since the 1960s. Our process is that we visit the art center, browse their collection / back catalogue of designs on screens, choose designs and color ways (usually in collaboration with the artist or screen printers who work at the art center), and then commission meterage to be printed. There’s so many existing designs to choose from - some art centers have over 80 screens stored, which all tell unique stories of bush foods, art, culture, landscapes etc. There are also so many designs that are yet to be put on screen, and on textiles!
We’ve started running textile design workshops for artists who aren’t affiliated with art centers, to enable them to see their artwork being shared through fashion. We work with artists to help them understand the Magpie Goose brand/image, what designs might look good repeated on fabric, and made into clothing, and then leave them to it! Our new range, which we launched in March 2018, features four new designs created especially for Magpie Goose in Katherine in September 2017.
AGB: I love how you include the story behind the designs on your website, thereby giving customers an insight into Aboriginal beliefs and culture that they may have not known. Do you think Aboriginal studies are on the rise? Or is there’s still a long way to go?
MG: We think there’s a huge interest among non-aboriginal people, to connect with Aboriginal people. Fashion is a great way to make this connection - because everyone wears clothes! Why not wear something that makes you feel confident and fabulous, but also shares these incredible stories of culture, remote places, people, language etc. The clothes also start a conversation. People are interested to learn about Aboriginal languages, about kinship structures, about cultural ceremonies. You can learn so much when you just sit down, stop talking, and listen.
AGB: It must be very empowering for the Aboriginal communities to be involved with the success of their work. Is there a story that encapsulates that spirit that you’d like to share?
MG: One of the most exciting parts of what we’re doing is taking the clothes back to the communities where they’re designed or printed, and showing the artists, the screen printers, and everyone else. People are so proud to see their designs made into clothing. They get such a kick out of knowing that people in Melbourne, Sydney, London or New York are wearing their designs! One story that stands out is when we went to Wurrumiyanga in the Tiwi Islands. Laura was telling artists and printers about wearing her pants made from the Pukumani Pole design in San Francisco. They couldn’t believe that people were chasing Laura down in the LAX airport, and asking her ‘where do those pants come from!?’ They all asked - "Do they even know where Tiwi Islands are?” “They do now!” said Laura.
Another beautiful experience was having two artists who have done designs for our new range - Nancy McDinny and Stewart Hoosan - both come to a recent pop-up shop in Darwin. Everyone who bought clothes featuring their designs was so excited to meet the actual artists who had designed the prints. They were taking photos with the artists, and listening to them talk about what the designs mean. Nancy and Stewart in turn got such a kick to see people loving their artwork, in the new format of ‘wearable art’/ fashion.
All garments are all made in Australia, with each design printed on cotton fabric.