How fashion designer Denni Francisco celebrates Country with

How fashion designer Denni Francisco celebrates Country with

Collections are upbeat, sophisticated, travel-friendly. Colour palettes are earthy, with pops of powder blue, flashes of black and white. Silhouettes are classic, distinguished by small details: an embroidered collar, an unusual cuff.

A quilted coat is stitched horizontally rather than vertically, signifying the song lines or dreaming tracks that intersect Country, binding mobs together. A sheath dress features an abstract print translated from the artwork of Lindsay Malay, a Gija artist from the Kimberley. “This print recognises and acknowledges the gift that family members bring to each other,” we’re told on ngali.com.au.

Sustainability is key: pieces are created to meet demand. Fabrics are long- lasting, intended for recycling and upcycling.

Upbeat, sophisticated and travel-friendly: Ngali at Afterpay Australian Fashion Week 2022 

“For me fashion is more than just looking good. It’s about doing good,” says Francisco, who – having left school at 15 to help support her family –obtained her HSC at night school then set about forging a career in the fashion industry. Her 25-plus years of experience spans a directorship role at a junior fashion house in Los Angeles and self-generated businesses including Billiecart, the children’s clothing line she founded in the late ’90s and sold via an Avon-style party plan suited to return-to-work mums (where products are offered for sale at a social event).

Teaching the non-Indigenous about First Nations culture is not Ngali’s responsibility. “But we bring opportunities for people to step into the space and learn, then help us celebrate,” she says.

Ngali funds literacy and IT lessons for children living in remote communities. Royalties paid to artists helped provide them with an income during the pandemic, “when they stopped painting and took their families out on Country, to the middle of nowhere”.

Ngali by Denni Francisco featuring a print by Lindsay Malay at Country to Couture 2021.  Timothy Hillier

For an indefatigable entrepreneur who scooped the Fashion Design Award at the August 2021 National Indigenous Fashion Awards in Darwin (winning Ngali a 12-month mentorship with Country Road), the pandemic lockdowns allowed Francisco time to stare at the sky.

“Which felt so much bigger and bluer,” she says. “It always does when I’m out on Country with Lindsay and his family, or at my daughter’s 40 acres on Taungurung territory in central Victoria. But around here” – she gestures towards the traffic zinging along St Kilda Road – “it was so quiet. We reflected, got more creative. We explored new ways of doing things.”

In October last year, as part of a digital fashion incubator project initiated by Creative Victoria and held during Melbourne International Games Week, Francisco premiered a VR film in which models wearing Ngali garments wandered a landscape based on Taungurung lands. It was metaverse-as-Country, more visual artwork than commercial platform, but a foray into a virtual world where a Ngali design might adorn your digital avatar, or where try-ons are 3D and largely risk-free.

“We have a long way to go, but technology is helping us share stories more openly and broadly,” Francisco says.

In February Ngali’s current, lockdown-generated collection Nginha (that’s ‘here’ or ‘this’ in Wiradjuri) made its international premiere aboard the natural gas-powered Italian cruise ship Costa Toscana, moored off the Italian Riviera. The event was the brainchild of supermodel, catwalk producer and sustainability advocate Jessica Minh Anh, who has transformed sites including the Eiffel Tower and Sydney Harbour into runways, and who sashayed along the deck of the Toscana wearing Ngali black silk pants and a long-sleeved tee with thumbhole feature, a Lindsay Malay print scarf wrapped around her hips.

Ngali at the Spring Fashion Show 2022 aboard the Costa Toscana, off the Italian Riviera. 

“We are always up for breaking down the way fashion is perceived,” says Francisco. “We want to show not just what fashion is but what fashion can do.”

Examples are many: The Melbourne Fashion Festival in March featured a Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung smoking ceremony, an empowering Welcome to Country and a First Nations runway graced by designers including Ngali and MAARA Collective – a previous recipient of the Country Road mentoring program. It began and ended with a performance by Culture Evolves, a Melbourne-based Indigenous group with traditional and hip-hop influences.

At Australian Fashion Week in Sydney in May, under the aegis of the Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair Foundation, Kuku Yalanji singer Jessica Mauboy performed on an Indigenous Fashion Projects runway backdropped by the videography of lauded First Nations visual artist Wayne Quilliam and featuring five leading First Nations designers including Ngali.

A model wears Ngali at the Indigenous Fashion Projects show at Afterpay Australian Fashion Week 2022. Getty

Francisco says such cross-art form presentations underline the fact that performance is the primary mode of transmission of knowledge in Indigenous culture – and as such will always feel both timeless contemporary.

Not unlike the garments created by Ngali, which will exhibit three separate looks in the Country Road flagship store at Chadstone Shopping Centre during NAIDOC week.

“Country Road is doing a lot in the First Nations space,” says Francisco. “They offered to mentor Ngali in any way we wanted them to. I decided to test things like our expansion strategy, and use them as a case study of what might be possible with a quality brand like, say, Uniqlo, who are on my wish list of international collaborators to help share our culture and stories internationally.”

She pauses and smiles. “You know, I remember walking into the very first Country Road store in Hawthorn, a couple of kilometres away from Kew, in the late 1970s. I was so impressed with their simple, effortless approach to fashion.

“By that time I’d learnt how to make my own flares. I might even have been wearing them.”