Australian fashion week was ready for a change in late 2019. Before a global pandemic irrevocably changed the fashion industry, live events and just about everything else, the week’s organisers had already announced a significant shift: the public would be able to buy tickets to what was previously a trade-only event.

Last year’s shows did not go on, but IMG, the global events company that runs Australian fashion week, is optimistic about the 2021 edition. Barring public health emergencies, the event will begin on 31 May.

Ticketed runway shows are now one of a slew of changes to the way Australian fashion week is set to run this year. For the first time, it will open with a welcome to country performance, curated by First Nations Fashion and Design’s Grace Lillian Lee. The week’s opening runway show will be from another first-timer, Jordan Dalah, an Australian graduate of the prestigious London design school Central Saint Martins, who has made a name for himself internationally with voluminous, conceptual designs that look like a period drama, deconstructed.

The week will have a greater emphasis on the exchange of ideas, with an expanded talks program; and there will be a slew of new designers showing, including two group shows dedicated to Indigenous designers, one programmed by Indigenous Fashion Projects and the other by First Nations Fashion and Design.

Here, 11 Australian fashion industry workers, all of whom will be trying something for the first time this fashion week, share their thoughts on the industry’s future.

Jordon Gogoas. Fashion week Sydney 2021.
Jordan Gogos. Photograph: Esteban La Tessa

Jordan Gogos

Fashion designer of Iordanes Spyridon Gogos, staging his first show

I feel the shift in Australian fashion right now. My brand is co-designed, and there will be people that have never existed on runways being properly represented. For me that’s really exciting. I think the Australian industry needs to see people outside of fashion, existing in fashion.

I’m a Greek-Australian, I went to UNSW then Parsons. I grew up in southern Sydney. I came back just when Covid hit.

The brand started as a result of Covid. I’ve been a furniture maker for several years, and then when Covid happened I couldn’t access materials or storage. So I got a domestic sewing machine and started the brand in my bathroom.

We talk about sustainability a lot with clothing, but from a design standpoint, it’s not sustainable for designers to exist in isolation and for ideas to not be shared. You need to come together. My brand is an experimental thing, built from the outside in. Gogos is co-designed, a conduit for ushering new ideas into the industry – from big brands like Albus Lumen to small ones like Doobie. Everyone has their own moment on the runway.

Commas, Richard and Emma Jarman. Fashion week Sydney 2021.
Richard and Emma Jarman of Commas. Photograph: Esteban La Tessa

Richard and Emma Jarman

Founders of Commas, showing at Australian fashion week for the first time

Richard started the brand in 2017. He was doing property economics before that, but he really wanted to find the perfect pair of swim shorts and embarked on a mission to make them himself. We’re a husband-and-wife duo, so we do it all together.

We launched with online retailer MatchesFashion when we started. We’re a resortwear brand and everything we do speaks to that – to create moments to pause and take pleasure.

It can be daunting doing your first physical fashion show. We showed in Milan digitally for the last couple of seasons, but this is so different from say, creating a film.

We think it’s so significant to get to do something on our home turf. We’re taking our show offsite in a very special location. We’re more excited than nervous. We have an amazing industry here. There’s a lot of support. I hope Australia represents life after Covid, it’s an optimistic place to be in.

Mahalia Handley. Fashion week Sydney 2021.
Mahalia Handley. Photograph: Esteban La Tessa

Mahalia Handley

Model and advocate, speaking on a panel for the first time

This past year I became a business graduate, which led me to a new enrolment into a bachelor’s of commerce. At the same time, an international team and I came together to co-found a non-profit called Pasifika Voices, which aims to educate and foster community involvement within the Pasifika community worldwide.

I am grateful that I still get to continue my career as a model and participate as a keynote speaker about diversity and inclusion in the fashion industry.

This will be my first time speaking on a panel at Australian fashion week, and I am incredibly excited and honoured to be a representative for the Bipoc [black, indigenous and people of colour], first-generation, plus-size women of Australia. I can hardly wait to speak about our agenda, Passion for Purpose, which will help guide businesses on responsible inclusion, how to reflect diversity meaningfully, and connect authentically with their new and current audiences.

I like to call the future of fashion the “new wave”. I say this because I believe there was a tremendous amount of build-up for change happening quite a while ago, and many have been waiting for the chance to see it crash, break and become anew. Right now that wave is happening. I also believe that due to Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage, the surrounding countries with their indigenous peoples and our multicultural makeup, we have the ability to be the change-makers of the entire fashion industry.

Jordan Dalah, . Fashion week Sydney 2021.
Jordan Dalah. Photograph: Esteban La Tessa

Jordan Dalah

Fashion designer, holding his first runway presentation

During Covid, I have been lucky enough to still go to my studio every day. Because I am a very small team, I was able to continue designing and producing collections for showroom and stores without much disruption. Although I haven’t been able to show my collections in Paris as I usually do, I have managed to do it all virtually.

This fashion week will be the first time I show clothing on models as a runway presentation. I am hoping that people will appreciate the subversive nature of my work and the fact that it isn’t necessarily to everyone’s taste.

Grace Lillian Lee. First Nations Fashion Council,Australia. Fashion week Sydney 2021.
Grace Lillian Lee

Grace Lillian Lee

Designer and director of First Nations Fashion and Design, curating a runway show and welcome to country for the first time

As First Nations people, we are incredibly excited to be a part of this historic moment, to not only see one, but two Indigenous runway shows at Australian fashion week. AFW is a powerful platform for us to showcase our culture and storylines.

FNFD is supporting the ecology and growth of the indigenous fashion industry. We are an Indigenous-operated organisation that is supporting a united platform; we are changing the narrative within the sector; and we are leaning in to amplify the conversation about the importance of inclusion, diversity and self-determination for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people within the Australian fashion industry.

Rory Rice. Fashion week Sydney 2021.
Rory Rice. Photograph: Esteban La Tessa

Rory Rice

Hair stylist, working on designer Christopher Esber’s runway show for the first time

This year I opened up my first salon in [Sydney’s] Darlinghurst, while continuing to shoot editorially. I am loving being busy.

The thing that makes me optimistic about fashion is the way we now globally interpret micro trends and how politically minded the industry is becoming, especially with inclusivity, correctness and kindness.

Manahou Mackay. Fashion week Sydney 2021.
Manahou Mackay. Photograph: Esteban La Tessa

Manahou Mackay

Model and first-time panelist

Six months ago I returned to Sydney, after going back to my hometown in anticipation of the storm that was coronavirus. I have been modelling, meeting many incredible people and enjoying existing in a new city since then.

I’ll be doing fashion week for the first time as a model and a panellist. I can’t wait. I love doing shows and soaking up all the backstage vibes of the designers, creatives and other models, but being able to have a platform, to also have a voice, is a dream come true.

Lisa Cox. Fashion week Sydney 2021.
Lisa Cox. Photograph: Esteban La Tessa

Lisa Cox

Consultant, working with Australian fashion week for the first time

This past year, I’ve been collaborating with brands and businesses like AFW who share my vision for greater representation and inclusion. I’m excited to be helping them navigate the nuances of visibility for disability.

I’m speaking on a panel at the event and have been working with a fantastic team behind the scenes to make the events more inclusive. It’s an honour and a privilege, and I’m thrilled because it’s a first for our fashion industry. It’s recognition that disabled people are consumers of fashion too.

As representation of visible disability at a previous AWF hasn’t been done before, I’m optimistic that this will be the catalyst for further permanent changes. I’m delighted to see this progress, and to be one of the people challenging and changing the fashion landscape in Australia.

Yatu Widders-Hunt. Fashion week Sydney 2021.
Yatu Widders Hunt. Photograph: Esteban La Tessa

Yatu Widders Hunt

Advocate and first-time panellist

Over the past year, I have been continuing to build the @ausindigenousfashion online community and connect with even more amazing brands through social and digital channels. I’ve also been lucky enough to collaborate with some brands, to shine a light on Indigenous fashion storytelling through social media. This was mostly in the lead-up to the National Indigenous Fashion Awards, which was an incredible milestone. I’ve also continued working at Indigenous social change agency Cox Inall Ridgeway.

I’ll be hosting a panel as part of AFW, which I’m really excited about. Although the fashion and runways are exceptional, the conversations we have as an industry are equally important. I genuinely believe that fashion has the ability to change how we think, feel and behave, so to have the opportunity to discuss what this means for us as a community is pretty unique.

First Nations fashion has so much to share with the broader industry and I can’t wait to see that continue.

Gillian Campbell.
Gillian Campbell. Photograph: Esteban La Tessa

Gillian Campbell

Makeup artist, first time attending shows (rather than working on them)

I think the past year has been a super reflective period of time, which has allowed me the opportunity to grow as an artist. In the peak of lockdown I was directing beauty looks for Vogue remotely and trying to find new ways of working, by applying makeup to printed 3D scans of models’ faces.

Following on from this, and once the normalities of work resumed, I commenced the busiest working year that I’ve had to date.

This is my first year not working directly on any shows. I usually direct runway makeup for Double Rainbouu, but this year I’m excited to attend. I always love seeing what Christopher Esber has to show. Jordan Dalah and Iordanes Spyridon Gogos are my other favourites at the moment – I always get so excited when I see their clothes arrive on set.

I love that we are seeing more freedom within self-expression. I think this is often where many creatives find their inspiration – from within their community. I’ve also been really appreciating that designers are looking into more sustainable and ethical ways of sourcing fabrics, advocating for this change and educating their followers and peers. I think there are so many interesting conversations to be had around fashion, sustainability and innovations in design, so I’d love to check out the Passion for Purpose talk too.

Lady-Brains Live Podcast, Caitlin Judd and Anna Mackenzie. Fashion week Sydney 2021.
Caitlin Judd and Anna Mackenzie. Photograph: Esteban La Tessa

Caitlin Judd and Anna Mackenzie

Creators of the Lady-Brains podcast, recording fashion week’s first live podcast

We’re still working through the technical details, but we’ll be live on stage recording interviews for our podcast with some amazing female designers at Australian fashion week this year.

What we love to do is really talk about the business side of fashion because we know it’s not an easy industry. Our show focuses on female founders and entrepreneurs, and we really want to extract the gold from what they’ve learned. We’ve done a couple of smaller-scale live tapings before, but this is the first ever big international event we’ve done.

Interviews have been edited for length and clarity