Top End home to fashion start-up

A young lawyer from Victoria has transitioned from life in the courts to an outback fashion mogul. 

Maggie McGowan, 28,  from Yackandandah moved to Katherine almost four years ago to work as a lawyer with the Aboriginal Legal Service.

After travelling to remote Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory, she was inspired to create Magpie Goose, a fashion brand that transforms local art into clothes.  

“I got to travel to all of these remote Top End communities, through my work as a lawyer and got really interested in the fabrics being sold at the art centres,” Ms McGowan said.

“I was surprised it wasn't being celebrated across Australia and the world, nothing much was happening with the fabric after it was being produced and people didn’t have access to it unless they travelled to these remote places.”

Ms McGowan then developed the idea to turn the fabrics into wearable art that could be sold around the world.  

Ms McGowan and her co-founder, Laura Egan, had some samples made up in Bali to gauge how they would go on the market. 

“I would get chased in airports with people wanting to know who I was wearing and people calling across the street to me in San Francisco,” Ms Egan said. 

“I don’t have a background in fashion, I just love the prints and the stories they tell, it is a modern and easy way for people to get a better understanding of Aboriginal culture,” Ms McGowan said. 

Initial funding came from Enterprise Learning Projects, a group funded through a Department of Social Services micro economic enterprise grant. 

“The revenue generated from the business will go back into growing the business and making sure it is inclusive that is creating a range of opportunities for a range of Aboriginal people,” Ms Egan said. 

“The art centres that we buy the textiles from get a fair bit of the sale price of the items.” 

Margaret Duncan, 57, from Urapunga, five hours from Katherine, is one of the label’s newest fashion designers. 

“I am excited, I get excited anytime I try something new,” Ms Duncan said.

“All of my paintings are about healing, one of my daughters has cerebral palsy so I turn to painting to release my worries and pain.

“When I paint I want the person looking at my work to feel good inside.”

Ms Duncan said storytelling is a big part of Aboriginal culture. 

“You are giving somebody clothing that is very special to Aboriginal people, that is telling our stories,” she said.

OUTBACK FASHION: Winnie Duncan and Rebecca Plummer wearing prints from Wadeye Women's Centre by Leoni Melpi, and Tiwi Designs by Bede Tungatalum. Picture: Maggie McGowan.

OUTBACK FASHION: Winnie Duncan and Rebecca Plummer wearing prints from Wadeye Women's Centre by Leoni Melpi, and Tiwi Designs by Bede Tungatalum. Picture: Maggie McGowan.

Magpie Goose has gained national interest once customers had the opportunity to view sample pieces. 

“Interest has been flooding in, we launched a Kickstarter campaign last week with a target of $20,000 and we reached that in 24 hours,” Ms McGowan said. 

“I think that just demonstrates the excitement people have to be able to get access to these fabrics.”

Ms Egan said the next stage will be to gauge further employment opportunities for Aboriginal people within the brand. 

“One of the things we are really excited about is fostering the enterprise learning among our partner communities so they get front row seats as the business unfolds,” Ms Egan said. 

“They will learn through us about all the decisions that we are making and we will be transparent with the finances so that they can then learn how to set up a fashion business.

“We hope it sparks new ventures in remote communities.”

Judging from the initial success of the brand, Ms McGowan said there are plenty of opportunities for similar ventures to spring up. 

“There is space for plenty of fashion labels to exist that are making clothing out of this fabric,” she said. 

Ms Egan said she is excited for Katherine to become a hub for start up projects in the region. 

“Katherine is an unlikely place for a fashion label to launch, but we are really excited about building Katherine as a start up community,” she said. 

“There are some really exciting ventures coming out of the region, there is a real desire for communities to share their stories in creative ways, and a real thirst from people around the world to connect with Aboriginal cultures,” 

Prints are currently being produced in from four remote community art centres in Wadeye, Gunbalanya, Tiwi Islands and Maningrida.