Native Affairs Summer Series - 'Browning up' world fashion

Put off by a lack of Māori and other indigenous faces in fashion, one woman has decided she’s had enough. Tina Waru is helping open up doors around the world for indigenous beauty, fashion and talent. And she’s making an immediate and positive impact. 

Native Affairs met Australian based Tina Waru earlier last year.  

Tina’s interest in fashion had humble beginnings back home in Aotearoa.

She remembers being part of a Māori fashion show as a young girl and meeting Vicky Lee Hemi, the first Māori Miss New Zealand.

It was from that moment that Tina says she dreamed of being like her fashion idol.

“I used to dress up in makeup and heels and I think as a young teenager people used to think ‘what are you doing?’”

She says there was a stereotype that, “You’re not Māori if, you know, you’re all dressed up and glammed up.”

Even at a young age, Tina was aware Māori were not widely included in the local fashion industry, despite elements of Māori culture being appropriated in designs.

“I’d look around and see all these beautiful models, but I couldn’t understand why they were all Pākehā. I couldn’t understand why all these amazing designers, they had amazing designs that were very tribal. They did belong to our own people. But I couldn’t understand it was a Pākehā designer.”  

Tina decided to mix her frustration with aspiration. Now, she’s at the forefront of an initiative called ‘Global Indigenous Management’ helping to take Native fashion to the world stage.

She says they’ve been able to provide a platform for a wide range of indigenous creatives who have come to them asking for direction.

“When we developed the programme, we had young beautiful indigenous models from Australia, Aboriginal, but also Māori. We had Pacific Island. We had all these beautiful models and designers and photographers,” says Tina.  

She says they’d ask, “Where do we go? Where can we go to showcase? Where can we go to show that we belong in the industry?”

The platform Tina has helped establish has seen them feature at events like Melbourne Fashion Week, making an immediate and positive impact.

Graeme Lewsey, Melbourne Fashion Festival CEO, says, “It’s about talent and we are literally seeing fantastic artistry, fantastic design, coming through in this programme and that’s what’s really worth taking note of.”  

Tina says the feedback she got from the festival was that they’d turned things on their head.

“You changed the history in terms of what we do. We’ve never had any programme or runway make us look at what we have and then put them into the main programme. We’ve never done that. That’s never happened in all our history,” Tina says she was told.  

The opportunities that have come about as a result of Tina providing the platform are impressive.  

“We actually had two Aboriginal sisters that went on to star in 'Face Australia' with Naomi Campbell. One of our top models, First Nations, was actually picked up from Hollywood starring next to Denzel Washington, Ethan Hawke, as part of the 'Magnificent Seven'. “

 She says the future is looking bright for indigenous fashion creatives.

“Our name is getting out there in the world now,” says Tina.