How Did South Asian Representation Fare At Australian Fashion Week?

From the first Indian Australian designer to have a standalone show to more culturally-inspired street style, some aspects of AFW 2024 were brown and proud. But is it enough?

It’s 2:30pm on a Tuesday afternoon and four brown women – a journalist, model, actor and entrepreneur – are giggling away while posing for snaps at Carriageworks in Sydney. It’s Australian Fashion Week (AFW). And while this sounds like any other photo opportunity at what’s touted as the biggest style event in the industry calendar, this moment is rather special for each of these women and their communities. 

Actor Sharon Johal, model Janitha Perera, entrepreneur Sonia Gandhi and the journalist (admittedly myself) are all together in the same space for the first time. They’ve just watched the first standalone show at AFW by an Indian designer, Kudrat Makkar who’s behind the Melbourne-based label, Mastani. The women are in equal parts excited that one, they were present for this historical moment, and two, that it’s brought them and more South Asian people together in the same room. A room that has been criticised over time for not being diverse enough, though is gradually progressing year by year – with of course, more room for improvement. 

Commentary around diversity – or the lack thereof – at Australian Fashion Week is nothing new, with increased discourse in recent years around size diversity, plus queer, disability and multicultural representation. When we speak of the latter, it’s hard to ignore the opportunity to better represent the South Asian population, which officially includes people from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, Indians are the second largest migrant group in Australia. 

“I am really proud to be the first Indian Australian to showcase at Australian Fashion Week and I hope there will be many more after this,” Makkar tells Draw Your Box

After growing up in Jalandhar, Punjab, Makkar has called Melbourne her home for the past decade. Launching her label in 2018, she says that now “is the right time for Mastani to reach a wider audience” by showing at AFW. 

Alicia Vrajlal, Janitha Perera, Sonia Gandhi and Sharon Johal at Australian Fashion Week

Alicia Vrajlal, Janitha Perera, Sonia Gandhi and Sharon Johal at Australian Fashion Week. Image Source: Draw Your Box

Mastani founder Kudrat Makkar at Australian Fashion Week 2024.

Mastani founder Kudrat Makkar at Australian Fashion Week 2024. Image Source: Stefan Gosatti/Getty Images for AFW

From the name of the label to the textiles and colours adopted for her collections, Makkar is quick to highlight the role her Indian heritage plays in all of her designs that are a sweet combination of a “modern aesthetic” and “Indian textiles”. This extends to the ‘Heritage Collection 13’ showcased at AFW this year, where she turned to “nostalgia and cherished memories of India” for inspiration. 

“I fantasised about the opulence, pomp and grandeur of its royal courts… the colours and silhouettes. And how these play a significant role in shaping the aesthetic of Indian weddings,” she reflects. “These celebrations are a vivid fantasy world, resplendent with elaborate costumes and intricate jewellery – which I have interpreted with ornate hand-embroideries, dustings of rhinestones and grand silhouettes.”

In creating this collection, Makkar partnered with Ashita Singhal of Paiwand Studio. Based in Noida, India, it’s a female-founded artisanal workshop that up-cycles textile waste into new fabrics and textiles using conventional Indian hand-looms. 

“We sent over all our textile offcuts and trimmings collected from the last six years of garment production to Paiwand Studio to upcycle them into new hand-loomed fabrics,” says Makkar. “We went through the process of segregating the fabrics and trying different handloom forms to get the final fabrication.”

Rowi Singh highlights the need for more South Asian representation with this telling Instagram caption. Image Source: Instagram/rowisingh

Aidan Goundar wears a kurta at Australian Fashion Week 2024

Aidan Goundar wears a kurta at Australian Fashion Week 2024. Image Source: Draw Your Box

Katrina Uttam in a sari dress at Australian Fashion Week 2024.

Drops of Gold founder Katrina Uttam in a sari dress at Australian Fashion Week 2024. Image Source: Supplied/Vivek Gupta

When the Mastani show opened, the Urdu tune Tu Jhoom, that would be familiar to Coke Studio fans, blasted through the speakers before the models even appeared on the runway. 

“The music was just so nostalgic and it felt so good to listen to it,” says Bangladeshi Australian content creator, Mishti Rahman. “And to be listening to it in Sydney, Australia, was pretty surreal.” 

According to former Neighbours actor Sharon Johal, the Mastani show was one of the more culturally diverse AFW shows she’s attended – particularly when it comes to who’s sitting in the front row. In the past, she’s been one of very few brown or culturally diverse women at fashion events. 

“At the start in terms of being invited to events, there weren’t many women of colour anywhere and it’s getting a bit better but I still reckon there's a long way to go,” says Johal. “There are still certain shows that people of colour won't get an invite to and then there's other ones like this that are really inclusive.” 

Both Makkar, and Afghan Australian designer Mariam Seddiq, are the recent South Asian designers we’ve seen with standalone shows at AFW. While self-expression through fashion is central to so many South Asian cultures, why do we still have few designers on the AFW stage? 

Sonia Gandhi is the founder and CEO of events and social enterprise, Gandhi Creations, and the founder of Fabrics of Multicultural Australia (FOMA). Now in its seventh year, FOMA hosts runway events itself, and “has established partnerships with 23 foreign governments and trade agencies, showcasing the works of 55 designer brands from 6 continents and 36 countries”. 

Gandhi observes that cultural and intercultural fashion connections are gradually making natural progress. "As the founder of FOMA, backed by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade with participating foreign governments in Canberra, we are witnessing significant influence through FOMA," she explains.

Many consumers may not be aware of the high financial costs designers incur when participating in mainstream runway shows. While Gandhi doesn't specifically mention AFW, she notes that FOMA has been instrumental in making runway participation more economically feasible for diverse designers.

"Mainstream fashion weeks should adopt a new perspective," Gandhi suggests. "FOMA was initiated because emerging and diverse designers couldn't afford the expenses of mainstream fashion shows. The ideal approach for mainstream runways would be to integrate capsule collections from platforms like FOMA to support the growth of diverse and emerging designers."

Gandhi notes that it’s not just South Asian representation in designers that’s important at fashion week, but also diversity in the models, photographers, hair and makeup artists and attending media. 

Indian Australian Ruchi Page was the shortest model to walk the runway at Melbourne Fashion Week in 2022. 

“I walked the runway, championing  ‘me,’ just as I am; brown, curvy and 153cm tall,” she proudly says. “It seems that our fashion industry has gradually pivoted from abiding by a strict brief, to opening their inclusive arms towards people of colour. However, it does feel like we are pulling teeth.

“Whilst I can’t speak on behalf of the models at AFW, I know my backstage glam experience differed to other brown and Black models, which is unacceptable. I remember my skin tone and hair type was catered for, whereas this wasn’t an equally distributed experience. All models and talent should be able to focus on their job at hand, not whether their skin tone or hair type will be  considered in the glam chair prior.” 

Aishwari Shetty wears Gather & Stitch Couture at Australian Fashion Week 2024

Aishwari Shetty wears Gather & Stitch Couture at Australian Fashion Week 2024. Image Source: Supplied

Mishti Rahman wears Mastani at Australian Fashion Week 2024

Mishti Rahman wears Mastani at Australian Fashion Week 2024. Image Source: Draw Your Box

Pania, Alicia Vrajlal and Munasib.

Pania, Alicia Vrajlal and Munasib. Image Source: Draw Your Box

For the Mastani show, Makkar says that “as a south Asian myself, I have tried to do my bit by including a few south Asian models to my runway… we have also been lucky to have a Nepalese [person] doing braids from the Kevin Murphy team”. 

But of course, this backstage representation shouldn’t be reserved for just POC designer-led shows. Meanwhile, a scroll through media imagery of AFW this year shows some South Asian models on runways, but it’s arguably less than overseas fashion weeks such as New York Fashion Week (NYFW), or Miami Swim Week, that featured Sri Lankan Australian designer Swarnaa Rajalingam's swimwear brand, Swana The Label

Sydney-based Indian Australian model Alisha Koak was invited to walk at NYFW in 2020 and 2021, but says it’s been more challenging to break into the same scene in Australia. 

“South Asian representation has been shining on international platforms,” says Koak. “I would definitely like to walk at Australian Fashion Week if opportunity arrives… It is inevitable in experiencing the feeling of being the odd one out when getting scouted or auditioning as a South Asian but past those hardships, making it to a platform like Australian Fashion Week would be an amazing opportunity.” 

Janitha Perera, who’s been modelling for the past two-and-a-half years, notes that smaller cities like Adelaide face an even bigger problem when it comes to diversity in fashion. 

“I’m from Adelaide and certainly in Adelaide, I don't see much South Asian or Southeast Asian representation,” she says. “So, it's great when at fashion week I've seen a lot of creatives wearing Indian or South Asian Asian-inspired looks.” 

Page says it’s been “refreshing to spot brown people attending AFW, as it can be an intimidating experience strolling into an event space that hasn’t always championed diversity and inclusivity”. 

Not only have we seen more South Asians at AFW this year, but also many of them proudly turning up in culturally-inspired street style. 

Model Aidan Goundar wore a kurta and shawl picked out by his Malayali grandmother to wear to day 2 of AFW when attending the Mastani show. 

“It was really great having a representation from Mastani today. I think the intricate detail of textile is what India is known for,” says Gowndar. “I think that by showcasing that and having people come to the shows and do street style in South Asian wear, it's a great step for something that you probably wouldn't have seen maybe 10 years ago.” 

Aishwari Shetty, who migrated to Australia from India in 2018, was featured in several mainstream fashion publications’ street style coverage this week when she stepped out in a striking two-piece red outfit by Sri Lankan Australia designer, Helani Sarath Kumara of Gather & Stitch Couture

“In Australia, I've always noticed a significant lack of representation of South Asian designs at fashion events,” says Shetty, who also models part-time. “Gather and Stitch truly represents the culture beautifully. My stylist, Sareena Shetty styled the piece, adding her unique touch to our vision. Both Helani and Sareena are talented South Asian women who collaborated with me to create a look that is uniquely ours and true to the spirit of South Asia.” 

Ruchi Page

Ruchi Page has previously modelled at Melbourne Fashion Week. Image Source: Instagram/ruchipage

With another AFW done and dusted, it’s clear that a holistic approach to improving cultural representation – including that of South Asian cultures – at Fashion Week will be key in serving a large and influential population that already has a huge voice in sectors such as business, sport and tech.

“I’d love to see South Asian fashion creators, contributors, models and designers be interviewed for panels or doing guest speaking that often happens at fashion weeks,” says Page. “This would be a step in creating a welcoming space for South Asian representation.” 

As for Makkar, she’s adamant on using the platform she had at AFW this year to take her business to the next level and do her community proud. 

“I’m planning a new store opening in Sydney for 2025 and widening our wholesale partners internationally,” she says. 

“I see Mastani in every high-end luxury store all over the world in the next five years’ time which means I see myself working harder.” 

@drawyourbox Brown and proud at Australian Fashion Week’s Mastani show 🤎 #afw #australianfashionweek #fashionweek #desitok #southasian #southasianfashion #indianfashion #streetstyle ♬ Tu Jhoom - Naseebo Lal & Abida Parveen