The Ethics of Design: TJ Cowlishaw

TJ Cowlinshaw, AARLI’s Founder, Director and Chief Designer, sits down with ContemporaryAU to talk about what designing with a conscience actually means.

There is something very earth-bound to the Australian imagination. Perhaps it is something deeply engrained in our national soul that is at once down-to-earth but always stargazing. Perhaps it is the manner in which we suffuse our landscape with the romantic, the poetic, the hopeful and the tragic. In any case ‘ or indeed, all ‘ the influence of the land upon our orientation to design is profound.

Quite unlike anywhere else, the design community on Australia’s West Coast habitually looks to the land to wash its eyes. Currently a determined effort is emerging from Western Australia to raise the thinking around design to engage with our socio-economic and ecological conscience. As part of this movement, a growing Indigenous design community is providing exhilarating, inspired, and completely original responses to the ethical framework with which all disciplines of A+D interact.

At the helm of this discussion is Teagan Rosemarie Jan Cowlishaw ‘ or, TJ for short ‘ the Founder, Creator and Chief Designer for the award-winning fashion label AARLI. Through her lovingly constructed collections, TJ’s work draws on the inherent symbology of the Western Australian landscape, its traditions, its history, and its people. With an aesthetic sensibility and approach to design that is deeply rooted in her Indigenous ancestry, her work speaks insightfully for the values of diversity, democracy and integrity to the principles and practice of design.

Approaching the launch of AARLI’s SS16/17 collection, TJ was very kind to sit down with ContemporaryAU to discuss what designing with a conscience actually means.

TJ Cownlinshaw: The Ethics of Design | Habitus Living

(Photography courtesy of Carlos Fernandez)

Can you tell us a little about the influence that Western Australia ‘ its people and its landscape ‘ holds for your design process with AARLI?

“My Kinship lies with the Bardi people ‘ my grandmother’s ancestry ‘ of the Kimberleys in Western Australia (the Family name is Hunter). I am also descended from the Chinese Pirates of Shanghai ‘ my grandfather’s ancestry ‘ [whose] Family name is Jan.

As a young girl, I learned to appreciate the importance of connection to family, culture, land and community ‘ especially from the women in my family from my nana, Rose Hunter, and mother, Sarina Jan, who have been the main inspiration for AARLI. “AARLI” in y grandmother’s language means “fish”.

I’ve always been inspired by Indigenous fashion icons who modelled for my mother [when’] she co-ordinated fashion events in Darwin and the remote Northern Territory communities. I was honoured to be surrounded by Fashion Designers such as Linda Jackson, Ron Giddjup, Francine Kickett and Lenore Dempski.

But as an urban/educated Aboriginal woman, I believe it’s my duty as a next generation leader to be creating a positive influence on the “stereotype’ or societal perception of Aboriginal people. I am a next generation Indigenous fashion designer who wants to use fashion to change Australia’s schema of the Aboriginal people, the traditional custodians of this country.”

From day one, you as a designer ‘ and AARLI as a brand ‘ have held a commitment to the community and the land. How does this influence your design process?

“I’ve always wanted to create quality street-wear garments that specialise in sustainability, longevity and ethical production aspects. But every collection also adds a contemporary Indigenous cultural twist.

AARLI’s aesthetics are based more around our set of core principles as a fashion brand with a conscience. We’re more concerned about sustainability of the land and the preservation of Aboriginal culture and heritage than the appreciation of beauty and trends. We need to keep reminding ourselves, I believe, that we’ve only got one Earth, one shot.

This has been a major influence in my design process. We all must understand that every action we take will affect many people, communities and ecosystems.”

What is AARLI’s foundation story?

“In 2013 I was selected to participate in the Australian Indigenous Fashion Week Design Program. This program gave the opportunity for visual artists to develop their skills and transfer that into a creative industry in textile and fashion design. Once I had completed the program I presented my collection to a fashion panel that ended up shortlisting me and gave me the opportunity to showcase my sample collection at the 2014 Australian Indigenous Fashion Week in Sydney. [‘]

I was the only Perth representative, and my collection was the one selected to open the runway show out of thirty-plus designers. So, our brand was launched!”

The brand speaks quite vocally about intervening in the current market direction of design that is driven largely by satisfying ephemeral trends. Are questions of sustainability intimately connected to AARLI’s aesthetic as well as manufacturing processes?

“Well, from the beginning “fast fashion” has been a major drive to my passion of upcycling and establishing a brand with a conscience. The over-consumption of earth’s resources and the fact that the fashion industry is one of the top polluters of chemicals, the biggest contributor to the landfill of excessive fabric waste coupled with the problem that most just are not biodegradable.”

What attraction, then, do biodegradable, recycled or organic fabrics have for you?

“AARLI is a “slow fashion” brand that specialises in sustainably producing only one collection per year. The R+D around organic fabrics and the sourcing of our fabrics or materials are influenced by the rethink-reuse-recycle concept.

I wanted, initially, to create quality garments made from rubbish. So as a result, I started experimenting with sustainably sourced and rejected ends of fabric rolls. This then led to the development of organic and sustainable fabrics, upcycling and using deadstock through fabric partnerships.

In an effort to curb waste and encourage sustainability, AARLI established a deadstock partnership in 2013 with Nobody Denim where we received men’s jeans and upcycled each pair to produce our Womenswear line “Urban Warriors’ SS14/15. And this year, we’ve just established a partnership with OCC Apparel and A.L.A.S The Label for Indigenous community initiatives.”

Could you tell us a bit more about that? How does AARLI work alongside the local Indigenous communities in Western Australia?

“The partnership with OCC Apparel and A.L.A.S The Label is two-fold. As a sustainability partnership, it will reduce landfill waste and extend the lifespan of products for a chance to be loved again. But as part of an Indigenous community initiative, OCC Apparel donates organic cotton T-Shirts, end of year deadstock, end of fabric rolls, rejected fabric offcuts to the local Indigenous community.

Leftover fabrics and material offcuts are then reconstructed into babies’ clothes in remote community arts centres, [while] other clothing products are distributed to men, women and children throughout four remote Western Australian aboriginal communities including Broome, Beagle Bay, Lombodina and One Arm Point.

These amazing businesses are helping rescue and change the lives of disadvantaged people in my community.”

Looking forward to the launch of their upcoming SS16/17 collection, AARLI has just announced a fashion collaboration with the Sydney-based Indigenous street brand Haus of Dizzy to establish an initiative where a percentage of proceeds will be reinvested into programs aimed at implementing creative industries training in remote Western Australian communities of disadvantaged Indigenous youths. This quality both TJ Cowlishaw and AARLI share for forward-thinking, compassion and sustainable ecological and socio-economic practice is directing the arguments around Australian design in very inspiring hope-filled directions. Their work serves as a timely reminder that design is always political ‘ we have to heed the responsibility.


Photography by Aubrey Devin, modelled by Larayia Gaston.

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