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Breaking: Fashion icon Elaine George will walk at Melbourne Fashion Week tomorrow

The first First Nations woman to cover Vogue is set to lead the 'ganbu marra' show

Written by
Bianca O'Neill

In breaking news today, Time Out can exclusively reveal that fashion icon, Elaine George – who made history as the first First Nations woman to cover Vogue back in September 1993 – will walk in the ganbu marra runway at Melbourne Fashion Week tomorrow. 

George, a proud Arakwal woman from the Bundjalung nation in northern New South Wales, who grew up in Brisbane, was discovered by a model scout at the age of 17 during a family trip to the Gold Coast. A resulting photoshoot led to her famous image on the September cover, which became the highest-selling issue of all time (until Samantha Harris’ subsequent 2010 Vogue cover). And now, 29 years later, she will make her MFW debut on Saturday night’s runway.

Despite the crazy weather lashing Melbourne over the last few days, Melbourne Fashion Week continues across the city – but alas, Time Out’s exclusive interview with Elaine George ahead of her first-ever walk for MFW took a hit when a planned trip to Mitchelton Estate in Nagambie was cancelled due to weather warnings. (Mitchelton Estate are the official wine partner for MFW, for the second year running.)

Instead, George and I relocated to the chic Prince Hotel and bunkered down with a glass of wine in Little Prince Wine’s cosy underground cellar as it bucketed down outside. We chatted about her historic 1993 cover, her important work in child protection, representation in the fashion industry and her tentative return to the world of modelling at the age of 47.

Elaine George stands against a Gabriella Possum artwork
Photograph: Nicole Cleary

“It’s very different to 30 years ago,” George tells me, with a warm laugh. “So yeah, it’s a bit of a shock – I  didn’t think that I’d ever be modelling again. I kind of came out of retirement for the younger generation [Vogue cover, earlier this year], for Cindy [Rostron] and Magnolia [Maymuru] – because Charlee [Fraser] is already up there – so it was about giving them the strength to be able to do this without other First Nations models. But it turns out I’m getting quite a bit of work.” 

Although George appears perplexed by how in-demand she is since her second Vogue cover in May this year, it’s probably less surprising to anyone who meets her. Dressed in a simple black outfit and puffer to protect against the cold Melbourne weather, she’s the picture of casual elegance as we chat over a charcuterie platter. Laid back and easy to talk to, it’s also no wonder that she has become somewhat of a backstage mum to other models walking with her, earning her the unofficial title of ‘Aunty Vogue’.

Despite the immense reverence fellow models and the industry at large have for George, it’s clear her work in child protection comes first. She speaks passionately about it at our lunch, explaining that, although she doesn’t really recognise that her Vogue moment was historic, it’s her daily work in child protection that will make a real and important impact on her culture.

“[The Vogue cover] – it was just another day for me. I’m not a person that goes out and does First Nations marches. I do it in other ways, which is child protection. So for me, it was nothing. I live and breathe my culture every day.”

“I can’t change the way people think about First Nations people, but what I can do is make a bit of a dint in the history." 

History is to be made again, as George walks Melbourne Fashion Week for the first time tomorrow, set to wear five different looks from several talented First Nations designers featured in the show. Originally, there were plans to project an incredible Gabriella Possum artwork against the runway – artwork currently housed at Hubert Estate, and for sale both there and at the Mitchelton Gallery of Aboriginal Art – but these plans had to be scrapped last minute. Attendees will instead be able to enjoy Possum’s art by spotting the pieces featured on Mitchelton’s collaborative Gabriella Possum wine range labels instead, which will be served exclusively at the runway.

It's excellent to see Melbourne Fashion Week create holistic First Nations opportunities at the ganbu marra runway, with representation extending past the wine bottle and into backstage – but as George points out with a few stories of her past experiences, these opportunities need to extend beyond the sphere of exclusively First Nations events. However, she does see hope for the future.

“I’m actually seeing more behind the scenes, than in front. And I think when you have some First Nations [representation] behind the scenes, and a designer is struggling with, ‘hey, I can’t find what I’m looking for in a First Nations model’, they can actually just ask that photographer and they’ll know heaps.”

“It doesn’t have to be in front of the camera.”

Melbourne Fashion Week continues until Sunday, October 16. Tickets are still available for the ganbu marra runway, with two sessions this Saturday night, October 15.

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