RISING fashion designer Colleen Tighe-Johnson is well on her way to joining the ranks of fashion’s elite as she prepares to head to the Cannes Film Festival to showcase her designs.
“Even though I know it’s happening, I feel like I’m outside myself. I don’t really think it will sink in until I’m at the festival. The feeling is surreal,” she said.
The Gomeroi Yinarr fashion icon will exhibit 15 designs at the Glam Couture Cannes event in front of actors, producers, directors, fashion icons and others of the sort.
Mind you, this isn’t the first time the fashion star has been invited to the esteemed event. Last year, she was to make her debut in time for the 70th Cannes Film Festival, but had to put the invitation on ice due to personal family matters.
Nor is this the first time she has been in the international spotlight. She has showcased her work at the Fashion Speaks International at Kamloops in Canada and was the first international Indigenous designer to be part of the New York PLITZ showcase. It has been an emotional rollercoaster ride that seems to have no end.
“I never dreamed I would ever be doing anything like this today,” she said.
Colleen left Moree for boarding school at Orange in 1977. Hoping to make an independent living, she travelled to Sydney and took up a hairdressing course. In the 25 year period she lived on the northern beaches, she managed a salon before she traded in the scissors to work in the education and early childhood sector.
“I was working at Stewart House, helping children. Education and fashion are my biggest passions,” Colleen said.
A stroke at 37 and the diagnosis of a blood disorder put Colleen’s life on pause. The convalescent moved back to Moree to be with her family, where she started the program Miyay Mirrii.
“When I came back to Moree I saw girls were wearing shorts and shirts and they didn’t have many other clothes. So I started making clothes for them. It was great. Businesses got on board and I worked with council and Noeline Briggs-Smith,” Colleen said.
But Colleen says there is a lot more to her design process than just making clothes.
“When I make a dress, I make it suit the person. It has to match the person’s skin tone, and above all else, their personality. If the dress doesn’t fit, that person isn’t meant to wear the dress.”
Case in point, Colleen was taken on to design a personalised dress for Shareena Clanton at the 2015 Logie Awards. With only four weeks to design the dress, the fashion designer worked doggedly with the actress to create the ‘Rainbow Dreaming’ dress.
The dress not only received widespread applause, but also exhibited Colleen’s culture.
“The rich colours reflect the rainbow serpent and the beginning of time,” she said.
Asked who her ideal stars would be to dress, Colleen paused to carefully consider her answer.
“I would love to dress Halle Berry or Nicole Kidman. Each actress would have their own style to match their character,” she said.
Her ability to blend personality with her own culture has quickly caught the interest of fashion designers from around the world.
“At one of the fashion shows, I was asked what was so unique about my work? I told them, I was telling stories that are thousands of years old that have been passed down by the oldest living people in the world,” Colleen said.
Today, Colleen runs Buluuy Mirrii, a fashion label that is not only growing but also putting Aboriginal culture on the global stage.
“The way I look at it is, I’ve been given a job to do by my ancestors. Aboriginal women all the way down the line have been fighting for their rights, and I’m taking up where they left off,” Colleen said.
Colleen said above all else, she hoped to be part of the cycle of inspiration.
“It’s an emotional journey for me. My grandmother was once the matriarch of Moree when it came to fashion. She died teaching ballroom dancing. I’m lucky to come from a strong line of Aboriginal women on both my mother and father’s side. I’m doing something I’m so passionate about and feel like I am breaking down barriers. If I can showcase to the world my designs, I can also promote grassroots artists,” she said.
Colleen looks back on her life and says she never dreamed she would be in this position.
“I didn’t grow up in easy conditions. As a kid, I went from a railway tent, to a tin hut to a house with no sewerage connection. That’s something I didn’t have until I was eight years old. I have significant roots in Moree. It’s who I am, where I come from. And I wouldn’t have been able to get this far without the strength of from my family and community,” she said.
The Glam Couture Cannes show will last from May 9 to 20. Colleen will exhibit her designs on the first four days of the fashion show.