Desert Designs: Dressed in Art
Not all fashion success stories have their origins in a Western Australian prison, but Desert Designs has never been a label bound by convention, either. Helmed today by creative directors and longtime friends Jedda Daisy-Culley and Caroline Sundt-Wels, Desert Designs was born in the early 1980s, after knockabout art school graduate Steve Culley took a part-time teaching gig at Freemantle Prison, south of Perth. Through his classes, he met Jimmy Pike, an Aboriginal man from the Walmajarri people in the Great Sandy Desert, who was serving time for murder. Pike’s incredible aptitude for painting left Culley awestruck, and from his prison cell, Jimmy Pike became one of Australia’s most revered artists.
Pike was released in 1986 and today, his work is displayed in every state and national art gallery in Australia, but it was Culley who, together with fellow art teacher David Wroth, first turned Pike’s paintings and lino-block prints into textiles. They founded Desert Designs on the back of a pair of overalls made by Culley’s wife with Pike-printed fabric for their one-year-old daughter, Jedda. Before long, the label was an international phenomenon, and is credited for pioneering the introduction of Aboriginal art to the fashion and retail worlds. It lost a little of its luster in the 1990s, but has come full circle, with Jedda — the owner of those first overalls — and Caroline determined to keep the spirit of the brand alive.
The duo has recently collaborated with retail giant Target on a contemporary, 31-piece resort-style collection, featuring swimwear, printed cover-ups, dresses and beach towels, a huge coup for Desert Designs and an opportunity to share Australia’s Indigenous art and heritage with a new demographic.
“The swimwear shapes and prints are expressive, colorful, beautiful, fun and elegant,” says Jedda.
“Each of the artworks has its own historical story. Partiri Jiljiarrai for example is an exceptionally beautiful drawing of the desert flowers growing in the flat country between sand hills. Each Jimmy Pike artwork offers insight into his artistic heritage.”
Jedda, always drawn to fashion, says she grew up surrounded by art, design and culture, and taking over the label her father created almost two decades earlier felt like a natural progression.
“Growing up, there was always something being created. Artists were always spending the night. We had a gallery in town, and the studio was constantly full of people, cultures and colors,” she says.
“The house had art on the walls, floors, curtains and beds. We were dressed in art. I was always dressed in Jimmy’s drawing of rainbow waterholes – I changed my name to Rainbow Bright at one stage, unaware of the cartoon –and there were always Texta pens on the tables, so we were constantly drawing. I learnt that art was everywhere and that life was about creating and exchanging ideas.”
Jedda and Caroline bring an imaginative spirit to their designs, but their respect for the heritage and cultural values of Desert Designs is unwavering.
“Our main objective is to promote cultural and environmental awareness through art and design,” says Jedda.
“Although Desert Designs is currently focused on Australia’s Indigenous culture with regards to its artistic practice, the concept has universal scope as it finds relevance in all indigenous cultures.”
The girls work closely with the Jimmy Pike Trust to ensure the prints they select for their designs aren’t a misuse of sacred imagery, but Jedda says rather than these restrictions stifling their creative process, they enhance it.
“The restrictions add to our inspiration as we learn something of the intricacies of the desert landscape and the particularities of Aboriginal spirituality,” she says.
“Jimmyʼs visual archive is a touchstone to this world.”
Photography: Byron Spencer
Styling: Pauly Bonomelli
Hair and Makeup: Nicole Thompson
Models: Rachel Rutt from Chic, Ollie Henderson from Chic, Fernanda from Priscillas