I’m Grace Lillian Lee, I am a fashion designer and a fashion performance curator. I was brought up in a very creative environment and supportive environment, so I’m very grateful for that, however the struggles for me to do fashion was difficult in Cairns because there weren’t as many opportunities. However, ten years down the track I am moving back up to Cairns because that’s where my opportunities lie.
What inspired me to go to university, to study fashion, was it started back at high school where I used to compete in a wearable art competition annually from grade eight to twelve and I did really well each year but in my final year I produced a product and actually sewed garments instead of gluing and making wearable art but I also painted my fabrics. From that point I realised that the fashion industry was something that I wanted to be involved in so I really wanted to further my education from doing little Spotlight courses and TAFE courses and learning from family that I wanted to learn more and expand my horizons.
So the process I took to enrol at university was quite an extensive one because unfortunately I was not accepted into RMIT in Melbourne the first year I applied. So I returned back to Cairns and did my Cert Four in Clothing Production at the TAFE and then that created a portfolio for me to then move, to reapply at RMIT and then I was offered the position at RMIT to do my bachelor degree so I decided to pick up and move to Melbourne.
Moving from Cairns to Melbourne, it was quite difficult because I didn’t have as many friends or family down there to support me. So it was quite alienating but once I got used to the whole process and really delved into the study and met the friends and networks that I created at university, after a year it was, it worked out well and it made the whole process a lot easier.
For the first year of university I felt like for the whole Faculty of Fashion, it is culling of who’s going to stay and I think we were all aware of that and for me it was very hard especially because I had moved myself from all my support networks and I was really committed to wanting to learn more about fashion, that it was a struggle for me to stay and commit to it. However the breaks were really good to go home and see family and reconnect. So that was a relief within the whole year, so it’s not like you are there at university like every single day.
Unfortunately I didn’t use the university Indigenous Support Unit* because it wasn’t something that I connected with until my final year of university. However, I think that it’s something I really wished I knew about earlier that I could’ve connected with and had that support, especially within those first years of uni.
The reason why I didn’t initially connect was because it’s been a personal journey of mine where, and my grandmother’s and my father’s, our whole family really, because I didn’t take my grandmother back to the Torres Straits until my final year of university and she hadn’t been back for 57 years. So it’s something that hasn’t been celebrated or known about as much as it should have been, so yeah that’s unfortunately the reason why.
Being a four year degree I did think that it was going to take forever and, however looking back at it, it went really quick. So what I did get out of university was that I did get to go and do an internship for Mimco and Witchery which landed me a job as an assistant designer for Mimco.
Since doing my degree I am now a fashion designer and a fashion performance curator, so that only came about because the Cairns Indigenous Art Fair wanted to have a fashion show and they asked me to organise it and they didn’t know what that looked like, so I felt that that was a really exciting space for me to collaborate with the community and art centres and the designers and the models to create a new platform of sharing culture. I was then contacted by Merrepen Arts Centre from Darwin and they wanted me to curate a fashion performance within their community as well and I also did a fashion performance for Stella Magazine in PNG, which is the first women’s magazine and so that happens on an annual basis for their birthday. And I have been doing Kiaf fashion performances for the past three years so, and all of those fashion performances are about celebrating culture and working collaboratively with the community and the models and the designers to share stories in our way.
So what my degree has done for me, has enabled me to create a collection and explore and research into my culture through this new dialogue and from doing that it’s given me opportunities, for instance at the Cairns Indigenous Art Fair, to curate fashion performances and I think if I didn’t have the higher education they probably wouldn’t have taken me as seriously or even considered me.
My advice to others thinking about going to university would be to not be afraid and apply and just see what may come of it because once you’re in it and you’re a part of this network of people that are interested in what you’re doing I think that it can only be to your benefit.
*Note: each university may refer to their local Indigenous support services in different ways e.g. Indigenous Education Units; Indigenous Support Units; School of Indigenous Australian Studies; Indigenous Institute etc., and may include Aboriginal and/ or Torres Strait Islander language in the naming title, as relevant to the local area.
Grace is a fashion designer from Cairns, North QLD. She was raised in a creative and supportive environment and while she was creating fashion designs for a competition at school, she decided to pursue it as a career. Grace moved to Melbourne to study a Bachelor of Fashion at RMIT where she was able to collaborate and get support from her peers and lecturers. Since completing her degree, Grace has connected with her culture. She believes that being able to design and collaborate with her community is an enriching and inspiring experience.