AARLI TJ Cowlishaw

Posted 10 Aug 18

TJ Cowlishaw is designer, entrepreneur and advocate for ethical fashion. She is a collaborator on the Ngamai Aboriginal Entrepreneurs Meet Ups

Tell us about yourself, who’s your mob? Where are you from? 

My name is TJ Cowlishaw and I am a Fashion Designer and Project Manager. I am the founder and Creative Director of fashion brand AARLI.

My family name is ‘Hunter’ whose kinship lies with the Bardi people of the Kimberleys, Western Australia and a descendant of the Chinese Pirates of Shanghai (Family Name: JAN). This heritage has lead itself to the name of fashion label, AARLI, the Bardi name for fish.

I was born in Darwin and move to Perth when I was a child. I have been based in Perth (nyoongar boodjar) for 23 years and travel between Broome and Darwin to visit country and family.

Have you always loved fashion? 

Since childhood sis, I have always had a passion for fashion! Mum has got so many photos of me styling up and walking around all dressed up in my nana and mum clothing/heels and make -up.

I think back on how lucky I was to be around deadly woman who pushed me to be creative. So blessed to grow up in 80s/90s to be surrounded by Australia Fashion Designers such as Linda Jackson, uncle Ron Gidgup (WA) and aunty Lenore Dempski (Paperbark woman, NT).

What’s your earliest memory of dressing up or making a fancy outfit?

My mother, Sarina Jan, coordinated fashion events in Darwin so I was surrounded by fashion that my passion was fuelled and influenced as a young child modeling in fashion parades.

As a young girl modeling Linda Jackson, Territorian and Paperbark woman that I always got to play dress up every week.

As a young girl, because we didn’t have much money growing up, I learned to appreciate vintage fashion and costume design. This creativity was fuelled through my Godfather Andrew Trewin who was a fashion designer in the 1980s creating costumes for her Godmother (Drag Queen for Les Girls) while she was performing in Sydney and Melbourne.

This fascination, as I grew up I was obsessed with costume design and upcycling. Now this has lead me to create a streetwear label that specialises in sustainable + upcycled women’s garments and accessories.

Why are you passionate about ethical fashion, is it about people, about caring for Country?

I have a major passionate about this topic, from Ethical production (Australian made) to sustainable | Upcycled fashion and 100% Aboriginal owned and operated business as I want to revive our once booming Aboriginal fashion industry.

“Our design house, AARLI, wants to influence society’s perception of Aboriginal Australian fashion

and provide commercial platforms or opportunities for next-generation First Nation creative professionals”

I want to be a role model within my community, I want to inspire other Indigenous Designers, models, textile artists to want to achieve and tell their stories through the medium of fashion and design.

I don’t want to be just another fashion label entering into the industry creating “fast fashion” to be mass produced overseas which eventually turn into waste / added to landfill.

I want to save landfill, recycle rubbish and help be part of the revolution to remove unwanted plastic from our oceans and country.

That passion for sustainable fashion sparked a change in my designs and took my designs to the next level. I developed and created quality/ stylish garments potential made from rubbish/waste. Experimentation with sustainably sourced and ethically produced fabrics lead to the creation of SS14/15 + SS16/17 collections that includes organic hemp, recycled dead stock denim and PET, a blend of hemp and discarded drink bottles.

What’s one of your proudest professional moments?

I would say two… first taking the leap and beginning this fashion journey when I launched AARLI at 2014 Australian Indigenous Fashion Week in Sydney. To have been selected by Brana Wolf {Vogue /Harpers Bazaar] to be the first collection to open the runway showcase. I was selected out of 30 Fashion designers and brands.

And your proudest projects?

AARLI setting up a partnership with the State Library of WA has led to a number of projects I am proud of:

1) WA Retail fashion Incubator

Through this creative partnership, the SLWA will be giving the opportunity to work with AARLI to develop WA’s first retail incubator. SLWA x AARLI are partnering together to provide free of charge studio space for exclusively WA Indigenous brands and businesses. There will be only limited 5 spaces available in the studio 001.

2) Exhibition

This will be my first major fashion exhibition as a co-curator. It will be held over 6 weeks at the State Library of Western Australia from 9 August to 30 Sept 2018.

This year, I didn’t want to do a quick runway show where no one can really experience or understand the background or stories. This exhibition gives each artist a commercial platform to share their stories and designs to WA community.

3) AARLI x WA State Archives

AARLI X WA State Archives team working to provide links to WA Museum and WA Archives to have WA Aboriginal and TSI stories and products to be digitalised, information stored and stories preserved into WA State Archives for future generations.

You do a lot of collaboration with other Aboriginal women, what makes this kind of process special? 

The main reason for AARLI collaborations is that I want to have Aboriginal business as my suppliers not my competitors. I want to work with other amazing female entrepreneurs to produce magic and work together to build a national fashion community.

It so special to have these connections, as well as I, want to praise these women for their skills. I want to show off how amazingly talented our designer are, and to promote “Authentically Aboriginal products” that are handmade with love.

Are there any links you would like to share?

Bibbullmun Bardi
Exploring Aboriginal Design
9 August – 30 September 2018
The Nook, State Library of Western Australia,
25 Francis St Perth

Exploring Aboriginal Design celebrates the seldom-told stories of some of Western Australia’s Aboriginal design icons.

Trace some of the key moments that have shaped Western Australian Aboriginal design history and see how contemporary Western Australian Aboriginal designers bring cultural practices and perspectives to today’s world.

Each garment has a story, shared through clothing, accessories, sketches, product samples, photographs, interviews and more…



National Indigenous Designer Collab, 2017

Bling bling by Haus of Dizzy

Leggings by Grace Lillian Lee

Photographer Michael Jalaru Torres

Hair Stylist Natalie Wright

MUA Suraya Squires

Aboriginal Models Geraiyah Wiggan + Courtney Ugle