Model turned activist Charlee Fraser talks sustainability, #NotJustTrending and what happens when culture and career collide. 

Felicity Bonello

Getty Images and courtesy of Charlee Fraser

Aytan Lachish (@aytanwho)

16 July, 2021

Charlee Fraser is in an unprecedented career sweet spot. Since being scouted some eight and a half years ago by a local photographer in her hometown of Newcastle, she has graced the worldwide covers of Vogue, walked the runway for a host of luxury brands including Chanel, Prada, Balenciaga and Stella McCartney, and become one of the most important faces at Australian Fashion week – not just for her modelling acumen, but for her advocacy around sustainability. 

A proud Awabakal woman, Fraser was born and raised on Awabakal land on the mid-north coast of NSW – and while her childhood was mostly void of cultural tradition in suburban Newcastle, she has always felt a deep connection to the land. Today, as the groundswell around First Nations fashion and sustainability gains momentum on the international runway, this Indigenous Australian model and sustainability champion is part of history making change in an industry pleading for reform in many ways. 

“When I started modelling my culture was very separate from my career, they were two very different things,” Fraser explains. “As I’ve been on my own cultural journey, it’s also been during a time of change in the industry where diversity across ethnicity, size, shape, gender, age has taken centre stage. As I’ve been uncovering more of my culture, it’s also slowly been more inclusive in the industry, and at this very moment I have found a beautiful space where both my career and my culture crossover.”

After decades of underrepresentation, First Nations fashion designers and creatives were in the spotlight at this year’s Afterpay Australian Fashion Week (AAFW). With the fashion landscape finally on a new trajectory AAFW held a Welcome to Country smoking ceremony, and all-Indigenous runway shows for the first time in the event’s 25 year history – produced by First Nations Fashion and Design (FNFD), a non-profit organisation who represent Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander creatives. 

“I knew it was going to be emotional, but walking the runway with all Indigenous designers, Indigenous mob, musicians, performers, creatives, and having the majority of the audience from the indigenous community, alongside fashion industry heavy hitters was just amazing. The runway felt powerful, inspiring, and hopeful. We were all crying and hugging each other but when we saw the entire audience give a standing ovation, it just really showed that regardless of who you were in that moment, you recognised that this space had been empty for so long and we were finally here. It was globally recognised,” explains Fraser. 

For the industry at large, encouraging further change is of absolute importance. “It’s not about highlighting culture in the fashion industry and giving it that platform, although that’s amazing. We need to normalise these changes. It’s about consistency, not making this a moment, because this is a movement,” she says.

As an ambassador and model mentor for FNFD – which sees Fraser amongst many initiatives working with Indigenous communities and scouting-mentoring Indigenous talent – she chose to walk exclusively for their runway show at this year’s AAFW primarily because First Nation’s fashion is linked with the environment. 

“The core of Indigenous culture in fashion is sustainability – it’s derived from nature. Everything that we’ve ever made is directly sourced from nature, there’s no waste, there’re no chemicals involved, it’s regenerative, it’s sustainable, it’s circular, it’s all the things that we’re looking for now in the industry. First Nations fashion also directly correlates to a sustainable campaign I ran over fashion week, called NOT JUST TRENDING,” explains Fraser.

NOT JUST TRENDING is a campaign Fraser created to highlight ethical and sustainable brands, programs, and practices within the fashion industry. Using AAFW as a platform to showcase the changes being made and to help influence others to make positive and necessary changes, Fraser attended fashion week wearing ‘pro-earth’ outfits from head to toe, while learning and gathering information she could share in her Sustainable Fashion Guide, available now to subscribers. With the fashion industry one of the biggest contributors to landfill, Fraser is determined to educate consumers and clear the pathway to understanding and locating high-end fashion that also better serves our planet.

Throughout AAFW, she dedicated herself to being as eco-conscious as possible attending shows she felt met her standard for the #NotJustTrending initiative. 

She also wore only sustainable, Indigenous and vintage looks throughout the week, commuted to and from shows in the all-electric Audi e-tron as well as interviewing sustainability experts within the AAFW production, and documenting the journey to share her insights.

“I’m on this sustainable journey now and I’m just sharing it. I love what I do so much but it’s morally conflicting with my love of nature. NOT JUST TRENDING really started from me wanting to learn more. Consumers are looking for brands that are doing these things as well, so let’s do it together,” she explains. 

Along with a major shift to Indigenous representation within the industry, Fraser feels that sustainability is also building an ‘about time’ momentum. 

“It’s all correlating with climate change and the universe and we’re finally seeing the negative effects of the way we’ve been living. For us to actually survive, these are the changes we’re going to have to make. We’ve been given a deadline. There’s no particular starting point, just start wherever you are,” says Fraser.

And when this down to earth, vital voice looks to the future, what does she anticipate? “Consistency and longevity in all the areas of change we’re seeing right now,” says Fraser. “To expand on those spaces of inclusivity, of culture. Making this industry a safe place, an inclusive place, a place of acceptance – continuing that is the dream.”