A social enterprise run by two creative women is bringing fabrics of Northern Territory indigenous communities to the world. Magpie Goose NT is the brainchild of Maggie McGowan and Laura Egan, two young entrepreneurs based in Katherine in the NT.
Maggie and Laura work with Aboriginal art centres in four communities - Wadeye, Gunbalanya, Tiwi Islands and Maningrida - to produce screen printed fabric, designed by local artists, to be made into women’s, men’s and children’s clothing.
The name is a nod to the classic northern Australian bird, known for its distinct look and quirky behaviour.
“Magpie geese sit on top of mango trees and get drunk on the fermented mangoes,” says Maggie. “That idea is reflected in our brand; we’re bold, bright and strong.”
Maggie came up with the Magpie Goose concept during her travels to indigenous communities in the Territory, working with Aboriginal legal aid.
“I started discovering art centres, particularly the bright colours and patterns of the fabrics made there, and how they told incredible stories of that community,” says Maggie.
“I spent a lot of time going around and having a yarn. Art centres are often the hubs of communities, where artists sit down while they’re weaving or painting, and you can have a chat.”
Feeling disheartened by the underemployment in communities Maggie knew she wanted to contribute in a different way, other than through her legal work.
“There’s so much passion and interest around Aboriginal culture and products, I thought, if I can have my own social enterprise that provided employment opportunities, I could affect change.”
She and Laura pitched their case to Enterprise Learning Projects (ELP), an NT-based organisation supporting inclusive businesses in indigenous communities. ELP funded them to buy 200 metres of fabric to start the production process.
Maggie and Laura went to Bali and had a handful of garments produced in simple designs and started wearing the pieces themselves. At the end of 2016 they did a ‘soft’ launch in Darwin, before all their friends went down south for Christmas. They sold the majority of their pieces, and their customers wore the Magpie Goose garments over summer in other parts of the country, building further interest in the bold designs.
Each design tells a story of people, place and culture.
“There’s definitely a move for slow and ethical fashion and knowing the story behind the clothes you wear. Our clothing is a conversation starter.”
A lightning bolt moment came when Laura was chased through San Francisco airport by people asking her where her clothes were from.
“We then realised that there was a big demand for it,” says Maggie.
The pair started a Kickstarter campaign and reached their target of $20,000 within 24 hours, ending up with over $100,000 of pre-orders.
An important part of the business model is ensuring opportunities for Aboriginal people to be involved, and Maggie says they hope to involve people from the communities that the fabric is produced, through writing stories of the artists and designs; modelling the garments; and liaising with the media.
Maggie says that eventually she’d like to have people in each community employed by Magpie Goose NT.
“Our next steps are to visit all the communities and finding out how Magpie Goose can best work alongside art centres, to enable their growth and provide opportunities as the business expands.”
Kate Shannon is a freelance writer based in Brisbane after many years living in Darwin. She spends a lot of her time in the garden with her two little girls, and loves writing and learning about creative people, families, flowers, and plants.
Image credits: Sarah Mackie, Maggie McGowan, Callum Flinn