Real Life

Sri Lankan-Australian architect Ilma Ali’s life changed when her flight re-routed to Darwin

She found her true colours in flowers, fashion and the community...
Ilma Ali and her friend Olga Bryukhovets.

I wasn’t meant to be in Darwin. I was meant to be walking the streets of Amsterdam, admiring the architecture, and wearing the chic all-black winter wardrobe I’d built while living in Melbourne and working as an architect at a top-tier firm. I was holidaying in Vienna on my way to my new life in the Netherlands when everything changed. My flight to Amsterdam was cancelled, then my accommodation booking followed. The pandemic had arrived.

I made a split-second decision to fly back to Australia as international borders closed around me. I’d been preparing for the end of winter in Europe, and I found myself in the thick heat of tropical Darwin, where my parents had lived for 15 years. I was used to grey streets, greyer skies, monochrome clothes, and suddenly I was surrounded by colour. It was everywhere – in the sunsets, the street art and the people.

After years of working in a corporate industry and putting my painting to the side, I finally had time to dedicate to my art. I found inspiration in the tropical croton shrubs planted in my mother’s garden, in the bromeliads of the Darwin Botanic Gardens and in the cycad husks I stumbled upon while hiking in Katherine.

I first met fashion designer, Olga Bryukhovets, at the Parap Markets. I was impressed by her slow-fashion label, Ossom, and her collaboration with the Indigenous art collective, Tiwi Designs. We clicked. We bonded over both being women from immigrant backgrounds and our shared love of art. We spoke about working on a project together.

The nation’s smallest capital city has a huge creative scene, and I wanted to be a part of it. The collaboration idea was an off-hand comment, a pipe dream, a hopeful suggestion, but Olga and I made it a reality.

Our fashion collection was a year in the making. I’d already begun creating a body of work, Veins, inspired by a trip to Larrakia Country. Now the artworks were transferred to a digital format to be printed onto fabric. It took us eight months to source the right fabrics – pure silk and cotton that met Olga’s high standards of quality and sustainability. While we were hunting down textiles, Olga worked on the sketches and created designs for 18 handcrafted pieces.

A woman wearing Ilma Ali and Olga Bryukhovets' design for a fashion show.
The Melaleuca models lit up the bright pink runway in Ilma Ali and Olga Bryukhovets’ designs.

When we started planning the Veins runway show, we knew we wanted it to be about more than fashion. From the beginning, we wanted to work with Melaleuca Australia, a Darwin organisation that supports migrant women, some of whom have experienced trauma and tremendous hardship before arriving in Australia. Our intention was to give the women a chance to step out of the daily hustle of settling into a new country, to just pause and feel beautiful.

When we first reached out to ask whether any Melaleuca women would consider modelling in our show, there was some hesitation. They were shy, they’d never modelled before, many had just arrived in the country. We got it, we’d both been there, in that lonely, unfamiliar space of a new country. I left Sri Lanka when I was eight, and Olga left Ukraine at age 15.

The hesitation turned to enthusiasm, however, when the first woman agreed to be involved. Her courage was contagious. Soon, we had almost 20 women ready to make their modelling debut. There was Sunda, a Congolese woman who is single-handedly raising her seven children while her husband is still in Congo trying to find a way to reunite. Ukrainian grandmother, Mira, only arrived in Darwin a month before the show after fleeing from the war. Inaya, who is from Pakistan and is Muslim, inspired me no end. Coming from a Muslim background as well, I was surprised when she agreed to model. Culturally, Muslim women are taught to be modest and not to stand out, so it was a big thing for her to step out onto our catwalk in front of a big crowd.

The sun had just started to set over Casuarina Beach when the crowd settled in for the show. We held the event at De la Plage, an iconic outdoor venue at the Darwin Surf Lifesaving Club. The runway itself was bright pink, and against the green grass, it reflected the colours of the Croton print. Backstage, the energy and nerves ran high, as Olga put finishing touches on the looks. It was mayhem, but when the show started it felt like time stood still.

A group of women wearing Ilma Ali and Olga Bryukhovets' designs ready for a fashion show.
“Seeing the confidence and friendships the women gained from the show was something I’ll always hold with me” Ilma Ali said.

I watched the show from a balcony above and took it all in. The women walked with grace and confidence – one of them even twerked at the end of the runway! I remember thinking how gorgeous Fifi looked in the Bromeliad print. Seeing her beauty shine so bright, you wouldn’t know the darkness she’s been through.

After the grand finale, where the models did a lap of honour and the crowd burst into spontaneous applause, Olga and I joined the crew backstage. Everyone was shrieking and jumping with joy. The women hugged us and thanked us for giving them the chance to be seen. A woman from Jordan rushed towards me and embraced me. “That’s the first time in two years that my husband has seen me wearing makeup,” she said. “Thank you for asking me to do this.”

Of course, Olga and I burst into tears. We’d done it, and it was everything we wanted it to be – powerful, fun and breathtakingly beautiful. It was more than a fashion show, it was a celebration of women in all their glory. Seeing the strength, confidence and friendships the women gained from the show was something I’ll always hold with me. I was proud of the Melaleuca women, of the show and of our clothes. Olga makes every piece by hand, and they really are works of wearable art.

This year, I’m back in the art studio and have plans to work with Melaleuca again. An exciting new collection is brewing, here in tropical Darwin, surrounded by the force of nature and all its colours. This is home for me now. It’s a place I can be quiet and a constant source of inspiration. It wasn’t the plan, but it feels natural. The right things always do.

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