Samantha Harris is a name synonymous with the Australian fashion world.
The Indigenous model has had a grip on the industry for decades, from her first cover at age 13 for Girlfriend magazine that launched her to stardom, to campaigns for iconic Australian swimwear label Seafolly and fronting the shows of First Nations designers.
At 16, she was thrust into the international spotlight shooting for Glamourmagazinein New York, and two years later she became the second Indigenous model to appear on the front cover of Australian Vogue.
Born in the small northern NSW town of Tweed Heads, Sam was raised in a large family home, her mother a descendant of the Dunghutti tribe. Central to her life is a close relationship to her mum, who has appeared beside her in advocacy campaigns for World Vision. Sam says appreciation for her Indigenous heritage was integral to her upbringing.
“Being Aboriginal was always something I was proud of,” she says, adding, “and it took a while, but now we’ve seen two years of First Nations designers, models, creatives – everyone – front and centre at Australian Fashion Week.”
Brimming with energy in the cavernous gallery at Sydney’s Carriageworks, Sam fronted Australian Fashion Week’s Indigenous Fashion Projects runway in May last year, a collective show featuring five leading First Nations designers. She wore a patterned overcoat by Indigenous clothing label Ngali which featured wavy quilting representing songlines – a series of walking routes that cross the nation, linking important sites and locations to First Nations’ stories, history and culture for over 65,000 years.
Ngali founder and designer, Wiradjuri woman Denni Francisco, said at the time her collection had “no stop and start”, but instead represented “a continuum”. Sam described wearing a garment entrenched in centuries of human experience as feeling like “wearing the stories of the thousands of people who came before me”.
Documented By: @sam_harris
“That’s where I find I love fashion again,” she explains. “When I wear something like that coat, it means so much more than just going to the shops and buying something. It’s slowing down, creating meaning and making something that will stand the test of time.”
The model and activist, now 32, has been privy – more intimately than most – to some of the most pivotal changes in the fashion world. But as she’s matured, Sam doesn’t look back on her fresh-faced years in the industry with rose-tinted glasses. Her sights are set on how conversations have changed, and how fashion can follow suit.
Sam jokes that, back then, the formula for looking good was simple: great clothes, nice makeup and good shoes. The industry centered around aesthetics, with little discussion of the way garments could be a vehicle for positive environmental change.
That was a decade ago, and the model and activist now believes beauty and style are a reflection of our values just as much as, if not more than, our presence in the mirror. “People don’t just want to shop anymore,” she says, reflecting on the change in sentiment that is leading to an overhaul of Australia’s approach to fashion.
“They want meaning; they want a story in each piece of clothing. People aren’t buying things for the hell of it. I look at the younger generation now and it’s amazing how clued-up they already are.”
While change has been occurring in the fashion industry for some time, Sam thinks the past two years have accelerated progress in sustainability, placing it at the core of design, production and the promotion of labels.
Documented By: @sam_harris
Social movements have also pushed Sam’s personal activism further. In the wake of the murder of George Floyd and the start of the pandemic in 2020, Sam spoke candidly of the pervasive racism in the fashion industry publicly. Maturity gave her the confidence to do so and also deepened her understanding of the problem. It also made her less concerned about the opinions of others, paving the way to advocate for the changes she wishes to see in her industry and the wider world. “I just really don’t care what people have to say. I have my own beliefs, and accept that others will have their own beliefs, and I’m not going to change to suit someone else,” she says.
Last year, Sam partnered with WWF-Australia as an ambassador, working alongside the Indigenous Rangers Program, an initiative that centers the experiences and expertise of First Nations people in preserving the planet.
The program aims to leverage the deep knowledge of Indigenous people and their skill at environmental conservation. It also affords an opportunity for healing and for overdue respect paid to Australia’s First Nations people, acknowledging the importance of their expertise, nurtured over 65,000 years, to ensure a brighter future for all of us.
“Indigenous people have been caring for country for thousands of years,” Sam explains. “They take what they need; they’re not greedy; they respect the earth. We’re taking a leaf out of the traditional owners’ books now. [Indigenous people] don’t just wipe out a species for their own wellbeing. They care for country; they work together.”
A conversation with Sam oscillates from fashion to environmentalism to philosophy and back to fashion; seamlessly blending all together in her candid approach to analysing the modern world. “I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: we’ve only got one earth. We can’t just pick up and move to another planet,” she says.
The industry that she grew up in, though complicated, has opened her to a world of opportunities and experiences, summarised in a single word she believes will dictate our path forward. “Embrace. If I had to put it simply, it would be to just embrace. Embrace the sustainability movement, embrace First Nations people. Embrace ideas that will make our world a better place, and protect the only space we call home,” she says.
“It’s all connected, and we need to be connected and open in the way we move forward.”