Australian fashion designer’s journey to restore African pride

When lawyer Phoebe Mwanza first moved to Australia, she was told she should bleach her skin to blend in. Now when she walks down the street in her African-inspired designs, she’s doing anything but. And she couldn’t be more confident.

“I didn’t have a lot of pride, because the story of Africa that I knew was … the charity case, the poverty, famine, natural disasters and war,” Phoebe says.

“When I came to Australia … I didn’t want anything to do with that.”

The 33-year-old moved here by herself when she was 19.

Born in Zambia, she moved to Zimbabwe for boarding school before applying to study law in Australia.

When she was accepted, her aunt gave her some cream that would bleach the melanin out of her skin.

“She was like, we don’t want to stand out too much. To succeed you have to blend in,” she said.

As a human rights lawyer, she has worked for the Department of Immigration and Border Protection and the Attorney-General’s Department.

She embraced Western culture, and was accepted in Australian society.

But somewhere along the way, she says she lost herself.

“Just like Tetris, as soon as I fit in, I disappeared,” she said.

A few years back, Phoebe began to reconnect with her ancestral roots through her love of fashion.

That passion has grown into designer label, The Prodigal Daughter, which explores African stories.

“The fabrics actually have stories — in different parts of Africa, they may be for royalty, or maybe only women, or people from certain tribes,” she says.

Her latest collection celebrates African leaders from around the world.

From Huey P Newton, the founder of Black Panther party during the civil rights movement, to Patrice Lumumba, a Congolese independence leader who was assassinated in 1961, she says she is trying to put the spotlight on African stories that are not often told.

“I personally never knew their stories. Our history was very confined to European history,” Phoebe says.

“Africa has this very different story — people who are kind, loving, gentle, who would give their lives for their families and friends and their communities.

“Every culture, every country has its own heroes, I started discovering mine at a later stage in life.

“I started getting a sense of pride in that.”

Phoebe’s main clients have been African Americans, but she hopes it helps African Australians embrace their culture and feel more comfortable in their own skin.

“I wanted to try to ignite some pride in their ancestors, their culture and background,” she says.

“There’s a lot of things that are portrayed about Africans even in Melbourne, negative things, and I try and shut that out because I know that’s a drop in the ocean of the whole community.

“There’s so many beautiful people out there doing things that are never in the media.

“I think more people should take pride in their culture.

“For me taking pride in it is not saying my culture’s better than yours, it’s just different and that’s what makes us awesome, because we bring all these differences together.”

Phoebe works in the legal team at the Department of Education, a day job that often means toning down her outfits with a black pencil skirt or blazer.

Her wildly colourful designs, which made their Melbourne Spring Fashion Week debut this year, still tend to turn heads during her commute from her home in Melbourne’s inner-west.

But standing out no longer bothers her.

“I’m very confident of who I am,” she says.

“I’m very comfortable in my skin.”

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Tim Hornibrook Tackk  |  About Tim Hornibrook