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Dressed to express

Dressed to express

Posted 01 February 2015

For more than 20 years, Dion Devow has worked at both a grassroots and consultative level to support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ access to health, legal and education services. Until last year, he was engaged in supporting the study aspirations of Indigenous students at the Australian National University’s (ANU) Tjabal Indigenous Higher Education Centre.

In recent years, Dion has also been applying his interest and skills in design to establish his own business, Darkies Design. Collaborating with external artists and designers, Dion produces contemporary Aboriginal-themed apparel and print media for mainstream, sports and promotional use.

In 2013, Dion recognised that Darkies Design had the potential to become a full-time enterprise generating sufficient income to support his young family. To explore how he might ensure that happened, he enrolled in IBA’s Into Business™ workshops. Through the self-paced, one-day workshops, Dion was able to strengthen his financial and administrative skills and knowledge – including developing a business plan. He has recently added brand and website development to his business offering, along with consultancy services in education and health.

Dion’s commitment to investing himself fully in his business received a boost when Darkies Design won the 2014 ACT NAIDOC Indigenous Business of the Year Award.

With encouragement from IBA staff, Dion has since successfully applied to IBA’s Business Development and Assistance Program for business support, and is receiving ongoing mentoring from an IBA business consultant.

Shy yet outspoken, self-deprecating yet focused, polite yet provocative, Dion deliberately chose a potentially controversial name for his business in order to express his pride in his Aboriginal culture and heritage. That choice gives full expression to his transformation from a shy university student, reluctant to speak in the presence of his classmates, into a confident father, businessman and consultant.

Here he discusses his motivations for establishing Darkies Design, and the importance of self-care, self-expression and self-empowerment through education to his well-being.


Dion Devow, owner of Darkies Design.

Dion Devow: dressed to express his pride in his culture and heritage.

On what’s in a name: ‘So in both producing my clothing and selecting my business name I am saying, “I am proud to have this dark skin of mine”.

For some people my business name, Darkies Design, can be confronting, and I want it to be. Obviously the word has been used in a derogatory way historically, and I want to change that. I want to reclaim the word. And why should the shame be with Aboriginal or Torres Strait Island people to feel that using that word is wrong? So in both producing my clothing and selecting my business name I am saying, “I am proud to have this dark skin of mine”.

Having started out working as an Aboriginal health worker in Darwin, I understand that “health” covers many things, including how you express yourself, your identity and your confidence in being in the world.

Our clothing is an important way of presenting ourselves to the world. I established Darkies Design in part so I could wear contemporary clothing that shows my pride in my Aboriginal culture and heritage.

I believe a lot of people aren’t comfortable in their own skin, and for some it can be because their skin is quite fair, and they feel they don’t “look” Aboriginal enough. We know from history that something as simple as a T-shirt can have a strong subliminal influence on how people think. So I design clothing, such as the “100% Pure Australian” T-shirt with the Aboriginal flag on it, to give all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people an opportunity to express their pride in their culture and heritage.

I know how hard it can be to express yourself, because I was so shy when I was a young fella. In my first year at university in 1994, I didn’t say a single word until the last tutorial of my first semester. Back then, everything was a shame job, and I thought fellas were just waiting to tear me down. And now it’s the opposite: it’s my black face up there on my website and on Facebook.

On his passion for education: ‘Study and my love of education have been the foundation for my entire career, whether in health, justice, higher education or now as a business owner’.

My mother was pregnant with me when she and my father moved to Darwin from Queensland ... When they arrived, my mother got a job cleaning the toilets at the school my sister was going to, and yet she went on to study part time for eight years to get her teaching degree. It was very inspiring for me, seeing her commitment to gaining her degree and then to eventually becoming a lecturer at university. Based on both my parents’ example, I’ve never been able to complain “it’s all too hard”.

It was instilled in me by my parents that whatever I do in my working life, it should help our people. So that’s been the catalyst, that’s been the thing that drives me. Although, I think my personality is such that I feel better when I give anyway.

I was lucky to go to university back in the 1990s. That study, and my love of education, has been foundation for my career, whether in health, justice, higher education or now as a business owner.

I approached IBA when I was looking at how I could turn Darkies Design into a full-time business for myself, and they suggested I attend their Into Business™ workshops. Having been in business for some time, I was surprised by how much I learnt, especially regarding the financial side of my business … Up until that point I didn’t really know much about my cash flow, and wasn’t keeping track of who owed me money. I now have spreadsheets which show who has paid me and who hasn’t, and I have appointed an accountant, and purchased an accounting software package. All this has reduced my stress, and built my confidence in the financial future of my business.

On playing to his strengths: ‘We all have networks, and in business you need to look around you and see who is doing what and how that ties in with what you are doing, and ask “how can we support each other?”

Over the past 20 years, I’ve worked in lots of roles where I am coordinating people and ideas, and now I am using those skills in a business sense to work with people to help me create my business vision.

So while I am not an artist, I do have design skills. So I take these visions in my head and I collaborate with other graphic designers and artists to apply my creative ideas.

And adding the brand development and website design arm to the business … again, it’s sourcing people around me who can deliver those services and make it possible for other Aboriginal businesses to have a deadly website.

We all have networks, and in business you need to look around you and see who is doing what and how that ties in with what you are doing, and ask “how can we support each other?”

I have recently come to understand how valuable my local and national networks in Aboriginal health, education, justice and business are. I’ve been offered several consultancy roles in the education sector, and that additional income is allowing me to put the required hours into building my business.

On the importance of self-care in both life and business: ‘Nothing much can happen without your health; that’s the bottom line’.

As a young Aboriginal health worker, I spent 10 years running around trying to give our mob everything they needed, but not necessarily doing it in a way that was beneficial to them – that is, educating people to take responsibility for their lives. That took me a long time to recognise and, as a result, I was physically and mentally burnt out by the time I was in my early 30s.

I take better care of my health now. I make sure that just about every day I am at the gym because I like my food, and I like to have a glass of wine. Having my health education background, I have seen our people dying … and before my burnout, my lifestyle choices weren’t supporting me. I knew better, and eventually my body said “enough”.

Nothing much can happen without your health; that’s the bottom line.

That’s partly why I took a leave of absence from my job at the Australian National University. I just didn’t have enough time or energy to work an eight-hour day, use my lunch hour to do design work for my business, and then go home and do some more work at night. With three young kids, it was just too much, and I’ve learnt what my limits are physically.

I have a strong faith, so I use that, along with my parents’ example and the gifts I have to dream big. I firmly believe your spirit knows when you are in the right place, and I would rather steer clear of something if it’s not right in the spirit. Even in tough times, though, there’s always a reason behind the challenges, and often that will be about me growing as a person and learning how to live properly.

On dreaming big: ‘I’ve come a long way from being that kid sitting in the lecture theatre in 1994, too shy to speak’.

Dion Devon, owner of Darkies Design.

Dion has recently added consultancy in health and education to his business offering.

I can see myself developing Darkies into a corporation of some kind. I have a company structure already; I’ve just been waiting for the right time to use it. So there’s a possibility I could have Darkies Design, Darkies Consulting, Darkies Health and Darkies Sport. And that would be something good to build on, for my children to become involved with and take over. And it would also enable me to employ Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people, too – all working together. That’s the vision, anyway, and it seems to be developing naturally along those lines.

Winning the 2014 ACT NAIDOC Indigenous Business of the Year Award validates what I am doing, and it has given me even more leverage, which is something anyone would want when they are trying to grow their business. In addition, I’ve recently gained Certified Supplier status with Supply Nation, which will put my products and services on the radar of larger government organisations and corporates.

Recently I have had this great sense of anticipation that something really big is coming together. I don’t necessarily mean in a monetary way – more like success in terms of my self-esteem and confidence; and that is flowing over into the business.

Last year I closed a national Indigenous education conference and spoke in front of 200 people. It made me realise that I can stand up there and not be shamed, and that people listen to what I have to say, and they value what I have to offer: my experience, my heritage, my knowledge as a blackfella, as a businessman and as a leader. I’ve come a long way from being that kid sitting in the lecture theatre in 1994, too shy to speak.

And I’ve realised it’s OK to do things for reward, recognition and respect, as well as wanting to help and contribute to your community.

It’s OK to be front and centre, and if you want to be a leader and to be an example to others, then I think you have to embrace that position and recognition.

Find out more about Darkies Design and IBA’s Business Development and Assistance Program.