November 30, 2023

Change is the fabric of life

Damien Ralphs sits at a table in a Gilbert Street studio, surrounded by shades of pink, bold prints and new-season florals. There are fabrics and colour palettes strewn out in front of him and the aspiring fashion designer is having the time of his life as the recipient of TAFE SA’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Fashion Scholarship.

A rich and varied career has taken Damien many places, and the creative soul has now landed in fashion design.

Not so long ago, Damien Ralphs was traversing the Adelaide parklands as an outreach officer for Adelaide’s homeless population. Prior to that he was on stage as a professional dancer.

At 34 years old, Damien is the first to admit that his work life has been as diverse as it has been challenging: a whirlwind of pivots and learning curves, never saying no to an opportunity and never passing up a chance to learn something new.

Today, he’s sitting at a table in the Gilbert Street studio of fashion brand Acler, surrounded by fabrics in myriad colours and textures.

Part of what has brought Damien to this point in life was a meeting more than a decade prior with then-Adelaide Airport CEO Phil Baker. Damien was fresh out of high school and studying business administration at Tauondi Aboriginal Community College in Port Adelaide, and had been nominated for a training award sponsored by Adelaide Airport.

By Damien’s own recollection, Phil’s advice to him was: “Take advantage of every opportunity that comes to you, even if you’re scared. There’s always going to be someone to help and there’s always going to be someone who wants to support you to do better. Even if you fail, you’re going to learn something.”

Damien says ever since that meeting, he’s approached every opportunity head on.

But life-changing moments have always popped up: early on in high school, Damien had a formative experience during an assembly, where he witnessed a dance performance.

“I went straight to the dance teacher to find out how I could dance,” Damien says. “I thought it was going to be for fun. I thought I was naturally okay at it and I had a tonne of passion, but I didn’t know it was something I was going to be able to make a career out of. But I became a professional dancer for 10 years.”

Damien says when he’s on stage, he doesn’t have to think; just do.

“It was the one moment that nothing else in the world mattered,” he muses. “I didn’t have to stress about home or anything else that was going on in life, such as exams. It was just about being on stage and letting the movement take me for as long as I was out there.”

Damien’s high school teachers were incredibly supportive and he soon began exploring Aboriginal contemporary dance and when he left school, he studied at NAISDA Dance College – the country’s premier Indigenous training college – and moved to Sydney for the opportunity.

In his final year, Damien travelled to the United States and Canada for his secondment, dancing in Arizona and Manitoba and taking part in First Nations exchanges.

“I got to listen to some of their traditional stories and I really resonated with a butterfly story about reincarnation. We went to a pow wow in Canada with hundreds of First Nations people and I talked about contemporary culture and dance and others talked about didgeridoo-making.”

Damien took his dancing to Tjapukai Cultural Park in Cairns, after he saw an advertisement looking for dancers. “I got to learn more of the traditional things from my culture. Before I went there, I’d never thrown a boomerang in my life, but it was one of the first things I learnt because you had to teach hundreds of tourists. It’s not as easy as people think,” Damien laughs. “We did spear-throwing and talked about bush food and we travelled to China, Japan and Vanuatu.”

Damien says one of the best things about studying fashion design is being able to express his own creativity – the suits have well and truly been swapped for colour and sparkle.

From discovering a passion for dance in an assembly to multiple trips overseas, Damien says the word “yes” led him to places he never expected.

“It doesn’t matter where your career path goes, if you follow what you’re passionate about, it’ll lead you to amazing things,” he says. “Every time I try something new, it opens up another part of the world.

“It doesn’t matter what career path you take; you’re going to learn something you can use somewhere else.”

His first decade in the workforce was all about performing, including a season with Leigh Warren & Dancers, but the next was dedicated to community services and social work.

While Damien was in this whirlwind interstate, he came back to Adelaide pre-Covid for a break and was asked to do some outreach for homeless people with Uniting Communities for three months, which turned into many more months as he helped out during the pandemic.

“You just don’t realise how many people are out there having to survive,” Damien says. “You walk down the mall and see the homeless people but you don’t see the hidden homeless population around the parklands and further. That was a big shock to me and it was a really big job during Covid, but I felt like I was helping in a real frontline kind of way.”

Damien is a Gunnai/Kurnai and Wotjobaluk man from Victoria, and in his culture, his totem is a blue wren, which talks lots and moves fast – traits immediately evident when you meet him.

But he says this line of work made him slow down.

“It taught me to listen. It made me step back and see that I could still use those communication skills and get other people talking and make them confident to tell their story.

“The main thing you hear from people is that they’re sick of repeating their story so being able to capture and share stories so people feel like they’re being heard.”

When Damien finished with housing, he moved into the child protection sphere, working with Aboriginal Family Support Services, delivering educational parenting programs.

Through this work, as part of the Healing the Grief program, Damien would write down his own journey of grief.

“There are bits that you share and bits that are just for your own reflection, but every time I opened it, I remember seeing ‘stifled creativity’ and realised I wasn’t being creative anymore.

“I’d blocked out my creativity several times in my life – the first time was when my nan passed away – and this was another of those times.

“I was in an office doing a job I loved, but I wasn’t dancing and I wasn’t doing anything to substitute the dancing. I didn’t have any creative outlets anymore.”

A week later, Damien spotted an advertisement for TAFE SA’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Fashion Scholarship, initiated by Acler, and once again, he said “yes”.

Although his experience was limited to a semester of costume design in high school, Damien had seen some fashion shows in Cairns and closer to home at AGSA’s Tarnanthi festival, and was following the career of First Nations designer, Paul McCann.

“Aboriginal fashion is becoming more and more well-known and I felt it was something I could do. I could give it a go.”

TAFE SA’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Fashion Scholarship recipient Damien Ralphs at work at Acler.

Damien was accepted earlier this year and ever since, he’s been spending much of his time with his head down at TAFE SA and then one day a week, he interns with Acler to get some hands-on industry learning.

“I didn’t know we had this fashion house here in Adelaide. I’d been to Whitmore Square so many times picking up people and dropping them off at the sobering up unit less than 100 metres from this amazing place that I never knew existed.

“There are racks and racks of beautiful clothing and it was incredible being able to walk around and touch everything. From then to now, everyone has been completely open, they’re always willing to explain things in depth. They’re so open with their time.”

Reflecting on all the roads he’s travelled, Damien says it all stems from this love of learning, which is also an integral part of his culture.

“We always say Aboriginal culture is a living, breathing culture. It’s continually evolving and growing and we’re always re-teaching, so education has always been really important to me.

“The more knowledge you have, the more power you have and the more opportunities open up through education.

“It doesn’t mean you have to follow that path through to the end. Sometimes it takes trying something to know you’re just not interested in it. Every time you pick something up, it leads you in another direction.”


This article first appeared in the August 2023 issue of SALIFE magazine.

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