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Lenore Dembski: Paperbark Woman
Paperbark woman: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander fashion design

Lenore Dembski is a contemporary Aboriginal fashion designer influencing current trends. Her designs feature textiles designed and produced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and reflect her cultural heritage and contemporary focus.

For almost 30 years Lenore has been designing and manufacturing clothing. Lenore's labels which feature men's, women's and children's clothing suitable for resort, day and evening wear, include:

  • Lenore Dembski Paperbark Woman (women's wear)
  • Oakman (men's wear)
  • Aunty Lenore (children's wear).

The clothing she produces is made using fabric designed by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people. Lenore purchases fabrics from a pool of about twenty designers and organises the manufacture of garments. Lenore is also the owner of a retail outlet, Paperbark Woman.

Lenore Dembski also holds a number of other positions. She is the Manager, Staff Development and Training of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission in Darwin and is a newly appointed member of the Australia Council's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (ATSI) Arts Board. The Board assists Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to "claim, control and enhance their cultural inheritance". (McGauran, 2000: 2)

Lenore Dembski. Courtesy: Lenore Dembski

Paperbark Woman: the history so far
Lenore Dembski was born in Darwin, and with the exception of about four years in the early 1980s, has lived there all her life. Lenore has been married for 24 years to Andrew Dembski. Her family name is Calma.

Lenore Dembski says the Paperbark Woman name comes from her Aboriginal group, the Kungarakan people, who are known as Paperbark people. Oakman comes from her husband's name. Dembski is Polish and means Oaktree. As well as designing and sewing the clothes herself, Lenore also sub-contracts the sewing to several local clothing manufacturers and individuals.

To many locals, Lenore Dembski is known for her public service work in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employment and training area and her involvement with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations. However, she was actually a designer and maker before she even thought about a career in the public service. At high school she was intending to go into the clothing industry and had taken the entrance examination for a Sydney design school. When she was not accepted she arranged an apprenticeship with a local tailor. Her father however, convinced her to stay at school and complete Year 12. On completing school, he suggested she join the public service and sew later. After 25 years, the later came in the year 2000 when she opened her shop.

Sewing as a child
Lenore was taught to sew by her mother when she was about eight. To start with, she made dolls' clothes and costumes for plays put on by her sisters and friends. She began sewing for herself and her brother and sisters by the time she was twelve and started designing, drafting and sewing clothes for other people by the time she was thirteen. Lenore learnt some formal skills in sewing when she did "Sewing" during first year at Darwin High School. Between 15 and 18, Lenore modelled in a number of fashion parades and worked on weekends and school holidays for Woolworths selling all forms of clothing, materials and haberdashery.

By her mid-teens, Lenore knew how to do knitting, crocheting, tatting, beadwork, tapestry, batik, tie dye, macrame, applique, patchwork and various other art and craft activities. She used an Elna SU sewing machine and a Contesser overlocker. She attended a number of short courses put on by Elna in applique and machine embroidery, men's wear, swim wear, lingerie, and stretch materials. In Adelaide in 1982, Lenore did a twelve hour course to learn formal techniques in drafting.
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Lenore formally started her sewing business in 1979 when she moved to Adelaide. She manufactured children's clothes, women's sportswear, lingerie, and curtains for several outlets, designed bridal and after-five wear for individuals and costumes for concerts. On returning to Darwin in 1984, Lenore sewed on a casual basis for family and friends and did a small amount of children's wear for several outlets.

In 1996, to coincide with the Aboriginal Development Unit's project to help promote Aboriginal fabrics to designers and the general public, Lenore started to actively produce resort wear, and evening and glamour wear using Aboriginal fabrics.

Water lily laces
Water lily laces. Photo: courtesy Lenore Dembski.

Fashion awards
In the 1996 Northern Territory (NT) Fashion Awards, as part of a joint venture with three other designers: Paul Rider, Barbara Smith and Katarina Hutcheson, Lenore received second prize in Corporate Wear and Men's Wear using textile designs by Barbara Smith and Katarina Hutcheson.

In the 1998 NT Fashion Awards, Lenore received third prize in Our Territory, Our life style and won the Chief Minister's Award for using the colours of the Northern Territory flag. Both outfits were made using the Snake design by Bede Tungatalum from Tiwi Design.

Snake shirt and shorts
Snake shirt and shorts. Snake design by Bede Tungutalum from Tiwi Design. Shirt and shorts designed by Paperbark Woman. Photo: courtesy Lenore Dembski.

In 1998, Lenore also was runner up in the Australia at its Best category at the Australian Gown of the Year for a string bikini, top and skirt she made using lycra printed in Melbourne, featuring the Rain dreaming pattern from Ali Curung.


In the 1998 Flair Fashion Awards in NSW, Lenore's silk bridal wear, featuring the Body painting design from Tiwi Design, was chosen as one of 125 garments out of a total of 350 entries to be shown on the catwalk.

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1. Briefly identify sources of inspiration for the wedding dress. Explain the links between traditional and contemporary design in the wedding dress.

2. Experiment with some instant body art. Copy a design you have created onto an overhead transparency. Ask someone to trace around your body on a large sheet of paper. Project the image onto the paper - instant body painting. Adjust the image by moving the transparency. Trace the projected image onto the paper. Consider how you could use this exercise to design a garment.

Wedding Body painting dress
Wedding Body painting dress. Features fabric designed by Tiwi Design. Photo: courtesy Lenore Dembski.

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