“OMG HERE I AM thinking what other African designers I can get into this show and I just realised SZN!” – was the abrupt text message Suzan Dlouhy received one afternoon. Many of you might know Suzan as one of the original contributors of HerCanberra, but most of you would know her as designer of local label SZN, which earlier this year showed collections at FASHFEST and Sustainable Threads. Suzan received the Young Designer of the Year award from the Celebration of African Australians Inc.(“Celebrate”) last month. I visited Suzan’s studio to chat about her award, but we got to talking about more than that, about life as a second generation migrant, and about the enormity of getting in touch with your roots.
Suzan is indeed African (to be specific half South African and half Czech, born in Brisbane), and the enigmatic text message was from fellow local African Australian designers Amy Iheakanwa and Shetu Simone of label SheKudo. As it turns out, they were texting Suzan to tell her that she should make herself known to Celebrate, whose annual gala was being held in Canberra this year. Celebrate is a national organisation that celebrates, appreciates and showcases the contributions of African Australians and friends of Africa to Australia’s growth and prosperity. It’s a flow-on from the United Nation’s proclamation of 2011 as the International Year for People of African Descent.
For Suzan, who had lost most of her connections to South Africa growing up, getting involved in the African Australian community may have previously seemed strange. Circumstances were such that Suzan had always identified more with her Czech heritage, having never visited Africa or knew of any of African relatives. It was her brother’s chance encounter on the internet one fateful day a few years ago that finally connected Suzan with her mother’s side of the family. He had been Googling his own name, as you do. Incredibly those relatives had been trying to find Suzan and her siblings for years, and an internet forum—dedicated to finding lost family members—was their last resort. A visit to Africa and meetings with countless lost relatives later, Suzan finally found herself reconnected with roots she thought she’d lost.
The isolation of not having that connection to immediate family and your culture is commonplace in the second generation migrant experience. You live with a conflicted sense of belonging – are you Australian; are you some other ethnicity; are you neither? Having the opportunity to gain that connection is often a life changing experience.
So it was very fitting that when Suzan had finally begun to identify with her African ethnicity, she was being invited to take part in the Celebrate Gala at Parliament house. In what was an absolute whirlwind experience, Suzan relates, she and a number of other African Australian fashion designers pulled together a spectacular fashion show at the Celebrate Gala at short notice, and on the night, much to Suzan’s complete shock, she was presented with the Celebrate Young Designer of the Year award. Other awards on the night were presented to several African Australian legends, superstars and icons. This, importantly, was not just recognition of her achievements as a designer, but of her achievements as a member of the African Australian community. Both were equally significant honours.
So what does the designer of SZN see for the future? Suzan says that her endgame is to have a café-boutique on the beach where she will sell her one-of-a-kind designs, play reggae music and serve good coffee. Sounds pretty much perfect to me.
Look out for SZN designs at September’s Hustle & Scout Market at Nishi, New Acton.