Q&A: An Intersection of Art, Fashion, and Heritage with Ruth Juwa Dradi
Celebrating Cultural Roots and Sustainable Artistry in Fashion Design

In this month's fashion spotlight, we delve into the world of Ruth Juwa Dradi, an Australian marvel with roots deeply embedded in Ugandan and South Sudanese culture. Ruth stands out not just for her striking appearance but for her dynamic presence and refined elegance that light up our editorial. A spontaneous chat on set unveiled her intriguing story, revealing Ruth as a polymath in the creative world. Beyond her work as a fashion model and content creator, she's an artist and designer with significant contributions to the beauty industry, particularly in hair styling and makeup.

From her early years, Ruth was immersed in the arts, learning crochet and embroidery under her mother's guidance in their family business. This foundational experience propelled her to establish RJDradi, her brand that marries art with fashion. RJDradi is renowned for its exquisite, handmade jewelry, clothing, and accessories, each piece echoing Ruth's artistic vision. Her work, deeply inspired by her African heritage and spiritual voyage, seeks to break down societal norms and foster conversations that celebrate our collective human narrative.

Ruth believes in the transformative power of wearable art as a medium for personal expression. Her commitment to sustainability shines through her brand, with each product being handcrafted from new or up-cycled materials. This eco-conscious approach reflects a broader cultural value of reusing and recycling.

Join us in this personal Q&A as we explore Ruth's unique fusion of art and fashion, a testament to identity and heritage.

How have your Ugandan and South Sudanese heritage influenced your approach to fashion and art?

As a Ugandan and South Sudanese Fashion Model, I am committed to being a representative within the fashion industry to inspire society to push outside the limitations unapologetically. The industry can be challenging for someone with my heritage. Therefore, my life experiences influence how I navigate my career. I strive always to be a voice for action where change is needed within the fashion and art industry. 

My approach is always to celebrate myself and my uniqueness first and foremost. I want to share some of this with the world, so I created a label that celebrates my African culture but, most importantly, my love for fashion and arts & crafts—highlighting my heritage through some beautiful beaded jewellery while my illustrations capture the beauty of and culture of my blackness. My culture is vibrant, bold & bright. I try to sprinkle this on my own personal style whenever I can.

Could you share a memorable story from your childhood that sparked your interest in crochet and embroidery?

Growing up, my mother often enlisted my help with her creative projects for her business in African print clothing and accessories, where I mainly assisted with crochet and embroidery tasks. She would have me sketch or trace nature-inspired designs—birds and flowers, in particular—onto large bed sheets, which she would then embroider by hand. I contributed to small sections, honing my skills in the process. Additionally, she crafted crochet designs known as 'futa,' commonly used in African households to adorn sofas and couches, infusing our home with vibrant patterns and colours.

Art and design captured my interest early on, becoming my favourite subjects in school. Yet, it wasn't until 2018, long after I had grown into adulthood, that I revisited embroidery and crochet, surprised to find the skills quickly returning to me, aided by a few YouTube tutorials. This rekindled passion led me to follow in my mother's footsteps as an artist and designer, weaving the threads of creativity and cultural heritage into the fabric of my own brand.

A recent visit back to Adelaide, the place of my upbringing, brought these themes full circle. My mother, dissatisfied with a new clothing design she was working on, passed it to me unfinished, suggesting I could alter it to my liking. This gesture reinforced our shared commitment to handmade craftsmanship and served as a vivid reminder of the creative legacy deeply rooted in our family.

Balancing multiple creative roles can be challenging. How do you manage your time and energy across your diverse roles as an artist, designer, model, and content creator?

Initially, the lack of clear direction posed a challenge, a common issue among young creatives. However, over time, my creative projects began to naturally shape my lifestyle. Now, I approach each role with clear intention, finding that modelling and content creation open numerous doors and allow me to seamlessly integrate art with fashion.

Balancing my online store with personal art projects helps me avoid financial pressure, allowing me to focus on stable roles like modelling. I value each role for its unique contribution, prioritising tasks based on necessity. I've adopted a "work smart, not hard" approach, emphasising the importance of free time for rest, reconnection with nature, and rejuvenation. This strategy helps preserve my energy and creativity across all my endeavours.

In what ways do you integrate elements of your African cultural background and spiritual beliefs into your designs?

Beaded jewellery, including waist beads, anklets, and bracelets, is a cornerstone of my African heritage. These sacred adornments serve as a conduit to my ancestors, enriching my spiritual beliefs and influencing the names of my designs. For instance, my 'White Nile' beaded ring is a tribute to the iconic river that flows through my homeland. Despite migrating to Australia as a refugee at seven, and now at 29, I've yet to return. Nonetheless, my culture remains a vital part of me, guiding my creativity and keeping me connected to my roots, as I eagerly await the day I can revisit my country.

What do you see as the role of wearable art in today's fashion landscape?

Wearable art is revolutionising the fashion industry, which increasingly seems to be at a crossroads, grappling with a lack of new ideas. Many brands, particularly in fast fashion, are merely recycling old designs with slight modifications, even as we witness the revival of past fashion eras.

My approach to wearable art injects vibrancy into this somewhat stagnant landscape. Rather than launching another brand offering basic apparel, I choose to unleash my creativity, crafting pieces that blend artistry with wearability. This concept isn't just a personal venture; established brands are beginning to embrace the fusion of art and fashion, inspired by emerging artists. The growing interest in wearable art signals its important role and a demand within the contemporary fashion scene.

Sustainability is a key aspect of your brand. How do you balance environmental responsibility with maintaining style and uniqueness in your products?

In many ethnic households, the practice of repurposing items like cookie jars and ice cream containers into sewing kits or storage for frozen veggies is a familiar one. Growing up, I often experienced the mix of disappointment and surprise when reaching for cookies or ice cream, only to find sewing supplies or vegetables. Yet, this early lesson in recycling and reusing has profoundly influenced my lifestyle and brand philosophy.

Although there's always room for improvement in sustainability, I'm committed to doing my part, however small it may seem. My affinity for handmade products aligns with my brand's focus on slow fashion and environmental awareness, allowing me to carefully consider the lifecycle of each product we create to minimise our impact on landfills.

Educating myself on the environmental impacts of fashion drives me to source secondhand materials for my products, ensuring that my brand not only recycles but also maintains a unique and stylish edge through upcycling. This approach not only keeps me accountable but also proves that sustainability doesn't have to compromise on style or uniqueness.

What advice would you give to young artists and designers who are drawing inspiration from their diverse cultural backgrounds?

Never allow your culture to be seen as a hindrance. Embrace your unique differences as sources of inspiration and motivation, using them to fuel your creative expression. The world might challenge you, tempting you to conform to perceived creative norms, but resist this pressure. Remain authentic to who you are, regardless of the obstacles you encounter.

Looking forward, what are some of the creative goals or projects you're most excited about exploring in the future?

Reflecting on my artistic journey, I've experienced thrilling collaborations, such as painting the window for Sportsgirl's 2023 shoot at their Chadstone store in Melbourne. Looking ahead, I aspire to engage in more partnerships, especially those that incorporate my illustrations into limited edition collections of clothing and accessories. Additionally, I'm excited about a current project—a short film that captures my artistic path. I'm also in the process of securing a visa sponsorship to expand my career into international fashion modelling in the USA.

With the season changing, what are some of your favourite transitional wardrobe pieces, and why do they resonate with you?

Living in Melbourne doesn't leave much room for fashion to be predictable with the weather constantly changing, and I find myself wearing the same items of clothing from summer to winter these days. In the past year specifically, I've noticed a significant shift in the fact that the weather is so unpredictable that I still need to pack away my winter clothes from last season. I've occasionally pulled out my bikini for the odd sunny day, but if I'm being completely honest, oversized jackets have been making an appearance every season for me. 

Lucky for me, I love winter fashion, so I'm not mad about it whenever I need to pull out my puffer jacket. 

As we transition into cooler weather in Melbourne, could you share a skincare tip?

My only skincare tip is to moisturise head to toe daily. Thank me later ; )

Maria Ugrinovski

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Q&A: An Intersection of Art, Fashion, and Heritage with Ruth Juwa Dradi