Social conscience outfitters
By Alec Smart
The Social Outfit is not your typical high quality clothing manufacturer. Their humble store and creative space at 188 King St Newtown is a beacon of social enterprise and community support.
The fashion label was founded, admirably, with a “goal to manufacture and sell ethical and sustainable quality products that help to financially empower people from refugee and new migrant backgrounds..”
100% of the profits from The Social Outfit’s clothing sales go towards supporting training and employment programs in retail, manufacturing and design for women who arrive here seeking sanctuary or social stability.
Their sustainability-focused clothing collections use remnant fabrics donated by partners in the fashion industry. To date they’ve saved over 7.5 tonnes of fabric from ending up in landfill waste sites.
They also retail unique and wonderful items of clothing, jewellery, accessories, stationery and even colourful face masks.
2042 magazine caught up with The Social Outfit’s CEO, Camilla Schippa, to find out more..
* How did the concept for The Social Outfit enterprise come about?
It developed out of a desire to support refugee women in Australia to have a more positive settlement experience. We were not interested in fashion per se, we were interested in empowering those women who had already been through so much. The data shows that female humanitarian migrants face some of the highest barriers to employment in Australia. And a job is key to a successful path to integration. So we wanted to create a welcoming and supportive environment for them to thrive.
Given so many of our migrant women know how to sew, we thought to start a fashion label, so they could build on their skills. It helps when not everything is new. They already have to learn English, Australian workplace practices, and build their confidence. They bring their great skills and awesome creativity!
* How did you initially begin meeting new arrivals, and finding women from refugee communities who were interested in developing a career in clothing production, retail, design and marketing?
Initially we relied on the refugee settlement agencies. Entities like SSI, MRC or the Asylum Seekers Centre here in Newtown. They would refer their clients to us. Now we are so well known that the women find us themselves! Often they start by joining one of our free classes. Women who like to sew, or have experience in sewing find us, word of mouth works wonders!
* Do the women trained by The Social Outfit have backgrounds in clothes design or retail in their countries of origin?
Yes, they often do, but not always. Some of our sewers have decades of experience sewing in their country of origin, places like Syria, Burma and China. Others have no prior experience but may have joined one of our free classes and showed both passion and talent, so we hire them and train them up. As concerns retail, our Retail Training Program focuses on young new migrants who often come with us with no work experience.
* How long does your Retail Training Program run?
It runs for 3 months. Our wonderful Retail Trainer, Nat, teaches them everything they need to know about retail and after 3 months they are ready for their next job! We support our retail trainees to secure ongoing employment elsewhere. Most of them end up getting another job, and not always in retail. But having had the training and the experience, gives them the confidence they need to move forward.
* Your Earn & Learn collaboration with Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, during which six women were engaged to manufacture maxi tote bags with leftover fabric from a Powerhouse Museum exhibition backdrop – how did this idea come into fruition?
When we visited the Step Into Paradise exhibition at MAAS we couldn’t help but notice the stunning colourful backdrops. So we simply asked what would happen to them once the exhibition was over… and MAAS were kind enough to agree to donate them to us!
* Are there any similar Earn & Learn projects in the pipeline?
We’ve ran other Earn & Learns in the past, we’ve collaborated with Ginger and Smart on the production of a bag sold in their stores, and with the fabulous Nikita Majajas from Doodad & Fandango on a series of one of a kind appliqué dresses. As soon as lockdown lifts, we plan to start another Earn & Learn. We have plenty of ideas and know where to find the women who wish to be paid while being unskilled, so stay tuned!
* Your ‘Quick Mends Lockdown Series’ of video tutorials giving advice on clothing repair, like darning, sewing on buttons and decorative mending with patches, is a great initiative for people stuck indoors under Covid-19 restrictions. What has been the response and what mending advice will you be offering in future videos?
It started as a series of classes aimed for our community of women from refugee and new migrant backgrounds while in lockdown and then we thought, why not offer it to everyone else? If we want to reduce fashion waste we need to encourage everyone to love their clothes and make them last. In the future, we will offer slightly more complex classes to teach how to apply zippers, make pockets etc.
* How do you see The Social Outfit going into the future, in terms of outreach and creative ideas?
We are hoping to continue to expand our activities and be able to run training programs and Earn & Learns in Western Sydney. Last financial year we employed 19 refugee women, a record for us, and we want to keep up the momentum! We can only do this, however, if customers keep supporting us by purchasing our clothes.
* Anything you wish to add?
Covid hasn’t made things easier for us or our community. We hope that those who believe in what we do also understand the power of their choices, and that choosing to shop with us enables us to continue doing this work. We are currently developing new styles that will be Made to Order using fabrics diverted from landfill. There is not much point in filling up a store with clothes that nobody can try on. So we will only make a sample and then manufacture the sizes that are sold. Ethical fashion doesn’t get any better than this, empowering women in need while producing zero waste!
The Social Outfit
188 King St, Newtown
Ph: 9550 3691