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Fashion forward:

The Social Studio in Melbourne uses upcycled fashion as a vehicle for social change

This article appeared in Dumbo Feather Issue 31, second quarter 2012

November, 2009. A small shop opens its doors on Smith Street in Collingwood, Melbourne. It looks like any other inner north-eastern fashion store; men’s and women’s clothing hangs in elegant folds from racks. Music spills from speakers, and there’s a tiny cafe serving coffee and handmade food.

But it’s a little different. The clothes are designed and made on site from excess manufacturing materials sourced locally, for a start. The food is mostly African, and it’s not a business as such, but a non-profit social enterprise called The Social Studio that uses up-cycled fashion to prepare former refugees for careers in fashion, retail and hospitality. They’re here now, young people from countries like Eritrea, Afghanistan, Somalia and Sudan, cutting and folding and sewing their visions into reality.

The idea for The Social Studio came about less than a year earlier, when a tight knit team of community workers, fashion designers and professionals spotted a rift in the social fabric, and set about pulling the threads together.

“The Melbourne fashion industry is not very multicultural,” says The Studio’s Founder and CEO Grace McQuilten. ”Melbourne is known as a place to go for international cuisine, but fashion? It hasn't happened to the extent that we’d like.”

“We're missing out as an industry, not to embrace people who might have a totally different way of designing a dress,” she continues. “Young people – particularly young African people – love fashion, so why not create an opportunity for them to train and develop skills in this area?”

Now, two and a half years since its launch, and The Social Studio has been expanding. It’s been knocking down walls. More than 100 newly arrived people have been involved in its programs. Clothing designer Mariana Hardwick and news presenter Lee Lee Chin are both big supporters. It’s had sell out shows in Melbourne Fashion Week, created pop up shops, produced vibrant bi-annual collections, and facilitated industry employment for around 25 people. Soon, it will soon launch a digital textile print service.

It is the only enterprise of its kind in Australia, and it’s a resounding success – but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Balancing the books with its methods and overarching social aims is an ongoing challenge.

Like its design ethos, The Social Studio’s approach to decision-making within the business is collaborative. Staff and students make decisions together; no one person has final say. An emphasis on people over profit permeates its teaching philosophy, too.

“We don't care if it takes someone 18 months to complete what should take six months; as long as that person is engaged and involved in doing what suits them,” says General Manager Trudy Hairs.

The Social Studio’s retail arm and cafe are self-sustaining, but the school costs money – more than Grace and Trudy reckon it will ever make. “Because we’re a social enterprise, there's a public perception that we're going to be self-sufficient within three years,” explains Trudy. “Every small business owes money to the bank. Why do we have to be different? Why do we have to be self-sufficient within three years?”

The Social Studio’s evolution is a combination of good planning, opportunism, and empowerment. Trudy tells of a trainee designer, Abuk, who is leading a group of women from her South Sudanese community to establish a sewing co-op in Dandenong. Then there’s a young woman called Po, with plans to set up her own modelling agency for African women.

“We know we're having an impact when we see people reaching a tipping level of confidence, when we see them believe in themselves and their skills,” smiles Grace. “We hold that kind of achievement very dear.”