Photography by The Social Outfit, Interview by Ellen Tirant with Jess Parker
The Social Outfit is a social enterprise based in Sydney, Australia providing employment and training opportunities to refugee and new migrant communities. Being more than just a fashion label, The Social Outfit design, produce, market and sell their garments and accessories in Newtown, creating jobs and training in all aspects of fashion production and retail.
From their skills within and teaming up with some amazing artists and creatives, The Social Outfit produce stunning, investment worthy pieces that are made for cherishing.
We caught up with Jess, Retail Manager from The Social Outfit to find out more about what they do and why. Read on to hear all about their true, fashion magic.
What was the inspiration for the creation of The Social Outfit?
The Social Outfit is based on The Social Studio, a social enterprise in Melbourne, Australia which uses fashion as a vehicle to create meaningful social change for Melbourne’s new migrant and refugee community. Our CEO Jackie spent time volunteering with The Social Studio and thought it was such a positive model and a great fit to bring to Sydney. So here we are, almost three years since first opening our doors!
What does The Social Outfit do?
Our shop and workroom are on a busy shopping street in Sydney’s inner city suburb of Newtown, so it would be easy to think we’re a conventional fashion label, like so many of the stores which surround us. However, we’re a fashion label with a difference, and we exist to provide employment and training opportunities for Sydney’s new migrant and refugee community. We believe fashion and creativity can lead to learning and empowerment, and by celebrating the diversity of our community and working from their existing talents, we can build up valuable, lasting skills.
We design, create, sell, and market TSO garments and accessories from our shop and workroom, and in doing so create jobs and training in all aspects of fashion production and retail. We also run a free Sewing School for our community, teaching students who are completely new to sewing or helping them to translate their existing skills to the Australian job market. For some students, sewing classes representing a friendly, inviting place in a new city where they may have a limited social network. For others, it’s a professional launching pad from which they move to external employment, or start up their own micro-businesses sewing in their own communities.
Operating as a social enterprise, what impact does The Social Outfit create?
We’ve reached some really exciting milestones in our first two and a half years of operation. We’ve employed 14 people from the new migrant and refugee community (for 11 of these people, it was their first paid job in Australia). 11 of those employees have since moved into new jobs, and some of our sewing students have moved into paid roles at The Social Outfit. Through our Sewing School, Digital Print Projects, fashion shows and events, over 100 people from our community are involved with our work each year. In addition to these social impacts, our partnerships with the fashion industry have seen us collaborate with over 20 Australian fashion brands, and each year we save approximately one tonne of textile waste from landfill.
What is the story and design process behind The Social Outfit products?
Customers often ask who designs our clothes, to which we reply, ‘everyone!’. We don’t have one head designer, and it’s a truly collaborative process, from idea generation to silhouette development, to designing the surface patterning.
When developing new garments, we aim for relaxed fits and classic shapes, with that little extra something - a fun print, an interesting detail, an unexpected upcycled element. We make clothes for people to wear all year round, and for several seasons, not clothes which are restricted to a passing trend or are too season-specific. We’re all about layering pattern and colour, and investing in pieces you’ll love wearing for years.
Some of the garments in the store have come directly from our training programs, which means their creator gets a commission each time we sell one. A great example of this is our Tashi Jacket, created by our student Tashi. The Tashi jacket keeps evolving each season, sometimes short, sometimes long or with a new sleeve detail, and in drapey silks or structured, cosy wools depending on the time of year.
The Social Outfit has some amazing prints- can tell us about these prints, what inspires them, who designs them, where and how are they are produced?
We’re so proud of our prints, and the story they tell. Each season we collaborate with Australian fashion designers, emerging artists, and our own community to create our hero prints. This has seen us work with the Karen Burmese community, students from Fairfield High School’s Intensive English Class, and artists like Ken Done, Linda Jackson, Andrea Shaw and Eloise Rapp. Our Fairfield High School print - featuring collaged illustrations from several students - is a consistent best-seller: I think people can instinctively see the positive experiences behind it. Sharing the behind-the-scenes print stories with customers is one of my favourite parts of the job.
What fabrics are used in collections and where are they sourced?
Our fabrics come from three main sources. Firstly, about half of the fabric we use is remnant fabric, donated to us by our generous supporters in the fashion industry. This has the dual benefit of diverting waste from landfill and allows us to work with beautiful, high quality fabrics from brands like Carla Zampatti, Seafolly, Alice McCall, Cue, Signature Prints, and Ginger & Smart.
Secondly, our own collaborative prints (digitally printed locally on natural fibres) take centre-stage in store, on garments, accessories and homewares. With these prints we also branch out from what we can make on site, ethically producing items like lampshades, notebooks and greeting cards through local businesses.
Thirdly, we purchase some new fabric to fill in the gaps between donations and to ensure we can offer a consistent range. This also means we can make season-appropriate garments which require quite specific fabric (for example, we don’t often receive donated fabric suitable for structured pants, so we’ve purchased fabric to be able to offer these this winter).
Who produces The Social Outfit products and where are they produced?
Each TSO garment and accessory is made on site, in our Newtown workroom! Our shop and workroom share the same space, so weekday visitors can sneak a peek through the shelving at our production team working away. We also stock a curated range of accessories and clothing from social enterprises we love around the world. This is where Dorsu comes into the picture! At the moment we also stock WEFTshop’s colourful jewellery and accessories, Tabitha Cambodia silk jewellery, and What Daisy Did remnant leather handbags.
What big things can we hope to see from The Social Outfit in the future?
It’s a really exciting time for us, as we prepare for our 3rd birthday celebrations. A new Digital Print Project is currently wrapping up in Merrylands, working with young people from the refugee and new migrant community through creative workshops. Our resulting print design will be released later in the year, along with new collaborative prints from the Burmese Karen community and a yet-to-be-announced Australian fashion label (stay tuned!) We’re looking forward to the future of The Social Outfit and all the great opportunities that will bring: engaging more people from our community and showcasing their creative talents, increasing our employment and training opportunities, and existing as an example of the positive impact social enterprise can have on the global fashion landscape.