A social enterprise that sells cool T-shirts with a message, Clothing the Gap aims to create better relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians and raise awareness of the issues of First Nations people. We chat with co-founder Laura Thompson and chief creative officer Sianna Catullo about the impact Black Lives Matter had on the business and its plans for the future.
Inside Retail Weekly: What’s Clothing The Gap about and how did it begin?
Laura Thompson: Clothing The Gap is an Aboriginal-owned-and-led social enterprise using fashion to make social change. Before Clothing The Gap became its own brand, we were actually a clothing label of a health promotion company called Spark Health. Initially, we created merchandise as an incentive to encourage Aboriginal people to participate in our health and wellbeing programs. For example, if people came to six out of eight sessions, they received a piece of merchandise that reinforced their cultural identity and celebrated Aboriginal culture. The only way for people to get the piece of merch was to come to the program.
Sianna Catullo: As we grew, more people wanted to wear the clothes. We knew that if we could sell enough clothing [as a business], we could self-determine health and education programs for Aboriginal communities without relying on government funding. This social enterprise model meant that we could independently design and deliver health outcomes for Aboriginal communities, no strings attached.
To run a sustainable business model and to achieve our goals of self-funding programs for the Aboriginal community, it was important to us that the people purchasing from Clothing The Gap included non-Indigenous people too. We invite non-Indigenous people to support us by wearing our clothes, celebrating Aboriginal culture and educating themselves further in this space.
We’ve found a really nice medium between statement and minimalist designs, and it’s gone really well. We have our OG range, which is a simple statement Clothing The Gap tee, and then we have our Always Was range, which is louder and prouder.
LT: We create our products with our mob in our heart and everyone in our mind and remain true to our brand values that are to advocate, educate, elevate and motivate people for social change.
We pride ourselves on creating products that represent Aboriginal people and their views. For us, it’s so important that we don’t “sell out” just to sell tees to more people.
IRW: What’s in the Clothing The Gap product range?
LT: We’ve got a whole lot of tees. The “Always Was, Always Will Be” statement tee by Carla Scotto is our most popular one. We have NAIDOC themed beanies, plus tote bags, hoodies and sweat towels. We create merch with meaning — our tees are conversation starters. They are so much more than just a wardrobe staple.
IRW: Your business has also been undergoing some huge growth lately. Tell us about that.
SC: When coronavirus hit, we knew engaging and educational social media content would become more important because people were spending so much more time on their phones. Essentially, as a growing brand, we spend a lot of time ensuring our platform elevates real issues and real people. Using our social media to advocate for change is a key pillar of what we do.
We put a lot of time and effort into educating our supporters about the Aboriginal flag copyright issue through the #FreeTheFlag campaign that we have been leading for more than 12 months.
We shared resources in response to the Black Lives Matter movement and discussed the difference between genuine and performative allyship. We encourage our followers to actively support and act, not just to support when it’s trending on social media. We also used this time as an opportunity to motivate people to be physically active during isolation and organised our first virtual run-walk event called RunRona.
IRW: How did RunRona work?
LT: We had 4500 people sign up for RunRona, and 20 per cent of the participants identified as being Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander. We are so proud of that. During the event weekend, we were flooded with social media posts of people getting active on Country. The event provided them with the motivation and, of course, Aboriginal-designed race bling! The most beautiful medal ever.
For the first time at Clothing The Gap, we used targeted advertising with a focus on an audience who were interested in running.
SC: This event gave people something to train for and focus on when gyms and fun-run events had been cancelled. This event allowed more people to support our brand, Aboriginal business, and the work we do, without having to buy a tee.
After the success of RunRona, we organised the NAIDOC virtual MARCH | Run to commemorate NAIDOC in July. We are really excited about a third virtual event in this series with the upcoming Connect to Country event on 20-22 November 2020.
IRW: How did the Black Lives Matter impact your business?
SC: Around the world as the Black Lives Matter Movement grew, and protests and conversations increased around Bla(c)k issues, Australians looked to educate themselves on what was happening on home soil. Many people looked to find ways to support Aboriginal people and ways that they too could push for change. We experienced an increase in followers and support during that time. Our brand was something that people could jump onto and support easily by buying our products. But it was also a platform for them to educate themselves and link into other people, causes and movements.
LT: We were overwhelmed with support following the Black Lives Matter Movement, and this meant we were able to employ more Aboriginal people. While the support from our new followers was absolutely welcomed, it was also important we didn’t become a tokenistic brand where, if people want to look like they’ve done their part, they just purchase a tee from Clothing The Gap.
The Black Lives Matter movement reiterated how important it is for our platforms to be used to elevate voices, share educational content and advocate for change.
IRW: A lot of brands were accused of being simply performative when they posted up black social media tiles as part of the #BlackoutTuesday campaign to show solidarity with the community during the Black Lives Matter events. If brands wanted to do something of substance to support Black people, what would you like to see?
SC: During the Black Lives Matter Movement, there were so many brands that want to jump on and do more, some performative and some starting or continuing genuine work. Some of those brands wanted to work with us. It was important to us that we only worked with people and brands who were genuine, already had diversity in their work workplace and with values that aligned with ours.
LT: We look for brand- and values-alignment and ask ourselves, Is there diversity in their workplace? Do they have a Reconciliation Action Plan? Do they support the campaign to Free the Flag that we are leading? Do they celebrate Australia Day? Have they engaged in the Change the Date conversation?
When we started asking those questions of the brands, we knew straight away if the partnership was going to work for us.
IRW: What are some of your plans for the business in the future?
SC: We’re opening a shop. The growth we’ve experienced means we are able to expand into a retail space in Brunswick, Melbourne.
Having a shop increases the visibility of Aboriginal people and business in the streets. It’s exciting knowing that we don’t have to rely on other brands or people to give Aboriginal people the opportunity to be seen or heard. We are doing that ourselves.
This space will also hold our distribution centre for online retail, and we are so excited about this. We are committed to our Aboriginal employment pathways and holding our own distribution chain, rather than outsourcing, means we are able to create more job opportunities for the Aboriginal community and to become a hub of Aboriginal employment in the region.
Using the power of fashion, we will keep choosing to elevate Aboriginal people in our space and show the younger generations that anything is are possible!