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Inside Retail Weekly: What’s The Social Studio about and how does it work?
Bonnie Mooney: We are part-educator, part-retailer, part-production house and all about people. Our not-for-profit social enterprise uses fashion and creativity as a cultural connector to create work and learning opportunities for Melbourne’s refugee and new migrant communities. We empower young people from migrant and refugee backgrounds to design their own futures by providing fashion- and industry-based solutions to the main barriers they face upon arriving in our community: unemployment, isolation and difficulties accessing education and training. We do this by creating jobs, providing education opportunities, encouraging community engagement and fostering social inclusion.
We also offer a pre-accredited sewing course, workshops, paid traineeships, work experience opportunities and internships. Since opening our doors in 2009, we’ve empowered more than 780 youth to expand their fashion industry skills through our RMIT-accredited TAFE training and employment programs (with an impressive 96 per cent completion rate), while offering employment opportunities in both education and our in-house production studio and label. Eighty-nine per cent of graduating students obtain ongoing employment or move onto further study once they leave our doors. And many find work within them, too.
Currently, 100 per cent of our school team come from refugee and new migrant backgrounds, some are even past students who have become teachers themselves through our vocational training programs. The part-time course is open to anyone who comes from a refugee or new migrant background and is fully funded by The Social Studio, so it’s completely free for our students.
Everything we produce at our Collingwood studio – from client orders to our own sustainable label – is manufactured to Ethical Clothing Australia standards to minimise environmental impact. The Studio creates high-quality, sustainable clothing for our in-house label and the local fashion industry. Our supply chain is transparent. Our approach is to work closely with our clients to educate and encourage more sustainable choices and practices, like using materials saved from landfill and donated by the industry to be upcycled. The operation also creates work experience and internships to help uplift and upskill our students, and all profit is invested right back into our community. And, because our ecosystem is designed to empower our community, we’re proud to say that 80 per cent of our staff also come from refugee and new migrant backgrounds, bringing their unique skills and culture to the cutting table.
In our community, we’ve supported our neighbours through helping incubate similar social enterprises, like The Social Outfit in Sydney and Twich Women’s Sewing Cooperative in Dandenong. We’ve also collaborated with hundreds of established and emerging designers, artists and events, including: Ken Done, Linda Jackson, Romance Was Born, Beci Orpin, Alpha60 and Virgin Australia Melbourne Fashion Festival.
IRW: How does The Social Studio make money and where does it go?
BM: Self-generated revenue comes via our production studio and retail store, which includes our in-house designed and produced label. Creative and collaborative projects help raise funds, such as last year’s Art Scarf Fundraising Campaign and the Kuwaii x Ken Done x TSS collection.
We also receive external funding, philanthropy and donations. Thanks to the support we receive through our philanthropic funding and social enterprise activities, all of our education and work experience programs are provided free of charge. Donations also help us to continue offering paid traineeships and the ability to employee migrant and refugee youth.
IRW: What are some of the challenges of running a social enterprise in general?
BM: Avoiding mission drift! It’s a typical problem for social enterprises – balancing our focus on our purpose and mission while also being self-sustaining. We balance this by measuring success, not so much by revenue generated through our social enterprise arms, but by the opportunities we create for refugee and new migrant youth such as jobs, internships, collaborations or mentorships.
IRW: In what capacity can retailers help The Social Studio out?
BM: We do a lot of collaborations with retailers and labels that may have their own stores. For example, we collaborated with Kuwaii, a Melbourne-based label, and we produced a collection for them which featured Ken Done’s iconic artwork. Some brands might produce offshore and are interested in doing more local production, so we take on orders for them. In that sense, that gives our staff opportunities and work.
There are great opportunities for retailers who can offer internships or work experience opportunities for our students. It might be something as simple as getting our students to spend a day in their design studio. Or if we’ve got a student who we think is particularly talented and wants to push things further, maybe they could get an internship with a retailer. In the past, our students have been taken on tours of Kookai’s production studios. Nobody Denim has hired our graduates, including their current production manager! In addition, Nobody has also supported The Social Studio through the i=Change giving platform.
Our in-house label is only made with donated fabrics and there’s no budget for us to pick and choose what we want. We only make products with what we’re given. A lot of brands have amazing supplies sitting around that they’ll never use that might be excess or dead stock – we can often repurpose those for our own label or our students can use them at school. We’re always open to donations.
We have so many projects we do in conjunction with brands and labels. We can also design and produce things like uniforms. In 2019, we collaborated with cultural- and community-focused M-Pavilion, to produce their seasonal uniforms.
IRW: Do you think customers have become more aware of social enterprises and how they operate?
BM: They absolutely have. In more recent years, due to the horrors of fast fashion being exposed around the world, consumers are expecting more transparency and demanding to know more about where their clothes are made.
Consumers also want to invest in ethical and sustainable fashion through movements like the ‘I Made Your Clothes’ campaign during Fashion Revolution Week. Through this public desire and shift, our organisation has subsequently been flagged and featured as an option for consumers to look at, work with and buy from.
In response to the ongoing Covid-19 crisis, The Social Studio has safely redirected our manufacturing efforts towards producing scrubs for our heroic healthcare workers and DHHS-compliant reusable cloth facemasks for our community – all at cost price. Choosing to be involved in this response has brought about a new audience for the studio and shown the greater community the positive potential of a social enterprise. Our first run of facemasks sold out online within 20 minutes!
I would also say that the recent Black Lives Matter movement has shone a light on social enterprises, like our own, which strive to welcome marginalised communities with open arms – this is the future we want to see and what should be the norm. We hope to change public perceptions of the migrant and refugee experience through what we do. Consumers want to support and align with social enterprises and know that their money is doing good.
IRW: How do you guys communicate the purpose of the business with customers?
BM: Other than social media, we showcase the talents of refugee and new migrant youth through participating in public events like Melbourne Fashion Week and also collaborating with established artists, designers and labels to engage and reach a different audience. We connect with the community and integrate our talent.
Our branding and mission messaging is woven through everything we do, participate in and make. We stay true to our mission. An example of this is our new e-commerce platform, which is focused on stocking labels and brands owned and run by creatives from diverse and multicultural backgrounds.
IRW: Tell me about what The Social Studio did during Refugee Week.
BM: Ordinarily, The Social Studio would have loved to put on a large event to celebrate Refugee Week, however due to Covid-19 restrictions, we instead shared stories of culture and through our social media channels: Contributors included, Olana Janfa, a previous collaboration artist; Nyadol Nyuon, our ambassador; and Fiona, one of our wonderful teachers!
IRW: What have been some of the interesting things you’ve learned in your time at The Social Studio?
BM: I’ve been with The Social Studio since August, when I started in a volunteer capacity and now I’m a creative director. I feel like I have creative skills that I’ve been able to exchange for other creative skills that I never would have known about through really amazing cultural crafts some of the women and men have taught me. That cultural connection and those learnings have been really interesting to me.
For example, one of our students creates woven huts inside her house – that’s what she lived in when she was growing up. She’s an amazing weaver and she has a hut here in Melbourne, too. From the outside, the huts are made from natural materials like grass but on the inside, they’re so colourful and filled with amazing African wax-printed fabrics. So much of it has been about learning, listening, sharing stories, images, craft and ideas.
IRW: What is in your plans for The Social Studio in the coming year?
BM: There are so many exciting creative projects planned for the year ahead. We’ve just moved into our new home at the Collingwood Yards, which is a part of the greater Collingwood Arts Precinct, a brand-new hub for creativity, community and culture. We will be sharing the grounds and corridors with like-minded creatives, independent organisations and other not-for-profits.
This month, we’ve revealed our rebrand and new website and in September, we are relaunching our in-house manufactured label. The pieces are made exclusively from deadstock and surplus fabric that have been donated to us over the years. These are classic, transpersonal styles. Sales from the collection are directed right back into the studio.
We are also launching a new e-commerce site. Our mission for the retail arm of The Social Studio is to have a space that celebrates fashion, accessories, homewares and apothecary brands run by creatives from diverse and multicultural backgrounds. Secondary to this is the importance of including ethical and sustainable brands. We feel this portal or experience doesn’t exist within Australia, and given the studio’s longstanding values and mission, it makes sense that we lead this! Every product sold at The Social Studio directly generates funds for our education and training programs – making a difference in the lives of our community with every purchase.
We can see our manufacturing arm expanding and taking on more clients and bigger orders with the hope to also employ more makers from refugee and migrant backgrounds.
Our greater vision is grand, but simple. We see a future where welcoming marginalised communities into mainstream society with open arms is the norm. We’ve formed a safe place of belonging and a dynamic hub for creative development, helping our new neighbours build professional and social networks in the process. We’re here to provide a place of belonging and to change public perceptions of the migrant and refugee experience.