Ed became my apprentice on site and we just hit it off. But there was an event that was a turning point for us – when I lost one of my best mates to suicide in 2015. For both of us, it was our first experience, both directly and indirectly, around suicide and mental health. I went through the range of emotions, processing that. Ed was really my number one support network, the most solid shoulder for me to lean on. The lack of understanding and education and the culture around mental health was a huge eye opener for us.
When we were on site together, we were always asking questions like, ‘What would you do if you won the lotto?’ and ‘What business would you like to start?’ We always talked about this idea of funky workwear so we could wear something different onsite. Being the two characters that we are, we just really wanted to express ourselves on the residential construction sites and have some flair about in our get-up. We didn’t have a clue about how to make workwear. We could build houses, but we couldn’t sell a shirt.
We started to explore the idea and we were introduced to this concept of using profit for purpose and social enterprise and using business to make a positive impact. Given what we both went through when I lost my mate, the mental health and funky workwear components started to come together and the idea clicked. Trademutt is a funky brand, using eye-catching workwear to spark conversations about mental health on construction sites around the country and to make an invisible issue impossible to ignore.
We started that on 15 March in 2018 and we’ve just turned four. We’ve evolved from just being a conversation-starting workwear brand to now being a full stack, workwear and uniform procurement supplier. We’ve gone from starting a few conversations to now being able to fortify our workwear business to meet the needs of companies all around Australia and make a range of social impacts right through our supply chain.
IR: That’s so inspiring. I’ve seen your T-shirts that say, ‘This is a Conversation Starter’ at the back of them. Can you tell me about that?
ER: When we first started, we were with an existing charitable organisation, but it just wasn’t working out, so we acquired the branding of the charity and started our own nonprofit This is a Conversation Starter (TIACS), which is a free text and call service to mental health clinicians Monday to Friday, 8am to 10pm. We knew there was sort of a major lack of accessible, early intervention and mental health support in this country.
We’ve got the TIACS Alliance, a subscription-based funding model for organisations like Trademutt. We’ve signed up, we fund one full-time mental health counsellor ourselves at a cost of $120,000 a year. We also work with Send Able, our third party logistics company. We’ve been able to do over 20,000 hours of disability employment since working with those guys, which is really cool.
This year, one of our goals is to get a carbon neutral proposal in place as well as a garment recycling program, so when a garment is at end of life, we can take it back, upcycle into something else, and remove it from going straight into landfill.
IR: Let’s talk about the workwear industry. How would you describe the traditional workwear category?
ER: Stale and fucking boring. It has not changed in 50 years. I actually think there was a really big play when the mining boom happened 15 years ago. There were a lot of people who came into workwear, trying to exploit the mining boom. And I think that a lot of the way people were operating in that space has carried through and it hasn’t really been updated. We’re obviously really driven to create great experiences for our customers, making it a really easy procurement process. We’re not perfect, but we’re continually trying to improve that process so it’s easier for people to get their workwear, but also have a garment that’s up to what they require. We’re working with the National Association of Women in Construction at the moment to ensure that all of our women’s garments are specific to industry and what they require, rather than [being] two blokes thinking that we know what women need.
There probably hasn’t been too much fun had in the workwear space for a very long time: ‘Every six to 12 months, I need more workwear, where do I go? I go in-store, get a quote – ordered, embroidered and sent out.’ Whereas we want to make that a far more enjoyable experience. We want people to look forward to their new workwear run every six to 12 months, where they come down here, check out the new catalogue and how we can really help them not only start conversations with their staff, community and customer base [about mental health], but also how their staff can have pride in the product that they’re being delivered. So when they rock up to work every day, they enjoy the product that they’re in, it’s hard-wearing and long lasting. We really want to just shake the shit out of this really boring stale market that hasn’t had too much disruption for a very long time.
IR: Tell me about how your experiences as tradies have helped shape Trademutt.
DA: We wouldn’t be able to do this without that experience, to be honest. If we were a couple of blokes that were, you know, computer programmers that wanted to do shirts for tradies, we would have gotten laughed off site. It’s allowed us to just speak the language of our audience, it’s just allowed us to speak ‘tradie’. And it’s given us authenticity and relatability, for people to actually get on board. It’s a cornerstone of our story that people resonate with. And without that, there’d be nothing.
In terms of the product, that insight we have as tradies has allowed us to bring a different approach to the fashion and design side of our garments. We and every other tradie out there is hellbent on quality workwear and they look at different parts of garments for their different functionality and usability factors, through quite a critical lens.
IR: What’s it been like trying to talk to blokey tradies about mental health? Have you had much pushback from them?
DA: We’ve intentionally taken more of a fun and light-hearted approach, because in our observation, that’s probably what’s needed to change attitudes and perceptions. We’ve had great impact doing that. And I suppose that’s why we’re fortunate enough to be celebrating our fourth business birthday, because it has worked.
Probably the hardest part has been that once you start something like this and you get a lot of attention, there are always going to be people who are sceptical: ‘What’s a work shirt going to do? or ‘Are these two blokes just profiting off mental health?’ People also expect quite a bit from you and want you to be everything to everyone and that’s really challenging. I think a lot of people don’t really understand the true gravity of what it takes to run two organisations like this. It’s so easy to get distracted and try to be everything to everyone. But I suppose it’s about learning to say ‘no’ and really understanding what’s mission- and business-critical to be able to grow this thing and turn it into a lifelong sustainable organisation that creates real impact.
It’s about just navigating your way through [those challenges], understanding who your community is, your support and the people around you. And also understanding that you can’t be everything to everyone, but the little bit that we can do can be just as powerful as anything else out there.