You will find the retail face of The Social Outfit in the inner-Sydney suburb of Newtown. But behind the shopfront showcasing vibrant and highly individual clothing is a successful social enterprise that employs and trains people from refugee and new migrant communities in all aspects of the fashion industry. Ligature Journal spoke with Eloise Rapp, a multi-talented designer who works with the Social Outfit, about the project she created and ran that exemplifies their approach to designing for good.

I first discovered The Social Studio, the older sister of The Social Outfit, when I was living in Melbourne five years ago. I thought, ‘I can support these guys!’. It was at a time when I was starting to make the move out of the commercial fashion industry as I had become disheartened by the ethical bankruptcy that seemed to be so prevalent.

I moved back up to Sydney, and was working for Ken Done when the opportunity came up for him to collaborate with The Social Outfit, which had opened in Sydney in 2014. They approached a few people, including Linda Jackson and Celia Morris of Dragstar, to contribute designs to celebrate their first birthday. I put together a textile print for them to use, on behalf of Ken. That is how I first became involved with Jackie Ruddock and the Social Outfit.

I went on to contribute some textile prints of my own, prints from my archive that I had never had a chance to use. I started doing the odd bit of volunteer work for them, then became more involved with their design projects. About six or so months ago, it became possible for me to start working for The Social Outfit two days a week, helping them with sales, marketing and creative project management. Essentially, this means that I am helping them to grow and continue as a sustainable business. The Social Outfit is a social training enterprise, so our aim is to generate most of our revenue from sales in the shop. We don’t want to have to rely so heavily on grants and funding, as that is a very unstable platform on which to build a thriving business.

We’ve been really lucky so far, but we are continuing to work to create an even stronger collection. We are working with some really amazing designers from the community, and with new Australian designers, as well as with other creative professionals who want to support us. This is a very exciting place for me to be in.
Obviously, funding is still very important in allowing us to do what we do. Part of the funding we received last year from the Ian Potter Foundation was tied to doing community workshops. This is something we are very committed to doing, as often as we can, as it helps generate interest within the younger part of the community in what we do. I designed an art workshop focusing on my strength, digital print design, specifically for Fairfield High School.

Jackie and a couple of other people on the team had worked with Fairfield before, running a six week sewing workshop, so we already had a really good relationship with them.

Fairfield has one of the largest intakes of refugee and migrant kids in Sydney. Their Intensive English Centre (IEC) looks after the kids that are really new to Australia, as learning English is the most important thing for them to master first — it helps the kids to integrate more safely and comfortably into the wider community. The IEC at Fairfield provides a strong support base not only for the students but for their parents also.

Their teachers are fantastic. They have dedicated English teachers, but also teachers (like me) who come in to offer welfare programs with them, visiting lecturers and other professionals, even members of the police force, who come to teach various things. It is really important the kids get as many opportunities as the high school can provide. They may only be there for a semester and then have to move to another school, or the programs change. Because of this instability, it is nice for them to get these discrete blocks of study to explore artistic work or learn a new sport, do something like capoeira! It gives them a lot of different input that they can use to begin to explore their own potential.

A lot of the kids I worked with have come from not great circumstances, they’ve possibly not been in Australia for very long at all and come from a lot of different backgrounds. There are a lot from Syria, a few from Iraq and Central America — it is a real mix. Given their circumstances, the length of time I have available to teach them, and the supplies and equipment available, I kept the course content fairly simple. They each worked on a personal art piece using collage, which we were able to exhibit. Then I developed those artworks up into a textile print which was part of the Social Outfit’s mid-year textile release.

Given more time and more resources, I would have loved to teach the kids computing skills. But you can’t assume that they will always have access to the technology, particularly the design software. So I think it more interesting and directly applicable to their lives to help them develop their artistic skills and personal style. For a lot of them, there hasn’t necessarily been an opportunity for them to be expressive like that. And they are producing something tangible and usable within the time we have.

The most important thing for us is that these students, and the other people who come through The Social Outfit, gain a sense of belonging and pride in their own work, through building their own skills. I believe that the key to walking through life with your head held high is a feeling of confidence in yourself. For many people that confidence comes through their work. But for a lot of other people, where they have come from means it is hard to gain that confidence. So when they can tangibly achieve something through a block of simple, skills-based learning, that means a lot.

And it means a lot to me. I would never have had the opportunity to do something like this if it wasn’t for the Social Outfit. My skills fit in well with what they asked me to do – I had taught English to school kids overseas and am teaching a design elective at UTS. The students were really engaged and interested, and really keen to practice their English. It has been a really lovely six weeks.

Behind the Social Outfit first appeared in Ligature Journal issue two. Find out more about this issue here and buy a copy Tiliqua Press store.