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Celebrating + Advocating For First Nations People, With Social Enterprise Clothing The Gaps

Creative People

You’re probably familiar with the t-shirts bearing statements such as ‘Always Was, Always Will Be’; ‘Free The Flag’; and ‘Not The Date Celebrate.’

What you might not know is the story behind this merchandise, created by social enterprise Clothing The Gaps (formerly known as Clothing The Gap).

Co-founded by health professionals Laura Thompson (a Gunditjmara woman), and Sarah Sheridan, Clothing The Gaps supports the health of First Nations peoples through fitness initiatives, funded through sales of their Australian-designed and made merchandise.

Laura and Sarah are also activists who publicly campaign on issues such as free-use of the Aboriginal flag (which you can read more about here). Their work has helped raise awareness of this ongoing matter, leading to a Senate inquiry into copyright and licensing arrangements for the flag design.

Given how quickly Clothing The Gaps has risen to prominence, it’s hard to believe this social enterprise is officially only one year old. We caught up with Laura, Sarah, and their team in their new Brunswick store to hear all about it!

12th March, 2021

Clothing The Gaps co-founders: Gunditjmara woman Laura Thompson (left), and Sarah Sheridan. Photo – Bri Hammond

The social enterprise has recently opened a Brunswick store, in addition to their online store. Photo – Bri Hammond

The social enterprise supports the health of First Nations peoples through fitness initiatives, all of which are funded through sales of their Australian-designed and made merchandise. Photo – Bri Hammond

Their best selling item is the t-shirt designed by climate activist and graphic artist, Carla Scotto. ‘Carla gifted us her ‘Always Was, Always Will Be’ design to use on tees when we had to stop using the Aboriginal flag. The Always Was tee is our best seller while we fight to be able to #FreeTheFlag so we can celebrate it freely again,’ says Laura. Photo – Bri Hammond

Clothing The Gaps is at the forefront of a national debate to ‘free the flag’. Photo – Bri Hammond

There are 22 people on the Clothing The Gaps team, 19 of whom are from the Aboriginal community. Photo – Bri Hammond

‘One thing that we do really encourage people to think about is what else are you doing, beyond wearing the tee? The tee is one part of the puzzle, but it’s far from the complete picture,’ says Laura. Photo – Bri Hammond

Clothing The Gap items are usually designed in-house, and then then made in Thomastown. ‘We have a strong focus on local manufacturing, and we are the first Aboriginal business to be accredited with Ethical Clothing Australia (ECA). This means that all of our Australian made range is ethically created. People often have the idea that if something is made in Australia, that it is done so ethically. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Using the systems of checks and balances provided by ECA means that we are able to ensure that people are protected and valued in our supply chain,’ says Sarah. Photo – Bri Hammond

We have a strong focus on local manufacturing, and we are the first Aboriginal business to be accredited with Ethical Clothing Australia (ECA). This means that all of our Australian made range is ethically created. People often have the idea that if something is made in Australia, that it is done so ethically. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Using the systems of checks and balances provided by ECA means that we are able to ensure that people are protected and valued in our supply chain,’ says Sarah.  Photo – Bri Hammond

Members of the Clothing The Gaps team! Photo – Bri Hammond

Amelia Barnes
Friday 12th March 2021

‘We ask people to continually reflect on opportunities to create conversations and practice anti-racism in their world.’ – Laura Thompson

Clothing The Gaps (formerly known as Clothing The Gap) is a social enterprise supporting the health of First Nations people. 

While the organisation is officially only one year old, co-founders Gunditjmara woman Laura Thompson, and Sarah Sheridan, have been working in the health industry for years.

Laura and Sarah met in 2014 when working at Victorian Aboriginal Health Service (a Community-Controlled health organisation Laura’s grandmother Edna Brown, Aunty Alma Thorpe, and mother Rose Dwyer, helped establish) and the two bonded over their shared passion.

‘We loved working together… Our skill sets were complementary to each other, and most importantly, we were ready for a new challenge,’ says Laura. ‘So, we took a giant leap of faith in stepping out on our own in a new business called Spark Health, which specialised in Aboriginal health promotion.’ 

Clothing The Gaps grew into its own entity in 2020, partially in response to customer demand for merchandise, and partially due to the pandemic. With COVID-19 forcing most of Spark’s face-to-face programs on indefinite pause, Laura and Sarah decided to channel all their energy into this new pursuit.

‘The work of Spark Health has now transitioned into the Clothing The Gaps Foundation, and we can’t wait to see it continue to grow from there,’ says Laura. ‘To think that we now have a foundation that is currently fully funded by the purchases of our supporters is incredible. We are now able to self-determine the impact, with no strings attached.’

With the groundswell of Blak business support over the past year, and a renewed focus on the Black Lives Matter movement globally, it’s been a non-stop year for Clothing The Gaps. In particular, Laura and Sarah were at the forefront of a national debate to ‘free the flag’, leading to a Senate enquiry. They sat down with us to reflect on the journey so far! 

Can you briefly tell us about the work Clothing The Gaps does?

Clothing The Gaps is an Aboriginal-owned and led social enterprise that exists to celebrate, educate, motivate and advocate for change. As a social enterprise, we reinvest back into the sustainability of the business, and directly support our foundation’s work to add years to Aboriginal people’s lives through motivating communities and people to get moving right across the country. 

We know the power of physical activity in creating and maintaining positive physical, mental and spiritual well-being. Regular physical activity is a key protective factor against chronic diseases and can help us to live healthier for longer.  

How has the social enterprise evolved over time? 

We are so stoked to be able to offer a wide range employment opportunities, including entry-level roles, in a really safe and supportive environment. We have a team of 22 people, 19 of whom are Indigenous, working across impact, operations, design, brand, retail, warehousing and distribution. We are so proud of that!

You were featured in the media several times last year with regards to the ‘Free The Flag’ campaign. Where are things at with this issue now, and how do you hope it’s resolved?

Editor’s note: The Aboriginal flag was originally an artwork created by First Nations artist Harold Thomas, which was then flown as a flag in 1971. The artwork was later proclaimed as the official flag of the Aboriginal peoples of Australia in 1995. 

Harold Thomas has always retained the copyright of the flag’s design, which he currently licenses to three companies for commercial use. One of these is the non-Indigenous company WAM Clothing, making them the only company that can sell clothing featuring the Aboriginal flag.

We’ve just wrapped up a great Indigenous Round in the AFLW where we worked with every team to continue to educate and raise the profile of the issue through sport. We know the power of sport in this country to create social and political change, and working alongside teams across codes to use their own platforms has been epic. In 2020, we saw the AFL men’s Indigenous Round stance lead to a Senate inquiry into the use of the Flag. 

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the first flying of the Aboriginal flag, and we are pushing hard to see the flag free to celebrate this incredible milestone birthday. Two simple things you can do to support us are sign and share our online petition, and write to their local MP using our easy letter template

What is the design and manufacturing process of your merchandise?

We love that we are able to hold a majority of the processes in house. This means that we are able to create a whole heap of jobs for Indigenous people under our roof, all the way from idea to impact. 

Our designs start in-house and are directly linked to a campaign impacting the Indigenous community that we want to see elevated through conversations and actions in society. Our merch has a message and tells a story – the #FreeTheFlag tee and associated campaign is a great example of this.

We then work with our local manufacturing team, just a few kilometres down the road in Thomastown to bring these ideas to life. We are accredited as a business through Ethical Clothing Australia and we manufacture Australian made products as much as we can locally to support local industry and reduce our environmental footprint. Caring for Country is really important to us as a team and as a business.

Once the physical product has been created, our legendary warehousing and distribution team based at Sydney Road then fulfil orders and ensure the shop is fully stocked. For many of the staff, it’s their first job and we’ve loved watching them grow and take on new challenges. 

Some of the items you sell are labelled ‘ally friendly’, but not all. What’s the distinction, and why is this important for non-Indigenous people to understand? 

We created the ‘ally friendly’ and ‘Mob only’ logos to make it easier for both our supporters, and us! It helps to clearly and easily communicate which of our pieces are for allies, and which pieces are just for Mob to celebrate. 

We create our products with Mob in our hearts and then everyone else in mind, but sometimes we create something that is culturally specific, that is just for Mob only, for example our ‘Shades of Deadly’ tee which will be released soon!

One thing that we do really encourage people to think about, is what else are you doing, beyond wearing the tee? The tee is one part of the puzzle, but it’s far from the complete picture. We ask people to continually reflect on opportunities to create conversations and practice anti-racism in their world. We all have a role to play in this. 

Do you ever experience activism fatigue? 

Campaigning, advocacy and education are at the core of our brand and it is part of our responsibility to leverage our platform for change. 

Our tees allow us to continue to advocate when we are experiencing activism fatigue. It enables you to wear your values on your tee, and to continue having conversations when your voice is tired.

This is where we need people to see issues that affect Indigenous peoples as issues are not just issues for Indigenous people to address. This heavy workload can’t just rest on the shoulders of a few. 

What are some goals Clothing The Gaps hopes to achieve in the near future?

When thinking about what we hope to see happen in the near future, we are absolutely focused on seeing a free flag this year. We also can’t wait to announce our next virtual run, and officially launch the Clothing The Gaps Foundation.

We are also working on our next drop – it’s full of conversation sparking pieces. We can’t wait to see it out in the world and expand our retail to include wholesaling so more places can stock our conversation starters!

Clothing The Gaps
744 Sydney Road, Brunswick, Victoria
Tuesday-Friday: 11am-6pm
Saturday:  10am-5pm
Sunday-Monday: Closed
clothingthegaps.com.au

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The Design Files acknowledge the traditional custodians of the lands on which we work, the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation. We pay our respects to Elders past and present.

First Nations artists, designers, makers and creative business owners are encouraged to submit their projects for coverage on The Design Files – we would love to hear from you.

Please email us here.