Behind the Seams: Q&A with Clothing the Gaps

Ally Feiam By Ally Feiam | 20 Apr 2022

Clothing the Gaps was one of the finalists in the All Star Bash 2022, nominated as one of the Emerging Online Retailers of the Year. We sat down with Laura Thomson, Co-Founder & CEO, and Sarah Sheridan, Co-Founder & Deputy CEO, to discuss the development of the business, the importance of shopping local and the future of First Nations retail. 

Let’s start at the beginning. What was the driving reason that inspired you to launch Clothing the Gaps?

Let’s be honest, we never set out to establish and launch an Aboriginal fashion label but, we always knew the power of fashion. We used fashion (Aboriginal designed singlets) as an incentive to motivate and retain the Aboriginal Community in our health promotion programs at the Victorian Aboriginal Health Service and then Spark Health before starting Clothing The Gaps. 

We are health promotion practitioners at heart, so creating Clothing The Gaps was a way to independently fund the impact work in a sustainable way that didn’t rely on traditional funding models. 

Clothing The Gaps is a Victorian Aboriginal led, controlled, and majority Aboriginal-owned social enterprise, co-founded by Laura Thompson (Gunditjmara) and Sarah Sheridan (non-Indigenous).

As a social enterprise and newly certified B Corp, we are profit for purpose and use business as a vehicle to self-determine our future through profit, efforts and resources supporting and helping to fund the impactful work of the Clothing The Gaps Foundation

Clothing the Gaps is unlike other retail businesses out there. What are some of the factors that differentiate Clothing the Gaps from other fashion retailers in Australia? 

Some of the things that differentiate Clothing The Gaps from other fashion retailers is that we centre Aboriginal people in the work we do and we are able to unite Indigenous and non-Indigenous people through fashion and a cause.

We also have lots of industry ticks such as being a certified Aboriginal business with Supply Nation and Kinaway Chamber of Commerce. We are also registered with Social Traders as a social enterprise, accredited with B Corporation and are the first know Aboriginal business to hold an Ethical Clothing Australia accreditation. 

We are a hub of Indigenous employment with 81 percent of our staff members being mob. We strive to be a preferred employer for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people actively supporting them to grow and pursue their life goals and ambitions. In just the six months between July-Dec 2021 we generated almost 8,000 hours of employment for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, with 4,992.42 of those hours being for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth (15-24). We can’t wait to see this number grow!

Our recent B Corp accreditation also sets us apart from other retail businesses as our commitment to excellence in ethical, sustainable and regenerative business practices have been measured across the key areas of workers, governance, customers, environment and community. We are so proud to be a B Corp!

Clothing the Gaps is a game-changer | via Clothing the Gaps

The retail industry has undoubtedly been experiencing history-making changes in the last 24 months. What have been some of the most significant changes that Clothing the Gaps has seen over the past year? 

In the last 24 months, throughout the pandemic and rise of the Black Lives Matter movement globally, we saw people consider the power of their purchasing dollar which saw the rise of conscious consumerism and support of locally made brands across the retail sector as well as a groundswell of support for First Nation businesses 

At Clothing The Gaps, we don’t just sell tees we help spark and create conversations, and we dress the people we want to lead them in Community.  We label all our clothes with ‘ally friendly’ or ‘mob only’ which answered a common question in our Instagram DM’s about navigating the space between allyship and appropriation.  The DMs usually go something like this…

“Hi there, I’m a non-Indigenous person and I really love your products. I want to support Aboriginal people and causes but, don’t want to offend anyone or for it to be seen as cultural appropriation. Just wanted to double check before I buy something that it’s okay I wear your Aboriginal designs and merch?” 

These symbols are located in all product descriptions on our website and makes it easier for non-Indigenous people represent Indigenous fashion in Australia and beyond and this has resulted in not only an increase in sales but, visibility of Aboriginal fashion in the world and conversations that support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and causes. 

The best example of this is our ‘Free The Flag’ tee and campaign which resulted in a senate inquiry into the Aboriginal Flag copyright issue and ultimately a Government’s announcement on 25th Jan, 2022 which saw the iconic flag, that has become a symbol of Aboriginal Australia, freed and available for public use after its designer, Luritja man Harold Thomas, agreed to transfer its copyright to the Commonwealth following long negotiations.

As Aussies realise the potential of e-commerce over the last 12 months, there has been a flurry of new customers entering the e-commerce landscape. Has Clothing the Gaps seen a change in customer behaviour, and how has it impacted its strategy going forward?

Absolutely! With the pandemic pushing people’s shopping experiences online, customers are spending more time on brand websites wanting to get to know the full story, and learn more about company values and the people behind the brand before purchasing – which we love!

Customers want to know more about where their products are made and by whom they also want assurances that’s why accreditations like Ethical Clothing Australia (ECA) are so important because it increases the level of customer trust in the brand.

Over the past 12 months, it has also been so exciting to see so many new Aboriginal businesses come to life. We love decolonising our shopping carts and encouraging others to do the same.

Following a tumultuous year for Australian businesses over the last 12 months, the want and need to support small businesses is greater than ever. Do you believe this sentiment will continue in the future, and why?

We have truly felt the support from local shoppers over the past year our click and collect is proof. We love seeing our neighbours wear their values on their tee. As a B Corp, building a strong community around us is a key focus area and we see the benefit of being supported as a small business and our purchasing power for other small businesses in return. It goes both ways!

Although the want to return to ‘normal’ life is high, we believe that as a society we have learnt and grown a great deal throughout the pandemic and hope that these changes in shopping habits in supporting local are here to stay. With the global environment in an uncertain time, the need to support local businesses and in turn local jobs a priority.  We are proud that we are based on Wurundjeri Country and manufacture on Wurundjeri Country.   

You only launched Clothing the Gaps recently, yet you’ve garnered massive media attention in a short space of time. How did you and your team achieve this? 

We have been blown away by all the support! The massive media attention we have been able to generate is because we use merch to create the change and conversations we want to see in Community. Getting all 18 AFL Clubs to wear our Free The Flag tees was a campaign highlight but, the media attention also lead to political action and the announcement of the senate inquiry into the Aboriginal Flag copyright issue. 

Everything we do is centred around Aboriginal Community causes, campaigns and conversations. This means that the growth has been organic and the relationships you see across the platform are genuine, people have embraced the brand. For the allies, it’s an opportunity to step in, take action and show their support for First Nations people. 

Why is Clothing the Gaps an important retailer for Australians to pay attention to, especially now? 

When you purchase from Clothing The Gaps you not only gain an ethical tee but, you make a statement to the world, that you care about First Nations people in this country. When you wear the tee out in community you will not only look great but, they way you see and are seen in the world, and how people will interact with you, will be different. You are literally wearing your values on your tee and this gives you an opportunity to connect with like minded people and perhaps educate others that don’t think the same way. 

We have seen at Clothing The Gaps the power of fashion to create better outcomes for Aboriginal people and we encourage all Australians to #BuyBlak. There has never been so many options to decolonise your wardrobe, and your entire home!

Is there anything exciting coming our way from Clothing the Gaps in the near future?

We are getting so excited to bring streetwear and political fashion to the runway as part of the First Nations Fashion Design Collective at Australian Fashion Week in Sydney this May! The new collection titled ‘Honouring Country’ will educate Australians to move beyond just an Acknowledgement of Country and good intentions.

You can also join us and get moving with the  Clothing The Gaps Foundation for our annual NAIDOC fun run in July. Head over to clothingthegpasfoundation.org.au for all the details on how to get involved. 

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