The Social Outfit is a Sydney-based charity and social enterprise that provides employment and training in garment making as well as retail sales to refugee and new migrant women through its commercial fashion label. It is a 2022 recipient of a $50,000 Westpac Foundation Strengthen Grant for work-integration social enterprises.
“I believe that one of the strongest and most impactful things we can do in development is to give women jobs, and refugee women face some of the highest barriers to employment,” says The Social Outfit CEO Camilla Schippa.
“Only about 20 percent of them are engaged in the workforce in Australia” she says. “We believe that working not only gives women an income and a certain level of independence but helps them build their confidence and their skills, so they can better integrate and have a happier life in Australia.”
Building social cohesion
The Social Outfit works in partnership with settlement support organisations, such as Settlement Services International and House of Welcome, to place women in employment and in development programs. Potential garment workers are trained in sewing and may transition to industrial machines, eventually producing the clothes sold through The Social Outfit.
“We engage women from many different cultural backgrounds, so that we can break the barriers between those groups here in Sydney,” says Camilla. “It's about building social cohesion and confidence, and providing very important wages to this cohort of women.
“We do it through fashion because you don’t need to speak English perfectly to do the job — you can talk with your hands and you can talk with the material,” she says. “Also, many of the women we work with have undergone a lot of trauma and working with beautiful fabrics and designs is a happy thing to do.”
Women employed in the workroom often begin their sewing journey with The Social Outfit’s free sewing classes, which are run from their workshop and out in the community.
“At the moment, we are offering free sewing classes to a group of newly arrived Afghan women in Granville,” she says. “We go to them, we bring the machines, we bring the teacher who speaks Dari and we help these women learn how to make their own clothes. Once we finish a series of classes like that, which go for two or three months, we identify any women with particular skills and talent who might want to continue with us.”
Women who transition to industrial machines and make items to sell in The Social Outfit Newtown store are paid award wages for their time in an earn-and-learn environment. “Very often, it is their first ever pay slip in their entire lives,” she says.
Ethical and sustainable fashion
The majority of materials used in The Social Outfit’s clothes have been donated by large brands in Australia who need to clear space in their warehouses, which means that not only are the clothes limited edition but also sustainably produced.
“There are many brands in Australia that have an environmental problem to solve, so we help them solve it,” says Camilla. “And that means that we get some beautiful fabrics and trims. About 85 percent of what goes into our collections, from the buttons to the zippers to the fabrics, is actually industry waste.”
The Social Outfit has so far saved more than twelve tonnes of fabric waste from landfill and, having recently moved its workroom to a larger space in Marrickville, is on the way to expand this impact even further.
Making a difference
The Social Outfit also operates a Retail Training Program and a Job Readiness Program for young women aged 18–29 who need access to their first job.
“After a few years of operating our sewing workroom, we realised that our physical store could also be utilised for impact,” she says. “Now, our store is a training ground for young new arrivals to learn about customer service. Every day of the week that we are open, we have a young woman who is here for a shift in their first Australian job.
“Picture the 21-year-old who arrived two years ago, who did the HSC poorly while attending an intensive English class, and they’re trying to compete to get a job with everyone else in Sydney — they just can’t get it,” she says.
“We bring them in and they are paid to do one shift a week for three months. We teach them everything we can about retail work and it just makes all the difference.”
Increasing commercial impact
The Social Outfit is currently on a path to increase its commercial impact and expand its operations.
“We've been on a very steep growth path for the past couple of years, and Westpac has been very supportive to us along the way,” says Camilla.
“Our imagery is good. It's fashion. It's colourful. But we still are surprisingly not as well known across the country as I would like us to be,” she says.
“Our clothes are not cheap because we pay proper wages and we look after these women, so we can't hire more of them unless we start selling more clothes. And there's a whole lot that needs to happen with the consumer in Australia to teach them about that cost gap.
“Refugees are heroes in my mind,” she says. “They have overcome so many obstacles and they have escaped situations that are very traumatic. We should celebrate them, make them welcome and support them because they're an asset to our society. And because they make beautiful clothes in our shop, we can change that whole discourse around refugees and who they are.”
Westpac Foundation has published its which documents the collective impact the Foundation, together with its community partners like The Social Outfit, is making in local communities across Australia.
Find out more about The Social Outfit.