Independent, not-for-profit and Indigenous-owned clothing label Clothing the Gap has been forced to rebrand after a two-year legal battle with US clothing giant The Gap.

Clothing the Gap will now be known as Clothing the Gaps, and the rebrand will be complete by July 31.

In April 2019 the founders – Gunditjmara woman Laura Thompson and non-Indigenous woman Sarah Sheridan – were contacted by The Gap. The company was given six months to transition to a new brand.

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“We were shocked, and thought, ‘Wow, The Gap … they’ve sent us a letter?’ At this point we hadn’t even registered Clothing the Gap as its own entity – we’d probably made three items and done small runs of around just 1000 garments. We were surprised that we were even on their radar,” Thompson tells Broadsheet.

“We didn’t have any money to fight back with – we just didn’t have the resources to challenge them.”

Thompson has a background in Aboriginal Controlled Health Services. She and Sheridan met working at the Victorian Aboriginal Health Service (VAHS). They began collaborating together on what would eventually become Clothing the Gap in October 2017.

As well a clothing label, Clothing the Gaps is a foundation that funds health initiatives for Aboriginal people, encouraging exercise, positive health outcomes and pride in culture. The business’s name references Closing the Gap, a government initiative and yearly report aimed at improving the health, life-expectancy, employment and social outcomes for Aboriginal peoples.

As Clothing the Gaps says on its website: “At the heart of Clothing the Gaps is the purpose to influence social change that promotes equity so that Aboriginal people feel seen and heard. Our drive is to add years to Aboriginal people’s lives. We use our brand and platform to campaign, educate and elevate Aboriginal people’s voices and causes.” Clothing the Gaps’ foundation is supported by the fashion label’s sales.

Throughout the two-year legal battle and branding uncertainty, Clothing the Gaps has also focused on its Free the Flag campaign, and has continued to produce its apparel with slogans such as “Always Was Always Will Be” and “Not the Date to Celebrate”, perfect for wearing on January 26.

Its striking tees, beanies, sweatshirts, socks and even face masks come with “ally friendly” labels. Earlier this year it opened a physical store in Brunswick in Melbourne’s inner north.

But despite its commendable output and success in the face of uncertainty The Gap’s legal action has been rough on Clothing the Gaps’ founders and staff.

“I felt like we had a dark cloud over us… it was a shadow over all the work we were doing,” says Thompson.

“We’ve been navigating it all without any security about our brand and what we were going to call ourselves into the future. And even though we’re allowed to use the word ‘gap’ in lots of ways, The Gap is still dictating how we use that word.”

On July 4, 2020 Clothing the Gaps filed a notice to defend the opposition to the use of the word ‘gap’ with pro bono help from FAL Lawyers, which had reached out to them earlier in the year to help the social enterprise in its Free the Flag campaign. “That was a turning point for us, because now we could fight back. Because without pro bono legal support there’s no way we could afford to at least challenge [The Gap] in the trademark tribunal.”

The trademark tribunal found in favour of The Gap, and rather than appeal the decision Sheridan and Thompson decided to negotiate a new name: Clothing the Gaps, making an entirely new name and rebrand unnecessary.

“By that stage the brand started to gain momentum during the Black Lives Matter movement and our campaign to Free the Flag, we were building a bigger and bigger supporter base. And the thought of a rebrand became more daunting. That’s why we decided to negotiate. And we successfully negotiated an outcome that means we don’t have to completely rebrand,” says Thompson.

Online some have reacted with disbelief, outrage and disgust. Gamilaroi writer and academic Amy Thunig said on Twitter: “What. The. Actual. Fuck. @Gap you’re absolutely pathetic. Imagine doing this to an Indigenous social enterprise, when their name is in the context of AusGov “closing the gap’... Shame jobs.” And: “... the fact that Gap are on stolen lands on a different continent ... this is utter BS & white privilege and power in action.”

Thompson says with a laugh one of her favourite comments has been: “How can they confuse merch with a message with chinos and polos?”

Others mentioned boycotting The Gap and pointed out the US company no longer even has physical or online stores in Australia, and that The Gap is hardly a household name here. The power imbalance between a small Indigenous social enterprise and a huge US clothing business was also not lost on commenters.

Clothing the Gaps has a new logo and plans for the Brunswick store to coincide with its rebrand and educating its dedicated fan base about the new phase in the social enterprise’s life.

“We’re going to paint the building red, black and yellow top to bottom,” says Thompson. “We’re going to be an Aboriginal landmark and destination in the next couple of months and we’re super excited about that. We want to continue the impact work we do in the Aboriginal community through the Clothing the Gap Foundation.”

To help Clothing the Gaps sell its current pieces, you can now snag beanies, tees, stickers, caps, reusable cups and more with the previous name and logo before the July 31 deadline. Visit Clothing the Gaps and head to its sale tab. As Thompson points out, they’re about to become limited-edition collectors items. “The pieces now tell the story of how we’ve been able to adapt and pivot and move forward and continue to get on with the work that matters.

“We have such loyal supporters. People who not only buy our clothes but support us in the social justice causes that we use our platform to support. So while for other businesses this may have been crippling, we were confident that our supporters would follow us, even if we did have a name change. It’s a credit to the people who buy our stuff.”