If you climb the stairs to the second floor of The Social Outfit’s Newtown terrace, you’ll witness something exceedingly rare in Sydney’s retail market: four women working at waist-high cutting tables and industrial sewing machines, working colourful fabric into the dresses, pants and blouses that fill the shop below.

“Seventy per cent of our work is ethical manufacturing and retail which we do to employ and train refugees and new migrant women,” says CEO Jackie Ruddock. “They’re employed on secure, paid, ongoing contracts. We give them their first Australian job.

“Many new migrants come with these rich traditions of sewing and tailoring. We’re using an existing skill to come together and celebrate talent.”

The Social Outfit is modelled after Melbourne’s The Social Studio, which has been operating in Collingwood for 10 years. In the five years since The Social Outfit was founded, it has employed 20 staff and taught 200 others how to sew via dedicated training programs.

The Newtown shop is full of brightly patterned garments and fits seamlessly on King Street alongside Gorman and its print-heavy aesthetic. But while the shop does well, retail alone can’t generate enough money to support people arriving in a new country. “The other 30 per cent of our work is training programs and creative projects,” Ruddock says.

As CEO, Ruddock fundraises and applies for grants to augment the retail business. Big names in Australian fashion are aligned with the charity. Romance Was Born and Bianca Spender have donated fabric and pattern blocks, Carla Zampatti is an ambassador and Ken Done (along with many others) is a supporter.

Despite this, the past six months have been tough. In September the landlord at the original premises near Newtown station decided to redevelop the property, forcing The Social Outfit to find a new home. The move itself was expensive and the new location charges 40 per cent more rent, so the team launched a crowdfunding campaign. Five donors promised to match crowdsourced funds and in the end the campaign raised $44,000, more than double the original goal.

While the cost of moving exceeded the funds raised, Ruddock sees it as a win. “It showed that we have the support of our community,” she says. “When a person buys a garment, there’s this incredible interaction: a group of women designs, sews and sells a piece of clothing, a customer sees it as having worth and buys it. Crowdfunding was an extension of that. It was a bunch of people saying, ‘I get why this exists and I want to support it.’”

In spite of the charity’s successes, Ruddock says sometimes it’s hard not to feel like what they’re doing is a drop in the ocean. The Department of Home Affairs allocated 18,750 visas to refugees and asylum seekers for 2018–19. There are 1,357 people in detention centres in Australia, and around 500 men are estimated to be in “transition centres” on Manus Island.

So that she doesn’t get bogged down with the scope of the task, Ruddock focuses on the things in her control. “The fact that we’ve employed 20 people and trained another 200 to date is really exciting,” she says. “That 20 means 25,000 hours of paid work, and over 300 people involved in community projects.”

In the workshop, it’s fairly quiet. Filling a store with limited-edition pieces of clothing is busy work. Sometimes there’s a language barrier, which the sewing technicians will overcome in time as they work together. Each person stays between six months and two years, with the aim to transition to full-time work elsewhere. Past and present employees have come from countries as diverse as Ethiopia, Kenya, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Afghanistan and Myanmar.

The language of garment-making is universal, though. There’s the crinkle of paper pattern pieces, the rasping sound of tailor’s shears slicing through cloth and the staccato rat-a-tat-tat of the industrial machines rapidly closing seams and finishing hems.

“We have a goal of producing something beautiful that represents a hopeful Aussie spirit,” Ruddock says. “That’s how change happens. Creativity brings us together by reminding us of the things we share rather than the many thousands of things that divide us.”

The Social Outfit
188 King Street, Newtown
(02) 9550 3691

Mon, Wed, Fri & Sat 10am–6pm
Thu 10am–8pm
Sun 11am–5pm