Migrant and refugee women benefit from alumni fashion startup

A fashion label launched by UNSW graduates is providing valuable support for migrants and refugees – and catching the eye of major designers, too.
Sarah MacDonald | UNSW Newsroom | 01 Nov 2018

Before she launched ethical fashion label The Social Outfit, UNSW Arts and Social Sciences alumna Jackie Ruddock was intent on becoming a high school teacher.

“I did my Dip Ed as a high school teacher,” Ms Ruddock says.

“I had a really great experience and met some fantastic academics that then meant I went and did my Honours in education and particularly looked at socially marginalised communities, particularly LGBTIQ students in school.”That study year led Ms Ruddock to work with homeless and at-risk young people, and in 2010 she did a stint as a volunteer with the Melbourne-based fashion label and school The Social Studio.

The school and label is a social enterprise which helps young people from new migrant and refugee communities, and it developed the model on which the Social Outfit is based.  

“I thought that the creative use to build employment and skills for the future was a really great idea, and the migration numbers to both Victoria and NSW were around the same,” Ms Ruddock says.“So, we looked at what it would look like to replicate the model here in Sydney, and we were fortunate to begin [The Social Outfit] in late June 2014.”

The Newtown-based sustainable label now provides sewing training to new migrants and refugees from more than 30 countries, including Iraq, Syria, Myanmar and Africa.

The result of the label’s partnerships with organisations such as the Asylum Seekers Centre, the Community Migrant Resource Centre and the Red Cross has been the production of high-end garments and regular collaborations with influential Australian designers such as Bianca Spender and Alice McCall. 

“The premise behind The Social Outfit is that many new migrants arrive in Australia with amazing and rich traditions of sewing and tailoring,” Ms Ruddock says.“Clothing manufacturing is a very long-held skill for many people when they arrive.  

“You take an existing skill and use that strength to help equip people as they settle into Australia and essentially get their first Australian job and their first positive experience with training, and they see where that can lead them.”  

Ms Ruddock, who is the CEO of the label and has “no fashion training whatsoever”, launched the charity with UNSW graduates Jessica Lee Parker from Art and Design, and Joanne Morton from Arts and Social Sciences.

While Ms Parker, a graphic designer, oversees the textile design, Ms Morton, who comes from a manufacturing background but did her Master's in Development Studies, is the label’s sewing trainer.

“So I guess that each of us, in our own way, uses our qualifications, but they have ended up being applied quite broadly,” Ms Ruddock says, adding that the three only recently discovered that they had all attended UNSW.

The Social Outfit has so far employed 19 new migrant and refugee women and provided more than 200 people with sewing skills in the free training and education programs they run.  

Ms Ruddock says there’s a real need for female migrants and refugees to be equipped with employment and training opportunities when they settle in Sydney.

“Ninety-eight percent of the people we work with are women,” she says. 

“Research shows that compared to the 60% of men from a refugee or new migrant background involved in employment, only 20% of women are [employed].”

Ms Ruddock says there are “really lovely creative aspects” to The Social Outfit’s work.

“What I love about it too is that when the women who buy our clothes – and they’re bright, they’re colourful, we get to do a lot of signature garments – wear them, someone often says, ‘wow, that’s really beautiful, you look great’, and then that woman gets to tell the story of that work.

“I think it highlights the collective nature of what we’re trying to achieve.

“It’s that we can share stories that are about the creative process, and how that creative process is trying to have a positive outcome for people.”

Find out more about The Social Outfit and discover them on Instagram at @thesocialoutfit. 

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