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Fashion label is determined to make a difference

Behind the Clothing The Gaps shopfront in Sydney Road is a social enterprise dedicated to improving Aboriginal health outcomes

“I personally feel really grateful to work in a place that is really positive and resilient and really determined to make a difference,” says Lena Charles.

Mark Phillips
Monday, July 4, 2021

YOU can’t miss the Clothing The Gaps store as you head up Sydney Road towards Coburg: it’s the double storey building across the road from the Don Bosco centre with columns out the front painted in red, black and yellow and a massive sign saying ‘Free The Flag’ on its south-facing wall.

It’s just as difficult to miss the business’ distinctive t-shirts, hoodies and beanies adorned with slogans of Aboriginal empowerment which seem to be everywhere this winter.

But there is much more to Clothing The Gaps than fashion.

The company’s name (more of that later) is a play on Closing The Gap, the government health initiative to close the life expectancy gap between Aboriginal people and non-Indigenous Australians.

Behind the retail outlet which opened in Sydney Road late last year is an ambitious not-for-profit foundation dedicated to advancing the status of First Nations people and improving Aboriginal health.

“We’ve got Clothing The Gaps as the fashion label, and all of the profits support the work that comes out of the foundation,” explains Head of Impact Lena Charles, a Yorta Yorta and Gunnai-Kurnai woman who grew up in Shepparton.

Ms Charles has been with Clothing The Gaps since it began, first working with founders Laura Thompson, a Gunditjmara woman, and Sarah Sheridan, at the Victorian Aboriginal Health Service. She moved with them when they formed a health promotion company, Spark Health, which was rebranded as Clothing The Gap in 2019.

“Our health promotion skills have come in handy, but we ended up in the fashion space almost by accident,” Ms Charles said.

“We were delivering Aboriginal health promotion programs to our communities and as part of that, we would produce merchandise and say to people you have to come along for four out of six weeks to get a t-shirt.

“But people still wanted to buy them [the shirts]. So then we decided it would be great to be able to sell the shirts to fund our own programs. It’s just grown from there.

“Sarah and Laura are some of the most passionate people I’ve met and I personally feel really grateful to work in a place that is really positive and resilient and really determined to make a difference.”

Working with Aboriginal designers, Clothing The Gaps has a growing range of streetwear, from t-shirts and singlets to hoodies, beanies, hats, tote bags and even babies’ bibs. Bearing slogans like ‘Always Was, Always Will Be’ in bold colours, the clothes are guaranteed conversation starters.

The business quickly outgrew its original location in Preston — an area with a deeply embedded Aboriginal history — when it needed a retail shopfront, and moved to Brunswick in December.

“When this building became available we just thought, Brunswick yes!, let’s go there.

“It’s really exciting when you walk down Sydney Road and see people in our shirts and stuff. We know Mob will buy our shirts but it’s really exciting when you see non-Aboriginal people support us as allies.”

The retail outlet is just one part of a thriving online business which on a busy day can pack and send as many as 400 items of clothing around Australia and increasingly, the world.

At the start of this year, the company expanded significantly with 18 young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander trainees employed in the retail shop and warehouse.

One of them is Johnathan Binge (pictured below), a Gamilaray, Dunghutti and Gumbaynggirr man who was born in Moree but moved to Melbourne when he was a boy.

“It’s great here,” he said. “It’s not like I’m working really, I feel so connected with the other people here. It’s not a family-run business but feels like one.”

Ms Charles spoke to Brunswick Voice during a break from preparing for one of Clothing The Gaps’ biggest and most important events of the year, the Heal Country “virtual fun run”, held during NAIDOC Week, which began yesterday and continues to next Sunday, July 11.

The fun run was switched to an online event when Covid-19 forced the postponement of NAIDOC Week activities last year. More than 5000 people took part online, including 20% who identify as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander. This year’s run is approaching the same numbers.

Individuals, groups and organisations can register and record their participation through the Clothing The Gaps website. Ms Charles said it doesn’t matter if people walk, run, or ride — the main objective is to encourage participants to get some physical exercise.

“Aboriginal people experience all of the chronic diseases that can be controlled through lifestyle choice and behaviour, whether it be diabetes or heart disease but also the ongoing effects of colonisation.

“We know that by getting people moving is one way they can combat chronic disease. So we use our virtual runs to encourage everyone, not just Mob but everyone, to run.

“It’s not necessarily a run. We encourage people to get moving over the week, whatever distance they choose, walking, biking or running or rowing or whatever they can do.”

Outside the shop in Sydney Road.

NAIDOC Week 2021 has the theme of Heal Country!, which Ms Charles says is multi-layered in meaning. For her, as an Aboriginal woman, it is about our relationship with the land and caring for the natural environment.

“For non-Aboriginal people it can be about always being on a journey to learn — and unlearning as well,” she said.

Clothing The Gaps has also recently launched a new campaign for ATSI peoples called ‘Shades of Deadly’.

“It’s about celebrating the diversity of Aboriginal identity and challenging stereotypes … those perceptions of what an Aboriginal person looks like and does and the diversity of skin colours and cultures and expectations in the way the world views Aboriginal people,” Ms Charles said.

In a few weeks time, the company will complete a transition to Clothing The Gaps after being forced to add the ‘S’ to the end of its name following legal action by American clothing giant Gap.

In a David and Goliath case, Gap, which had US$13.8 billion in revenue last year, alleged that the tiny Australian company had infringed its copyright. Ms Thompson and Ms Sheridan fought the case in the courts for two years before a judge found a “deceptive similarity” with Gap. Clothing The Gap was given six months in which to rebrand.

It is not the first time the company has been embroiled in a copyright dispute. In 2019 it was also served with a ‘cease and desist’ notice by WAM Clothing, which holds the licence to the Aboriginal flag designed by Harold Thomas.

The noticed ordered Clothing The Gaps to stop using the flag on its products or face further litigation.

But while Clothing The Gaps acceded to the order, it immediately launched the Free The Flag campaign demanding that the flag be freely available for all Indigenous people to use to celebrate their culture and identity rather than exclusively for the profits of a single company.

“We simply want to get access to the flag so everyone can use it,” Ms Charles said.

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