More than a T-shirt: Why Aboriginal streetwear brand Clothing The Gap is focusing on education first and fashion second

Clothing The Gap

Clothing The Gap co-founder and director Laura Thompson. Source: supplied.

Aboriginal-owned and -run streetwear brand Clothing The Gap has been up and running for less than a year, and has already amassed a 100,000-strong social media following, and evolved from an e-commerce store to bricks-and-mortar retail offering.

But for Laura Thompson, Clothing The Gap’s co-founder and director, and a Gunditjmari woman, this social enterprise was never only about selling a few T-shirts.

It’s about giving First Nations Australians a voice and an online space to occupy, and amplifying their voices, while also educating non-Indigenous people.

Never has that been more evident than now, in the run-up to January 26, or so-called Australia Day.

With a background in community health, Thompson first started creating Aboriginal-designed singlets to give out as incentives to people attending programs.

In 2017, she launched Aboriginal health promotion business Spark Health, along with non-Indigenous co-founder Sarah Sheridan. In March last year, the pair launched Clothing The Gap as a fashion spin-off.

The connection between healthcare and streetwear might not be immediately obvious. But the pair saw the power clothing could have, both for Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, in spreading a message and getting people talking, thereby helping to effect social change.

Thompson isn’t able to share any specific growth metrics, but the business has now opened its first physical store, and amassed more than 100,000 Instagram followers.

It’s also launched the Clothing The Gap Foundation, a not-for-profit vehicle to help channel all profits back to community health projects.

The worldwide Black Lives Matter movement in 2020 was “the gamechanger” for the business, Thompson says.

And the activism sparked by the death of George Floyd in May last year was the catalyst that got non-Aboriginal Australians thinking more carefully about where they spend their money, and actively seeking out Indigenous-owned businesses to support.

Thompson and the team later introduced symbols for their products, marking which products are ‘ally friendly’ and which are ‘Mob only’.

That also led to a spike in sales, the co-founder says, effectively giving non-Indigenous people the confidence to actually purchase, and wear, products.

Another milestone came in October, when Clothing The Gap announced a collaboration with Frank Green, to create a limited edition range of ‘Always Was, Always Will Be’ reusable cups.

 

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More than merch

Ultimately, 2020 was a good year, business-wise, allowing Clothing The Gap to onboard 15 young Aboriginal employees.

But this is a business that doesn’t only measure its success in terms of sales. In fact, it’s arguably a vehicle for social change first, and a clothing brand second.

In the run-up to January 26, Clothing The Gap’s Instagram page has been a fountain of facts, infographics and context about the ‘Australia Day’ public holiday, as well as tips on how to have difficult conversations about it.

It’s also provided a platform for First Nations Australians to share their thoughts about and experiences with the date.

Last year, the team ran a similar ‘Free the Flag’ campaign, protesting to the copyrighted status of the Aboriginal flag.

Every AFL club joined the campaign ahead of the annual Sir Doug Nicholls round, which celebrates Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander contributions to the game.

Some of the country’s top sports stars were seen repping their ‘Free The Flag’ tees, and legendary player Eddie Betts swapped his guernsey for the design after his team’s win.

 

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But what’s next?

For Thompson, the business’ publicity and popularity makes the continued education piece, and amplification of Blak voices, even more important. It’s a responsibility she takes seriously.

A spike in sales is welcome, she notes. But it also raises questions.

“I ask myself: ‘If they didn’t have a T-shirt already, should they have one now?’

“They’ve purchased a tee, but what’s next?

“I have a responsibility, as an Aboriginal person to my community, to make sure that when people are wearing these messages on their tee, they’re also well-equipped and educated.”

Purchases come with a postcard giving pointers as to what customers can do next — think books to read, podcasts to listen to, content creators to follow and engage with consistently.

 

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Thompson wants non-Indigenous people to understand that wearing a slogan on their chest is not enough.

True allyship means educating themselves, engaging with Blak voices and content, and commitment to improving diversity in the white spaces they inhabit.

“If we’re getting more people into this space, how do we make them genuine allies?”

She wants to see the people who discovered the brand through the Black Lives Matter movement stick with it after all the noise and media coverage has died down.

“I want them to be with us and alongside us when we move into the ‘Change The Date’ or ‘Abolish Australia Day’ conversations that we’re having now.”

At the same time, Thompson is not interested in pandering. The brand and its social media presence is designed to be welcoming to all, but as it grows, she has no intention of losing focus.

Clothing The Gap makes products for everyone, but “with Mob in its heart”, she adds.

“Most importantly, it’s a Blak space and they’re Blak voices, and they’re Blak issues we’re talking about”.

 

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