The Social Studio

Bright sunshine beats down on a square just off Smith Street in Collingwood. The area is a throng of people, colour and motion; food carts line the perimeter, a small stage is set up at one end, and music, spoken word performance and voices carry in the air, as does the smell of coffee and a sausage sizzle. People casually drape themselves on the grass, lean against brick walls. A father dances with his exuberant little girl, and a more sedate couple take it in turns to mind their toddler, reeling him in when he travels too far. Girlfriends are finding each other, grabbing hands as they bag a spot near the stage. Everyone’s anticipating the main event – the fashion show.

Welcome to The Social Studio’s Block Party.

I walk into the organisation’s Smith Street building and run smack-bang into models getting ready for the fashion show. No-one asks what I’m doing there. Rehearsing their moves, turning their heads and flaring their arms for the camera, they’re preoccupied with the business of showcasing the results of months of hard work.  I wander past the Studio’s retail shop, through its café and out into a back alley filled with cool cats – models being photographed wearing the collections – and make my way to that dazzling square which is the party venue.

Well into its fifth year of inception, the Studio is a not-for-profit social enterprise, a training hub for people of refugee backgrounds, and a space for fashion and food. It offers students formal TAFE training and employment programs, and also operates several businesses including a café, a retail outlet and a printing studio from its Collingwood premises (the profits of which are reinvested into delivering the Studio’s programs). So why fashion and food?

“It’s a language we can all speak and understand,” says Andrea Phillipou, The Social Studio’s general manager. “It’s a great way to bring people from all different areas together. Maybe you don’t love it, but you can understand where it’s coming from.”

Helping new migrants – particularly those from refugee backgrounds – feel their way into ongoing education and employment is a key driver for this social enterprise. Students who participate in the Studio’s programs arrive from places such as South Sudan, Eritrea, Somalia, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Southeast Asia. When it comes to this diversity, Andrea is unequivocal about the Studio’s ethos.

“Our students have come here, not to forget what happened, but to start afresh or to have a safe zone from what’s happening back home. People have so many different stories. They come here, learn, have fun, eat, and listen to music. It’s a fun learning environment.”

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Students participate in the Certificate III Clothing Production and Certificate IV Textile Design and Development programs, which are offered in partnership with RMIT University. Having an on-site retail shop is handy for providing students with end-to-end experience in making and selling clothes, and in developing a fashion collection. The shop showcases the studio’s TSS fashion label, complete with certification by Ethical Clothing Australia.

But fashion isn’t the Studio’s only prerogative. Over at the Cutting Table café on site, there’s a revolving menu of cuisine from the communities that work and study here. As well as serving the customers who walk in here for a lunchtime injera roll or an afternoon African doughnut with their (fair trade) coffee, the Cutting Table handles catering and functions. There are employment and work experience opportunities at the café, as well as certified training.

“You’ll find a lot of people haven’t come from what we could consider an everyday kind of school, so adjusting to times and punctuality in general is a massive challenge. If they’re Australian-born, they’ve come here because they are not suited to formal schooling. Maybe it’s not fashion that they want to do… but the fact is they’re coming in, and they want to get their head around learning a new skill and meeting new people,” says Andrea.

This organisation’s entrepreneurial eye may be squarely on pathways into employment for its young students, but what bonds the races, religions and cultures that congregate here is its fundamental belief that the people who walk through its doors simply belong.

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Suzan Dlouhy, a young designer from Canberra, moved to Melbourne seven months ago. She credits the Studio with connecting her to its network of like-minded fashion industry people. Sustainable, thoughtful fashion and working with recycled materials interests her, and she turned up at The Social Studio because their business model reflected those values. Subsequently, when The Social Studio needed a part-time teacher for the Certificate III course to fill a maternity leave position, Suzan was quick to be involved.

“So many people come here and you have to mine information out of them. They look like they’re interested, but they don’t know how to express what they want to do. So I ask them, ‘do you sew?’ and it’s like a light comes on.”

“Sewing can be so technical and hard to explain to those who don’t speak English but, even if they don’t understand the terms, it’s something you can physically show them how to do. And it’s a good way to develop vocabulary.”

Suzan’s rapid-fire narration becomes suffused with delight and gratification: “I am so impressed by the speed at which people can go from never having used a sewing machine to saying, ‘I want to make pillow cases in my next class’. Then three lessons later they’re aiming to make a pair of pants and – whoa – they’re doing it”.

The organisation is putting the word out about what they do quite literally in their own backyard – hence the Peel St Block Party venue, which runs parallel to The Social Studio’s premises in Collingwood.

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“We’re not fast fashion or the type of high fashion label that can do the normal runways. A block party is more us,” Andrea says. “A lot of the time we’re always asking people for money, with this we want to say: come and have fun on us.” She considers this, and then laughs a wry self-correction. “Yes, we do need sponsors to help us put things on – but at least everyone gets to enjoy it!”

Sponsors, partners, collaborators. Call them what you may, but the fact is it requires a tremendous amount of stamina, determination and collaboration to build a community and to sustain social enterprise. The Block Party is a combined effort by the Studio, The Thousands and Chris Gill of Northside Records.

Also involved are local designers and youth groups. Daniel, 21, is a hip-hop artist performing here with his group, Alia, under the auspices of Creative Rebellion Youth.

“We came here to show people who we are and what kind of music we do,” he tells me. Usually he’s nervous when he performs, but he sees this as an opportunity to work on his stage presence. Events like this, he says, “[give] opportunities for kids to believe in what they do and get other people to believe it too.”

Also here is Daniel’s mentor, Abe Ape, the founder of Creative Rebellion Youth. Abe’s performing his spoken word poem My Apology, a line of which goes “…the way to destroy a culture is through ignorance…”. The crowd applauds. They approve, and they’re here to show it.

No matter how much Melbourne loves to trumpet its multiculturalism, you don’t often see this kind of density of different races and cultures in any one place at any one time. As the music signals the start of the fashion show and the models pour onto the catwalk, there’s a collective clapping and cheering. Right here in the street, with a flourish of style and showmanship, The Social Studio makes belonging, connectedness and community look easy. It’s impossible not to join in, not to celebrate the creativity of this social hub, and the joy of its endeavour.

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The Social Studio will be launching their book next Thursday 7 May, which celebrates fashion, food, and art, and the creative and diverse community involved with the Studio. For more details go to the book launch’s event page on Facebook.

Photo credit: All images by Elly Freer.