The Social Outfit is more than just a fashion label; it’s a place of female empowerment. Camilla Schippa (CEO) and Aminata Conteh-Biger (board member) explain how giving a woman a job can change everything.
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Tell me about yourselves, and how you arrived at TSO?
Camilla: I previously worked in the International Development and Peace Sector, and worked for a long time at the UN. My interest has always been helping the poor and disadvantaged and trying to change that paradigm. Last year I turned 50, and I thought: I’ve done too much of the diplomatic grey-suit work. So, I decided to do something grassroots and ended up CEO at The Social Outfit.
I firmly believe giving women a job changes everything. Not only their lives but the lives of their family and communities.
I have also learned there is one key ingredient that enables countries and towns to remain peaceful. It doesn’t matter if you’re peaceful today, the question is, are you going to stay peaceful in the future when something bad happens? And that ingredient is social cohesion. So, bringing people together and strengthening that cohesion is very important to me. And to me, The Social Outfit does both of those things. It gives women a job, and it builds social cohesion.
Aminata: I’m a refugee from Sierra Leone. I’ve been in Australia for 20 years and was part of the first refugee group from Sierra Leone, so you can imagine how lost everybody was. No resettlement organisation helped me. I had to learn how to live in a country I had never heard of before moving here.
As a refugee, you don’t have the words to talk about your struggle because you’ve just come through an order. For me, I was kidnapped during the war and was part of an exchange, so I landed here in a rushed way. For some years, I was very lonely.
I’ve been sharing my story for the UN for over 17 years. I raise awareness about refugees, resettlement and violence against women. My experience is also part of a theatre production and documentary called The Baulkham Hills African Ladies Group. I also started a maternal health foundation in Sierra Leone, which has the highest infant death rate in the world.
My first job in Australia was in fashion retail, and I really enjoyed it. So my experience naturally fits with The Social Outfit.
Describe The Social Outfit.
Camilla: It’s a fashion label explicitly created to address unemployment amongst female humanitarian migrants: only 20% are engaging in the workforce. We focus on giving first-Australian jobs, which is important because until you’ve had a job in Australia, nobody wants to give you one. We spend time building the confidence and skills of these women, teaching them about manufacturing, retail and marketing so that they can go on to other jobs.
What are the benefits for the women you employ and train?
Aminata: When a refugee comes here, they don’t want to be on Centrelink. They’ve come from a country where many were doctors or had qualifications. They are fathers and mothers. Just imagine going from performing surgery and all of a sudden everything you have worked for in your life no longer matters. Plus you’ve gone through a trauma you have to deal with. You don’t want to be on a pension. You want to be given the chance to succeed.
When people can provide for themselves, feel confident, and not have to tolerate isolation and depression: this lifts them, even if they have to start over.
Camilla: It’s important to remember, this isn’t charity work. These women have skills. We benefit from their incredible ability to use fabric. Most of our fabric is remnants that would have gone to landfill, so we use their skills to match the colours and make something beautiful.
Is the training you provide, paid?
Camilla: It varies. For example, at the moment, we have an earn-and-learn program with eight women from different backgrounds that come together one day a week. They are sewing tote bags for an Australian company that is paying the women by the hour. Our ladies are learning the process and being paid a small fee, but The Social Outfit isn’t selling those bags.
We also have retail trainees: young migrants who have only been in Australia for a year or two. They might have finished school, but they have never worked, and in their country, they probably couldn’t have worked because women weren’t allowed. We get them into our shop one day a week and teach them how to run it. We pay those women a trainee wage.
In addition, we offer free classes where women can come and learn a new skill, like crochet. They don’t get paid, but the lessons are free. And the main benefit is that they have to figure out how to catch public transport, mix with other women from different backgrounds and practice their English.
What’s the best thing about The Social Outfit?
Aminata: It makes a refugee feel normal, as though they are being seen. It’s really hard when you feel less. I always say I never knew I was Black until I came to Australia. I never knew I had an accent. It’s just who I was. The Social Outfit makes people feel like there’s nothing wrong with them. They’re exactly who they are supposed to be. They’ve just come to a new country, and there is a transition of learning the language and culture. That’s very powerful and humanising. I know The Social Outfit does that because I still remember the joy of my first job after seven years of living in Australia. I was so excited. I worked seven days a week and didn’t even care because I felt seen. That’s why I believe in what The Social Outfit is doing.
Camilla: I think The Social Outfit is an example of Australia at its best, celebrating multiculturalism and what we all bring. If every woman in Australia knew you could buy clothes that empower women rather than buying clothes that exploit women, why wouldn’t you? It’s a happy place where we make beautiful things.
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