Clothing the gap and sparking a conversation
2 March 2020 at 8:12 am
Proud Narungga woman Sianna Catullo is the chief creative officer at Clothing the Gap, an Indigenous owned and run clothing label supporting Aboriginal health programs and uniting people of all colours and backgrounds. She’s this week’s Changemaker.
When Catullo landed a job at the Aboriginal-run health group, Spark Health, she never thought that within the next couple of years she would be running a fashion label.
Started as a way to get kids to come to a Spark Health footy training program, the organisation gave out free singlets with Aboriginal designs on them. Popularity for the clothes quickly grew.
Catullo and the team soon realised that launching their own clothing label, designed by Aboriginal people with their own designs on it, was a great way to not only support their health programs but unite people of all colours and backgrounds on closing the gap between Aboriginal and white Australia.
In 18 months, Clothing the Gap has come a long way.
It’s collaborated with popular social enterprise clothing label HoMie and has launched a national campaign to “free the flag”. Currently, WAM Clothing holds an exclusive worldwide licensing agreement with the Aboriginal flag’s copyright owner, Harold Thomas, to reproduce the flag on clothing. Clothing the Gap believes this control of the market by a non-Indigenous business has to stop and is calling for viable channels for new licensing agreements to be created.
In this week’s Changemaker, Catullo speaks on the perks of starting and thinking small, how she’s using fashion as a tool for education, and why the best change happens at a grassroots level.
Clothing the Gap is a social enterprise of Spark Health, so how did the idea come about?
We run health promotion programs across Victoria and as a way of getting participants to come to our health and wellbeing programs, we decided to give them a singlet with an Aboriginal design on it if they came to four out of six programs. This was really successful and it got us thinking about the impact we could have if everyone had access to these clothes and was able to buy them.
So we started a clothing label and sold those singlets, not just to our program participants but to everyone because we really just want more Aboriginal design out in the world.
The label is also about starting important conversations, how is it doing that?
Whenever I wore the clothing out in public, I would always get approached by non-Indigenous people who would tell me that they wanted to support and celebrate Aboriginal culture and people, but they didn’t feel comfortable and they didn’t feel like they were allowed to wear the flag or Aboriginal design without permission. It made me realise that there are so many people that want to celebrate Aboriginal culture, but don’t know how.
So we wanted to create a space for those people and create education that it’s safe for non-Aboriginal people to wear Aboriginal design.
What are you hoping to achieve through Clothing the Gap?
Our short-term goal is just to get more people wearing, and being more comfortable with, Aboriginal design. Our long-term goal is that we don’t want to have to rely on government funding to be able to run our health programs. So all the profits from our clothes go back into running our health programs, and eventually, we’d like to be 100 per cent reliant on that funding.
Aboriginal people know what’s best for Aboriginal people and we want to self-determine and run programs the way we want to run a program without the government making mistakes just doing things to tick boxes.
What does your day look like?
Because our team is so small, our days are crazy. Yesterday we spent a day in the southeast of Frankston where my boss did a keynote speech on leadership and community, and social change and community. Today we’re going to a primary school in the north of Melbourne to talk about the Free the Flag campaign. And then after that, we’re at the football club for the juniors football training. It’s never dull, it’s never the same.
The most important thing for us is to still work in and connect with communities. We’re not a label that is disconnected and we know at a grassroots level what Aboriginal people need. I think starting a fashion label made it easy to become disconnected because you could spend all your time dealing with shops wanting stock or doing media interviews for publicity, but my passion is to improve the health and life of Aboriginal people and educate the wider community about Aboriginal culture, so that’s what I try and focus on.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to get into the social change space?
My best advice is to think small. You don’t always have to go to the biggest organisations because realistically it’s going to be a huge team there, and you’re going to be doing filing work all day. So just try to find smaller businesses because they’re the ones that really need you, and you are also seen in that space. I was really lucky to have been in such a small team because it meant that for any meeting or awards night that the team was invited to, I was also allowed to go.
My other piece of advice is to be passionate about what you do and not be in it for the money, because there is not a lot of money in the space. You really have to care and you really have to be passionate about what you’re going into because the hours are long and it’s stressful, it’s hard and disheartening.
What do you do in your downtime to de-stress and relax?
I do a lot of running in my downtime. I did a marathon last year and so spent a lot of time training for that, and it was great because it was the one time I was able to switch off and not be attached to my phone calls and emails and Instagram messages. It was like my therapy, which is really important when you’re working in spaces like this. Mental health is super important because if you’re not doing well yourself, how do you expect to help other people?
Are you reading any good books at the moment?
I just finished reading Trevor Noah’s autobiography. He was born during the apartheid and it’s about his life growing up and being part of the apartheid and seeing the change in culture and seeing the change in society during his life. It’s also hilarious because he’s a comedian.
Want to hear more from Sianna Catullo? She’ll be speaking at an Indigenous Entrepreneurs panel, Dream Lucid, in Melbourne on 5 March. Find out more here.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that WAM Clothing held the copyright of the Aboriginal flag. This has been updated to reflect that artist Harold Thomas, a descendant of the Luritja people, is the owner of the copyright of the Aboriginal flag design. WAM Clothing has been chosen as the exclusive worldwide copyright licensee for a range of clothing bearing the flag design.