The Social Studio, a fashion school in Melbourne that teaches clothing design to migrants and refugees, is continuing to change lives - but now through a different business model - one garment at a time. The not-for-profit has switched from a fashion focus to sewing scrubs for healthcare heroes in the fight against COVID-19.
With a tiny team of only about six who are mainly working from home, the mighty social enterprise, which has some star graduates, has innovated to produce by hand about 30 units (tops and bottoms both) a week for doctors and nurses at cost price and will make more as time goes on.
“We've made about 170 units so far,” says The Social Studio CEO Cate Coleman. “Through a website we developed, pretty much overnight, individual healthcare workers place their own orders. We are also reaching out to try to secure bulk orders where possible through hospitals and other medical organisations and tenders. There is a shortage of personal protective equipment, so scrubs are seen as the next best thing.”
Founded in 2009, The Social Studio has produced over 700 graduates. “Some have gone on to have really successful labels and we have one superstar student who has a label that has tens of thousands of Instagram followers and a big market overseas,” says Coleman. Somalian Asia Hussain is the founder, head designer and creative director of label, Asiyam, that designs modest clothing for Muslim women.
Jobs saved through director idea
Before the virus struck, The Social Studio combined the fashion school with an ethical clothing production studio and a physical retail store that stocks its own sustainable label and other socially conscious brands.
Through changing the business focus rapidly in a major pivot, the retail arm and the fashion school arm have moved online, and the jobs of all 12 staff have been saved. And teaching has been able to continue through the COVID-19 lockdown period for 20 migrant and refugee students who are studying fashion design courses through its RMIT-accredited school.
“We've even extended some staff hours in order to meet demand as needed, so that was a really good thing,” says Coleman.
The idea to make scrubs, which can be seen here, first came from one of The Social Studio’s board directors through her network which includes health officials. The board and the CEO immediately swung into action as other revenue-raising orders had been cancelled or postponed. Switching from business as usual to manufacturing medical scrubs came about with the help of Dr Sandro Demaio, who is CEO of the Victorian Health Promotion Foundation, and privately volunteered his time to assist.
The Social Studio board treasurer Ruth Owens FAICD says the board had to move very quickly to mobilise enough cash flow to pay staff before getting reimbursed by the government’s JobKeeper allowance. “The government rules were changing daily and I guess we spent many hours working through the rules,” says Owens.
She is in daily contact with Coleman, who has worked seven days a week at times, personally delivering sewing machines to team members at their homes, drafting grant applications and preparing for The Social Studio’s move to cheaper accommodation in the Victorian government’s new Collingwood Arts Precinct.
The board had to look to its funding, impose very tight controls on spending and approach its donors. “The philanthropic community is just fantastic,” says Owens. “I think the directors of the philanthropic groups really understood the need to be prepared quickly and we have received emergency funding.” So with income from the scrubs and philanthropy, The Social Studio is able to break even and keep people employed.
However, donor funding next year may be impacted, warns Owens. “In terms of philanthropic funding, going forward, it will be more modest,” she says. “There will probably be less funding in the next financial year compared to this year. So I think all of us are going to have to be very careful.”
Survive and thrive, but what’s next?
Coleman says the new strategy is “survive and thrive”. When COVID-19 struck in March, she worked initially with her board on a three-month survival strategy to keep staff employed. Now they are looking to the next phase of recovery, long term. “Now we are trying to ensure that The Social Studio is in a position that it can thrive and go from strength to strength at the end of this crisis.”
She adds that changing the business model means the not-for-profit has been able to stay true to its mission through the crisis so far.
“We do work with people who are particularly marginalised and vulnerable and disengaged. We wanted to make sure that we were keeping in touch with our students and keeping them engaged with fun activities. They've created a Whatsapp group and they're sharing there with each other what they make, and sharing what their learnings are too, so this gets to the heart of The Social Studio.”
Creativity is good for mental health and The Social Studio works with refugee youth who may not have engaged well with traditional models of education here in Australia after experiencing trauma, she says. “So, we engage those people with fashion because it's fun and it's cool and people can bring a bit of their heritage and show us how it's done.”
Coleman, who has been CEO since November 2018, and says her passion is working with migrants and refugees, adds that the work is “awesome”, because she gets to see students transform over time.
“It's amazing. When you start a student and they come in, they're new and they are very shy and don't have much English. They are really not confident. But later they just really flourish in the nurturing environment at The Social Studio and our teachers are so beautiful. So the students by the time they graduate, are so proud and loud. There's nothing like it, that feeling when you see that.”
Ruth Owens FAICD is currently a director of The Social Studio and of LanguageLoops, a Victorian Government Business Enterprise.
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