Time Out is profiling the incredible people who are shaping the future of Melbourne in this Future Shaper series. We have asked a panel of esteemed judges comprising Pat Nourse (artistic director, Melbourne Food and Wine Festival), Senator Lidia Thorpe (Greens Senator for Victoria), Simon Abrahams (creative director and CEO of Melbourne Fringe), Peter Tullin (co-founder and CEO of Remix Summits), Kate Vinot (chair of Zoos Victoria) and Claire Ferres Miles (CEO of Sustainability Victoria) to help us identify the people changing the future of Melbourne in the areas of food and drink; arts; community and culture; civics; and sustainability. In civics, two such people are Laura Thompson and Sarah Sheridan, founders of Clothing the Gaps.
You might be surprised to learn that Aboriginal-owned and led apparel brand Clothing the Gaps has only been operating for two years. The team has achieved such a staggering amount of success so quickly that co-founders Laura Thompson and Sarah Sheridan haven’t had a lot of time to reflect on it all.
“In some incredible way we’ve been able to make people feel like they belong, and that they’re allowed, and that they’re welcome,” says Gunditjmarra woman Thompson. “I think if you do all those things really well, you get what we’ve been able to create at Clothing the Gaps in such a short amount of time, [which is] an incredible amount of love for a brand. We continue to push boundaries. We rely a lot on instincts, and I think we’re brave in terms of putting things out into the world and just seeing how it goes.”
You’ve likely already seen what Clothing the Gaps is putting out there. Maybe it's the ally-friendly “Always Was, Always Will Be” merchandise, or maybe you saw footy players sporting “Free the Flag” tees during the AFL’s Indigenous round. As Thompson puts it: “Lots of people buy their conversation starters from us.”
Thompson and Sheridan met while at the Victorian Aboriginal Health Service, moving on to create their health promotion arm Spark Health. The duo created merch items that celebrated and reinforced cultural identity and handed them out as incentives through the health program. “We kind of had this wild dream that maybe one day we’d be able to sell enough merch that it would support the rollout of the programs independent of government funding,” says Sheridan.
Soon, Spark Health rebranded as Clothing the Gap. Yes, without the 's'. The brand had to change its name recently following a legal dispute with mega US chain Gap, but Thompson says their supporters stuck with them through the challenge and showed an exceeding amount of support for the brand.
The decision meant changing websites, social media channels, branding and even its products (there’s still time to purchase original merch with the word ‘gap’). But Thompson and Sheridan didn't let it stall their momentum. “We didn’t really feel like we could let it be an issue because there were bigger issues that needed way more of our attention,” says Sheridan.
Currently, that issue is the Free the Flag campaign. Right now, the Aboriginal flag is under strict copyright, which means brands like Clothing the Gaps aren’t allowed to use it on their merchandise. In 2019, Clothing the Gaps received a cease and desist notice from non-Indigenous brand WAM Clothing, which holds an exclusive worldwide licensing agreement with the flag’s original designer, Harold Thomas, to reproduce the flag on clothing. Clothing the Gaps are currently lobbying to change the licensing agreement for the Aboriginal flag so it can be used for “pride, not profit”. To help the cause, you can sign the petition, rep some Free the Flag merch and write to your local member of parliament.
“Choosing to advocate when it’s convenient is not really useful,” says Sheridan. “We talk about it as being the height of privilege – choosing when to be inconvenienced about an issue. [Free the Flag] is an issue we’ve continued to work on for nearly two years now, it’s not going to go away. We need people to continue to add their voices to it and to [contact] their local MPs. Just because you've emailed once doesn't mean that you get to tick the box, and it's done and you've done your bit. Email them again, ask them what they’re actively doing to support it. Keep having the conversations.”
The merchandise that’s sold through Clothing the Gaps supports the brand’s other arm, the Clothing the Gaps Foundation. Drawing on Thompson and Sheridan’s past as health professionals, the foundation works to support the health of First Nations people through fitness initiatives like virtual fun runs and walk events.
“The forward-facing publicity of the brand allows us to reach more people than we ever expected we would,” says Thompson. “Brands have got an enormous amount of power, an enormous amount of leverage and leeway,” says Sheridan. “We don't have to wait for the adults to fix it. We've all got the power and the possibility to make noise and shake things up. The rules are out the window.”
“I think for me, the future is about how brands can use their platforms to create social change across the board, not just Clothing the Gaps, but every brand has a role to play in that,” says Thompson. “Brands have the biggest followers, the biggest reach, communities listen to them more – whether we should or not, people actually do. So [I want] businesses to take on that social responsibility.”