Words by Athena Dennis, Ellen Spooner & Roisin Kelly-Goldsmith
Abuk Bol has a warm and bright smile as broad as the sunrise. Although she has a 17-year-old daughter, you would swear that she’s not a day over 25. She has a poised and composed presence and a clever head for business. Her tenacity and drive is obvious when you speak with her. As a woman, a mother and an ambassador for her people, she shines.
Abuk came to Melbourne in 2009 as a refugee. In Australia over the ensuing five years, she has forged a life for herself and her enormous brood of seven kids. Her story is not just admirable but deeply courageous and inspirational.
She learned to sew as a child in South Sudan and worked as a seamstress there. When she arrived in Melbourne she chanced upon factory work, but was told to leave after four months because her employers demanded an Australian qualification. Then she discovered The Social Studio (TSS).
A dynamic and buzzing creative hub located in Collingwood, TSS is a fashion label, cafe (The Cutting Table), design studio, social enterprise, clothing shop, training facility and an incubator of creatively inclined refugees with abilities in hospitality, design, clothing production and retail. The entrepreneurial and empowering spirit is infectious in this place.
Given a position in TSS for a while, Abuk knew that her real passion lay in the cutting room making clothes. She did a Certificate 4 in Clothing Production and this allowed her career to take flight. As one of the pioneers of TSS, she went on to do work experience with bridal wear legend Mariana Hardwick. This is where Abuk immersed herself in the dying craft of exquisite dress making.
Hardwick told the ABC that TSS was doing her a favour, not the other way around.
“It’s absolutely win-win, we can offer pathways to employment and what The Social Studio has offered us is more or less a recruitment service. It’s very difficult in the manufacturing industry in Australia to find people who are interested. It’s a dying art,” Hardwick said.
Abuk’s daily commute, from the family home in Dandenong to Collingwood and back, eventually became too tiresome. An idea soon materialised, and Abuk was now gathering a small group of individuals together to train them in dressmaking, as well as creating her own clothing and home wares shop in her suburb of Dandenong.
TSS embraced the idea and supported Abuk and her new enterprise, Twitch Women’s Sewing Collective. Her Dandenong location got a chic makeover, and she now stocks wares that include an appealing mix of beaded and bright African clothing, along with more contemporary western pieces, and simple yet stylish home décor. In 2013, she received an award from the Victorian Multicultural Commission for her work with the Twitch Collective.
This is just one success story. There have been many more to come out of TSS. The collective space is rich, dynamic and thriving with activity and visionary ideas for expansion and expression. TSS has captured the public’s imagination with huge community outpourings of expertise, love and support.
Startling beautiful, vibrant and contemporary, the TSS label has gone from strength to strength in the past year. From the very beginning, TSS championed sustainable values for the fashion industry. They used off-cuts and samples from fashion houses and recycled clothing to create bespoke, one-off pieces that are constructed using high-quality production methods – the very antithesis of mainstream fashion. Shoppers have the unique opportunity to meet and know the maker of the clothing and to tangibly see the positive influence that their purchases are making on their community.
The fashion world has eaten it right up. In 2013, an exciting collaboration called ‘Colour Chameleon’ took place, in which Australian fashion powerhouses Ken Done, Lime Drop, Bul, Alpha60 and Obus designed textile prints for TSS, who transformed them into a range of limited edition garments. The results were nothing short of iconic.
Good ideas spread fast. There’s now The Social Outfit located in Paddington, New South Wales – plus ‘sister shops’ located in Dandenong and Collingwood, Victoria.
TSS celebrates six years in April 2016. To showcase their achievements, a coffee table book has been released, containing stories, art, recipes, fashion, and all of the treasured family and friends who have been involved in the Studio – like a glorious family tree.
TSS is a hidden treasure that you need to discover for yourself! Head to 128 Smith Street Collingwood, Victoria, for a day of incredible food and one-of-a-kind clothing that’s reasonably priced to boot – a purchase you can truly feel good about.
“I wanted to start up a business that honoured and respected people’s skills and qualities, rather than trying to change people to suit the business. One of the things that really stood out for me was fashion, it was really empowering to people. I thought about how creative and dynamic new communities are in Australia, and how it would be nice to have a platform for other cultures to teach Australia a thing or two about how to dress, and how to celebrate life and culture a bit more.” Dr Grace McQuilten – Founder, The Social Studio.