MAKING a fashion statement while raising awareness of Indigenous culture and heritage is the ethos behind Gunditjmara woman Laura Thompson's iconic and highly-respected label Clothing The Gap.
The label has risen to prominence over the past two years as Ms Thompson strives to celebrate Aboriginal people and culture.
The brand name plays on the Australian Government health initiative 'Closing the Gap' which aims to close the life expectancy gap between Aboriginal people and non-Indigenous Australians.
Through its social media platform, which boasts about 86,000 followers, Clothing the Gap has become a prominent voice in the Australian landscape intertwining fashion and activism and produces clothing which is 'ally friendly' or for 'mob only'.
The brand raises awareness about Indigenous issues including Black Lives Matter, Free the Flag and Change the Date movements and its profits support one of Ms Thompson's other businesses Spark Health.
"We're health promotion experts so sharing information and encouraging behaviour change is at the core of what we believe in and what we do," Ms Thompson said.
"Any message we create and put on a garment, we create that message with mob at our heart.
We create t-shirts for mob and then we educate non-Aboriginal people about the issues with the hope they will buy the t-shirts and have these conversations that are important to Aboriginal people and reconciliation in this country .Laura Thompson
"When I see those messages out in my world and this increased visibility of Aboriginal people and messages that support us, I feel like Aboriginal people are seen and heard and we feel like we're not alone."
Ms Thompson's links to the south-west are strong.
Her mother and grandmother lived in Framlingham before moving to Collingwood where Ms Thompson calls home.
"My mum and my grandma grew up on the Aboriginal mission at Framlingham near Warrnambool so they're Gunditjmara people," she said.
"In the mid-'60s they moved to Melbourne and were part of a movement to establish Aboriginal community controlled organisations. I have visited (Framlingham) but it's not something I get to do as much as I would like. I was born and raised in the city in Collingwood in the high-rise flat on the 11th floor and I guess at the time of growing up, we just didn't have the resources to travel back to country as much as we would have liked to."
Ms Thompson attained her Masters in Public Health from Deakin University in 2011 and has worked at the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services, the University of Melbourne and the Victorian Aboriginal Health Service.
While working at the Victorian Aboriginal Health Service, Ms Thompson launched her own brand of earrings, called The Koorie Circle as a side-hustle and exploration of her creative pursuits.
"The Koorie Circle is pretty much 80 per cent run by my daughter at the moment, it became a COVID hobby for her, she's given it the love it needed and it certainly has lots of potential for growth," Ms Thompson said.
"I've kept that afloat because I just really enjoy earrings first and that's why I started it but the supporters really love the products.
"I want to keep sharing beautiful earrings with them to enjoy them and you can never have too many earrings."
Her passion for public health remains strong and in January 2018, Ms Thompson and her business partner Sarah Sheridan launched Spark Health.
"To the core I'm a health promotion and public health person," she said.
"We wanted to see what was possible with a business and what is my passion, which is to add years to people's lives.
"We started what I call a little boutique specialised Aboriginal health promotion business and we were able to secure a few contracts and that's what sort of set the ball rolling."
Ms Thompson admitted the beginning of Spark Health was daunting as she didn't know anyone else who'd started their own business at that point.
After renting out a property in Preston with their own money, Ms Thompson and Ms Sheridan began using merchandise to create funding for their programs.
"We were lucky enough to do what we love doing most and that was engaging Aboriginal community in and around Victoria at the grassroots level and involving them in their communities," she said.
"We'd always use merchandise as incentives for participation in our program so if you hung out with us, you got this really cool singlet we designed to incentivise participation that reinforced Aboriginal cultural identity and pride.
"We decided because we're in business let's put that leftover merch online. We created a brand called Spark Merch and that was the very seed that launched what is now Clothing the Gap."
Listen to our conversation with Laura Thompson:
Throughout 2020, the Black Lives Matter movement in Australia has seen many people reach out to Aboriginal businesses to support them as well as educate themselves on the cultural differences within the country.
Clothing the Gap has created a huge amount of awareness for the Free the Flag movement through its iconic t-shirt design.
The brand posted on social media providing information about the movement in June 2019 after receiving a cease and desist letter from WAM Clothing who has been granted the exclusive use of the Aboriginal flag on clothing.
"The flag should be about pride and not profit," Ms Thompson said.
"Our petition now has over 150,000 signatories and we've had that tabled in Parliament twice.
"We want the flag to be treated equally, we want the same rights that Australians have to enjoy the Australian flag, we want that for the Aboriginal flag.
"The Aboriginal flag is one of the only copyrighted flags in the world that is also an official flag of a country."
Throughout her activism, one of the questions Ms Thompson is asked most is 'how can non-Indigenous people become allies?'
"I don't think it's really straightforward," she said.
You can start with a t-shirt, you can turn up to rallies, you can educate yourself and we point people in the direction of other great black people to follow up the great resources to read.Laura Thompson
"It's often easier to talk about great examples rather than saying this is textbook what to do. Carla Scotto is a non-Indigenous climate change artist, she gifted us one of her designs. Our 'Always Was, Always Will Be' t-shirt is actually designed by a non-Indigenous person and was gifted to us.
"I think for good ally-ship you have to do what you're great at already and what you love doing and think about how you can contribute."
November 8-15 marks NAIDOC Week; which celebrates the history, culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
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