Social Studio, Smith Street, 2pm

This week Collingwood’s Social Studio is a hive of activity as the voting for $100,000 Oprah prize draws to a close.

The prize, run through American Express and the Oprah Winfrey television show, seeks to recognise the work of a worthy community initiative.

The Social Studio opened in 2009 and provides a space for refugee youth to be trained in fashion design. Since then they have presented two major fashion collections and sell their garments through trendy shops such as Hunter Gatherer.

All of the commissions from the sale of the garments return to the designers themselves, providing them with income as well as education.

I narrowly avoided the afternoon downpour and cycled over to Social Studio.  There I met with Zubeyda Ahmed, the Studio’s retail coordinator, and designer Atong Joseph.

Tell me about the Oprah competition, you must be so excited.

Zubeyda: This started two weeks ago when our manager Grace entered us. We didn’t know anything and when we came in on the Monday a film crew was coming over to film the pilot for the voting.

It’s been going crazy ever since with everyone voting on facebook. If we win, we are hoping to use the money to expand the Studio upstairs, get new sewing machines and a screen printer.

Also, we want to get our designers out there and get boutique owners or shop owners interested in our wares.

How has interest in the program grown?

We started promoting in March 2009 and we opened our doors in September of the same year. It’s only been a year and it’s all word of mouth.

Atong, How did you get involved with Social Studio?

Atong: There is a friend of mine who works for a migrant information centre, and knew I liked fashion, so she introduced me to everyone. I’ve been at Social Studio for six months.

What kind of design inspires you?

Atong: We are putting our ideas of where we come from [into the design]. My cultural background is Sudanese and everything is always colourful in African culture. Sudanese and Australian dresses are totally different, so I like combining western styles with African patterns.

Who are your mentors?

Atong: My auntie inspires me, she has a shop in Dandenong and she designs African women’s clothing. I told my auntie that I want to work for my own label and create my own ideas.

It’s been a really great experience to learn new things everyday. I meet new people all the time with friendly smiles.

It seems to me that providing a supportive social network is an integral part of Social Studio.

Zubeyda: The majority of students here are new to the community so for them it’s a great opportunity to be amongst people who have been through a lot of the same experiences and are around the same age. So there is an understanding and mutual respect you couldn’t find at a school.

It’s a great way to engage with people – its not intimidating because people don’t need to feel here like they are an alien or that they are foreign.

What have you learnt about embracing difference?

Zubeyda: Well people assume, for example, because Atong and I are both from East Africa, that we both have the same experiences, but they are completely different. Being Somalian, I hadn’t had that much exposure for people from Sudan, so working here has been very beneficial for me.

Social Studio is unique because everyone is different. There are Anglo-Saxons, Africans etcetera and it’s a great example of how a work environment should be.

What exciting plans do you have for next year?

Zubeyda: We are planning to do L’Oreal fashion week. We are hoping to get out designers out into the industry. Featuring ourselves along other designers will boost the awareness of us.

Every year we get a new batch of beginner students and we now have former students who are working at Mariana Hardwick.

Voting closes this Saturday, so to show your support for Social Studio head to the American Express links through their facebook page.

The Social Studio, 128 Smith Street, Collingwood.