'It sounds like a little thing ... but it’s powerful': the new Sydney boutique where everything is free

Clare Press
·5-min read

The new Thread Together boutique on Sydney’s Oxford Street, Darlinghurst, looks much like any other in these parts. The décor is chic black and white. There’s vase of tropical flowers on the counter. The racks boast smart blazers, shirts both dress and casual, jeans and sneakers. This place covers all options for the stylish gent.

Womenswear runs from the office-appropriate – tailoring – to flouncy cotton dresses for looking fresh when the temperatures climb. Stencilled on one wall is an Instagrammable quote from the American fashion designer Marc Jacobs. It reads, “Clothes mean nothing until someone lives in them.”

Like I said, this place is much like any other boutique, bar one important difference – everything is free. Even the rent – landlords Toga Group and AsheMorgan have provided the space gratis.

“We don’t call it a boutique,” says Kat Brown, a Thread Together clothing hub manager. “We call the stores clothing hubs, and we have them in Canberra and Adelaide as well as Sydney. We reach clients in rural areas through our mobile wardrobe vans.”

These feature custom-fit hanging rails, drawers and mirrors. Covid-safety means their dinky fitting rooms are off limits for now, but that hasn’t stopped customers from snapping up the merch. The vans invariably return empty, says Brown, who took one down to Eden on the New South Wales south coast last week. “There’s a lot of need.”

“After the bushfires we went out [in the vans to affected areas] and clothed families who’d lost everything,” she says. More often, though, Thread Together caters to refugees and asylum seekers, people experiencing homelessness or fleeing domestic violence. Maybe it’s someone wanting to look smart for an interview or court date, or someone just out of prison who hasn’t had new clothes in years.

To shop (for free) at Thread Together, clients must be referred by one of the organisation’s charity and social services partners, which include church groups, government and community programs. The stock is deadstock – as end-of-line, unsold, excess stock is known in the fashion business – donated from Australian brands.

“The majority of my clients are people sleeping rough for whatever reason,” Brown says. At the time of the last census, 116,000 people in Australia were experiencing homelessness, an increase of 14% on the previous five years. “But it could be anyone living below the poverty line who can’t make ends meet.”

Thread Together was founded in 2012 by Andie Halas, a former fashion industry insider with a marketing background (her husband founded the Seafolly swimwear brand). “I’d visited the Asylum Seekers Centre and seen how people had to rummage through boxes of donated old stuff to see if there was anything they could use,” she says.

“Of course, there’s a place for second-hand donations, but do you really want a used bra? There’s something about being given a choice. I thought about how much end-of-line stock fashion companies waste. I went away and filled up my car with new clothes, from a number of fashion companies, and delivered them back to the centre.”

It’s too easy to dismiss clothing as superficial. “Your clothes are one of the ways you make a first impression,” Brown says. “Every day I’m helping people who are doing it tough, sleeping rough or whatever. New clothes can mean new confidence. People look at them differently. I see the physical change in some clients, literally in front of my eyes.

“I had this one man come in, his name is Andrew, and he was looking at the clothes … I noticed he had holes in his shoes. Turns out he only had one pair and had been wearing them for three years. I asked his size, and said, ‘Take a seat.’ We brought him new ones to try on, and he ended up getting two pairs. He was so overwhelmed; his hands went to his face. Half an hour later I saw him walk past, head held high … The way he walked, his whole demeanour had changed.”

Brown has taken part in Thread Together styling sessions, supported by the online fashion brand The Iconic and held for clients of Lou’s Place – a women’s refuge in Potts Point, Sydney. “It sounds like a little thing: trying on clothes, getting their hair and makeup done, but it’s powerful. Choose a new wardrobe, get to feel beautiful and be looked after again. And maybe this was something they used to do. Before. You see how it matters to these women. I always say to them, ‘It’s not going to last. This is just now.’”

Brown knows. She’s been there herself as a survivor of a violent situation . “We had 15 minutes to get out of there … Our life changed dramatically. Finding myself in a women’s refuge with almost nothing, then in temporary housing, I know what that’s like. You’re in pain, you’re angry, you’re dealing with so much.” Brown, who has a personal styling background, got a new wardrobe through Thread Together. She helped out as a volunteer before landing her current role.

Halas says that in Thread Up’s early days, she was thinking about “dignity and human connection” more than charity or fighting fashion waste. “But it soon became apparent by the sheer volume of what was being donated that waste was a massive issue. Remember, this was eight years ago – think how much more knowledge we have today about fashion’s environmental impacts.”

According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 73% of clothing ends up landfilled or incinerated at the end of its life. While the pre-consumer picture is a bit shadowy – most brands aren’t too keen on revealing how much they destroy – some studies suggest as much as one-third of the clothing produced is never sold.

“I hope one day we don’t have excess clothing, and we have to find another way to provide this service,” Halas says. “I don’t see that happening any time soon though.” For now, they will keep doing what they’re doing. “It is about change – it can change a person’s day.”