Meet the Melbourne textiles program helping young Australians break into the fashion industry



“I think young people learning to make their own clothes actually, you know, reads to sustainability at its core.”

The opportunity to work with a designer like Ingrid Verner would be a dream for many design hopefuls, let alone the chance to collaborate on the same piece of work. The young Melburnians taking part in Yarra Youth Services’ Fashion and Textile Program were able to take it one step further, not only collaborating with Verner on a selection of pieces, but debuting them on the runway at PayPal Melbourne Fashion Festival (PayPal MFF).

Meeting weekly in the heart of Fitzroy, the diverse group is made up of members from all over the city of Yarra. They get together to learn from mentors like Naarm-based fashion designer Chelsea Hickman and design a range of garments.

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With inclusion and acceptance at its heart, the Yarra Youth Services’ Fashion and Textile Program prides itself on being a safe space where those involved can express themselves creatively and exercise autonomy over their own projects.

“I think, for a lot of young people… self-expression is so important to them and being able to find their identities. Coming into fashion is a place where they feel really safe and comfortable to explore that. We start every session by going through everyone’s names and pronouns. We’re [a very] affirmative space,” the City of Yarra’s Youth Arts Officer, Rebecca Sacchero, explains.

Supported by PayPal MFF and The Social Studio, the recent collaboration with Verner gave these up-and-coming creatives a chance to have their designs worn by models at PayPal MFF and Fashion Journal‘s Independent Runway earlier this year.

After connecting with Ingrid, who handed over some of her pieces, the young people had three workshops where she mentored them through the process of upcycling, airbrushing and combining different elements of preexisting garments to make something new.

“It’s really special to get to do things that get recognised on a higher scale, like being in Melbourne Fashion Festival on a runway… That’s just such a special opportunity for us to get to do stuff like that,” Rebecca tells me.

This collaboration is just one of many projects that the members of Yarra Youth work on each Thursday night. Their detailed resume includes working with Gertrude Street Projection Festival in 2019, where they designed white garments which had light projections shining onto them.

But so far, Chelsea’s personal favourite has been the virtual runway, where Yarra Youth created and modelled garments responding to the theme ‘500 years in the future’.

While some days might find the collective working on a project like the Verner collaboration or an activity that Chelsea has brought in, like designing bucket hats, other days they have the freedom to work on individual pieces by themselves.

Right now, Juliet*, one of the creatives who attends the program, is embracing practicality and preparing for the winter by designing her own pair of tracksuit pants.

Another student, Tommy*, who recently created a black and green shirt with a ruffled collar, is now busy designing a clown-inspired jumpsuit.

“It can be difficult to get things like sewing machines and fabric yourself. So, it’s good to design a space where you can come here and use the sewing machine and fabric to learn these skills… instead of having to go out and get your own fabric,” they say.

Funded by the City of Yarra, the project recognises the importance of giving young people access to resources and opportunities in the fashion industry.

“It’s really hard to break into fashion. Unless you come from quite a privileged background, like, it’s just a really expensive thing to learn, you know, learning to sew is really expensive, getting access to a sewing machine [and] fabric is expensive,” Rebecca says.

The Fashion and Textile Program is also a chance for the creatives to experiment with their interests and explore different facets of the industry. By creating an accessible space that promotes experimentation and self-expression, young people are given a chance to forge connections and pathways into fashion, a notoriously competitive space.

“I just didn’t really know what to do… So, I think coming here, I can explore my options and see if I do want to do this in the future,” Juliet* tells me.

Tahlia*, another creative who has been going to the program for a while now, recently sourced secondhand materials for her latest design.

“Op shops are good [for materials]. You can see them and know the whole patterns there, and you don’t have to pay full price somewhere else to get it,” she says.

In a joint effort with Chelsea, who has been a long-time advocate for responsible fabric usage and recycling materials, the program also encourages upcycling and sustainability in fashion.

“[A lot of] fabrics that we do have [are] donations. Or I source from landfill, or I purchase a lot of like deadstock from closing down sales and things like that,” Chelsea comments.

“But I think young people learning to make their own clothes actually, you know, reads to sustainability at its core.”

Head here to stay updated on the Yarra Youth Services Fashion and Textile Program’s latest projects.

*The young people featured have had their names changed for privacy.

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