Today is Fashion Revolution Day, and as our corresponding Fashion Matters column highlights, there are some inherent problems within the fashion industry. Yet, the exposure of such issues is surely a sign that progress is possible. Talking to Sophie Slater, a co-founder of the feminist and ethical fashion marketplace, Birdsong London, this couldn’t be more apparent.
Sophie, along with her Birdsong co-founders, Ruba Huleihel and Sarah Beckett, have reconciled fashion with feminism and consumption with social responsibility through their production process; Birdsong’s suppliers are an extraordinary mix of women’s groups. These include Staywell, an elderly ladies’ knitting group, and Sweet Cavanagh, a group of women recovering from eating disorders and addictions who make jewellery. Birdsong’s promise is that 70-90 per cent of the money spent on these women’s beautiful creations goes straight back to the brilliant women who made them.
Birdsong was the result of a process of frustration with the fashion industry. â€¨“A series of events when I was a late â€¨teenager reinforced my feminist beliefs and made me want to get more involved in the fashion industry,” Sophie recalls. “When I was a teenager I did some modelling, and whilst at the time it did feel very glamorous and exciting, in hindsight there were a few things I saw that make me feel uncomfortable now. Not only did I see gorgeous girls being told to hit the gym, but I too, despite being very young and underdeveloped, was told that I was perfect the way I was. This was essentially code for ‘don’t hit puberty.’ ”
Moreover, after learning more about the sexualisation and objectification of women within the industry, Sophie became determined to turn the fashion industry on its head and to empower women through it.
So, with Ruba and Sarah, Sophie set out to work with women’s groups to make fashion that was principally about ethics. “We knew that a lot of women’s groups make things for therapeutic purposes, but obviously they don’t have the resources to channel their energy into marketing them. So, we did a bit of research and approached a few groups and came across Staywell and Sweet Cavanagh. We already had good relations with the former because Sarah had previously worked there. She knew that one of the leaders of the knitting group had fallen ill and had lost direction and purpose, so they needed a project to work on. Sweet Cavanagh already ran a jewellery workshop for women recovering from eating disorders and addictions, and the money they made was used to finance care and counselling.”
â€¨“Both groups really fit into our mission and we almost developed Birdsong around them. Once we knew that there was the need for the marketing of these products we decided to help maximise these women’s groups’ potential by selling online.”â€¨
Whilst Birdsong is using the internet in a positive manner, Sophie reveals that the instantaneous and anonymous nature of e-commerce masks information over the conditions of our clothes’ production. “When you purchase something in one click online it’s so divorced from its origins,” Sophie remarks, “there are so many layers of alienation of labour from where the product was first made to its arrival on your front doorstop in beautiful packaging that is really hard to imagine.”â€¨
Birdsong wants consumers to consider the invisible productive processes in their consumption and to be able to support the people actually making fashion. They want to achieve this by harnessing the power of e-commerce; “We’re moving onto a new website platform which will allow us to accommodate more of our suppliers, whilst also enabling our international suppliers to be instantly connected to us. With this change, hopefully you’ll be hearing a lot more about us because we’ll be able to shout a bit louder about what we’re doing.”
I have no doubt that we’ll soon be hearing Birdsong’s sweetest harmony; “If the Y-fronts you’re selling objectify women, make your own Y-fronts. If the fashion industry makes you feel like crap, create your own version.”