March 8th marks an important day in the feminist calendar. International Women’s Day has now become a celebration in every part of the world and a chance to take part in inspiring and challenging events. As we cheer the centenary of women’s right to vote in the UK, this year’s #PressforProgress theme is rallying women, men and non-binary people under one global movement of activism. From animated marches to exciting festivals, there are plenty of ways to get involved and fight for gender equality everywhere in the UK.
Fashion has also had its say in the debate. Activism was the watchword for 2017 and has kept crawling on the runway this fashion month. Whether its Maria Grazia Chiuri taking inspiration from the 60s and women’s rights slogans in her AW18 show for Dior, or Prabal Gurung celebrating female-dominated societies in his latest collection, the fashion world has thrown its weight behind women’s empowerment causes. This is nothing new, there are plenty of people working in fashion who have been striving to make a change in the industry. Fashion Revolution has been campaigning since the Rana Plaza factory collapse in 2014 by asking #whomademyclothes to big companies that are exploiting underpaid workers in developing countries. In April, the Fashion Revolution Week will take place once again to demand greater transparency in the fashion supply chain.
Ethics and sustainability are being addressed by many small and independent brands that are making a real difference in the fashion landscape. In London, there is a particular demand and opportunities for fairer and more creative labels who are cutting down their production and offering well-made and long-lasting products. To paraphrase the feminist slogan of 2018, Time’s Up; the rule of destructive corporates is (hopefully) coming to an end.
Enter Birdsong, an ethical fashion brand selling clothes made by women, for women. Sophie, Sarah and Susanna, the three creatives behind Birdsong, follow the motto of “no sweatshop, no photoshop”, working with small women’s groups and charities in East London to empower their unique skills. They also collaborate with women from all over the world, from India to Swaziland, Ghana to Palestine, giving them the recognition they deserve while honouring their beautiful crafts. Whatsmore, as everything they do is from a feminist perspective, you will never see a ‘perfect’ body on Birdsong’s website – the brand uses only unedited images of real women shot by feminist photographers.
Far away from the cliché of ethical fashion that is either insanely expensive or hemp sacks, Birdsong offers garments that have a meaningful story while giving the wearer confidence and self-esteem. So you can be sure something good will come out of your shopping addiction without having to break the bank.
For International’s Women Day, they’ve reinterpreted the basic white tee, taking inspiration from the poem ‘Still I Rise’ by poet and activist Maya Angelou, who also serves as the inspiration for the name of the label. The organic cotton tees are embroidered by a community sewing school in Bow and the money raised from the t-shirts will go towards sewing lessons for women with low income and people with disabilities. Priced at only £26, they start production on IWD and will be shipped soon after. To mark the occasion we chatted with co-founder Sophie Slater who talked body positivity, empowerment and how to stay authentic in a growing market.
Notion: You and your co-founders met on a postgrad course; how did you decide to set up Birdsong?
Sophie Slater: Me and my business partner Sarah met in 2014 while we were both on Year Here (a free postgrad in social change) and on placements working for charities. I had a (very brief!) stint working as a model and much longer stint in retail at American Apparel. I was really interested in ethical fashion production and the fashion industry in general, but had massive qualms with the sex-pest CEO at AA and their creepy, objectifying advertising. I’d also experienced body policing (being made to feel like I shouldn’t eat or change shape, or that my bum was too big) at my modelling agency.
Sarah was working at this elderly day centre, and the knitting circle there kept churning out scarves. They had knitted stuff coming out of their ears because it’s so calming, meditative, helps with arthritis and helped the women there feel purposeful. [The irony is] they were selling them at bring-and-buys for a fiver, while stressing about funding opportunities for the centre at the same time.
What did you think was missing or done wrong on the market at the time?
I’d been working for women’s charities and doing feminist activism since about 2012, but every women’s group I worked with saw their funding get cut to shreds. They often had good craft skills too, but weren’t sure of the best way to turn it into cash. For us, feminism was becoming more mainstream and consumers were wising up to sexist advertising. Street casting, working with feminist photographers in our network and doing work to include women left out by budget cuts felt like a good way to start out a fashion brand that we really believed in. All the pieces of the puzzle were there, and we love clothes so we did it. I think because we were coming at the industry from a completely different angle, we just wanted to build our brand from the ground up in as empowering, and idealistic a way possible. We were so young it didn’t really phase us to do everything differently. People liked the idea so we got offered some funding back in late 2014 and we’ve been doing it since.
How do you make sure women feel empowered by working on your products and that your supply chain stays ethical?
So all the charities and groups we work with have extra elements to their production – they’re not working on factory floors but in social, inclusive spaces where women can chat, take breaks, play with kids in an onsite crèche or pop out to do other things. They have informal support for things like experiencing domestic violence or poor mental health. We check in with our makers a lot, and run designs or ideas by them, and negotiate everything as an equal collaboration. Also, we pay a London Living Wage by the hour for the products they work on.
Can you present and describe a particular brand or women’s group that you’re working with that really represent Birdsong?
We started working with a charity called FabricWorks last year and they make most of our lookbook collections. They’re the biggest babes. The charity supports women by getting them to join the free training program in a safe space. Most of them face issues such as long-term unemployment, have low confidence, or have experienced domestic violence. They get to learn industry-standard textile skills while making a local support network, getting CV advice and learning English. They are crazy talented and we pay £15ph for their sewing services. They sent us a Valentine’s card this year to say how much they loved working with us and we all cried.
I understand poet and activist Maya Angelou has been a strong inspiration for you from the beginning of the brand. How did you come across her and why did you choose her poem Still I Rise to be embroidered on your limited edition t-shirts for IWD?
We weren’t sure what to call our project when we started out, and then we really had to make our minds up when we did the business paperwork, but that was tough. We happened to both be reading Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings at the time, so a friend suggested we call the business Birdsong, and it stuck. I like it because it’s quite optimistic.
We absolutely love the poem, [Still I Rise] and its whole message. It felt very apt this year with #MeToo and women achieving amazing things in protest. We had a few options for the t-shirts but thought it’d be fun to put it to a public vote over email and our Instagram and this one won.
Talking about social media, you are promoting body positivity with real women in your ads and no photoshop, what would you say to young girls that feel misrepresented in the media or lack confidence in themselves?
It’s funny, I did a body positivity workshop with an interfaith teenage girls group last year – which was an amazing challenge because I had to keep it very PG, but I felt like I learnt so much from their perspective.
I think that my advice would be concentrating on your own body as completely yours. If you see your body as a source of pleasure for yourself, rather than how it’s perceived in the world, whether that’s enjoying picking your nose or admiring how warm it keeps you, that’s important and revelatory.
I treated my body really badly as a teenager by smoking and drinking shit loads, having cherry cola for breakfast, and only thinking of my body as a canvas for other people or as a bartering item for love and attention – so don’t do that! It sounds cliché and cheesy, but have fun expressing yourself through fashion and makeup but also know that who you are is so much more than your physical form, and that being kind to yourself means treating your body with gentle compassion. All bodies are good bodies!
You mentioned #MeToo and women’s protests, where does Birdsong stand in the current feminist climate happening all over the world?
I saw Angela Davis speak last year at the South Bank last year and she said to see ourselves of tiny grains of sand in the great history of progress, but that nonetheless even if we can’t see the change we’re making that’s it’s really worthwhile. I hope Birdsong can become a chunk of cement out of all the grains involved and make a blueprint for a better world for women and workers.
Do you think ethical fashion is a trend at the moment? How do you remain original and true to your values?
Genuine interest in sustainability is growing massively and so many fantastic small brands have popped up in the past few years. So that’s great. But I think people are wising up to the fact that our resources are limited, and also that unlike “femvertising” you can’t really co-opt the language of sustainability without making an actual change.
You can’t say you’re ethical but then get caught out not paying people properly and customers are wise to that, so lots of the big chains will say they’re sustainable instead because it’s a bit of a vaguer term.
I’m an eternal optimist so I want everyone to move in the direction we are. Because it’s not a trend for us and comes from a completely different perspective and angle I feel it’s easy for us to remain true – we just know to treat people well and with respect and I don’t think that’s a trend that’ll come and go.
What are your plans for this coming year?
We’ll be doing another pop-up shop in May with [period-proof underwear brand] THINX, launching a really beautiful summer line in June, and hope to eventually open our own flagship store and factory based in East London – so lots we’re excited about.
To purchase the ‘Still I Rise’ tee and to find out more about Birdsong to head to their website.
All photography courtesy of Birdsong
Words Morgane Nyfeler