Seeing government funding cuts to women’s group support, online retailer Birdsong are empowering local communities by harnessing their creative skills – and creating beautiful clothing in the process.
Birdsong are a clothing company with a difference. Noticing that real, ethical fashion was missing from the high street, and that local women’s groups had the skills to make clothing, but not the platform to sell it, Birdsong started their own clothing revolution.
This is our first feature of a series featuring Birdsong. Over the coming weeks we’ll be chatting to the founders, the migrant groups they work with, and seeing how they are doing business in our city a little differently.
We talked to their cofounder and brand director, Sophie Slater (on the right, above), whose proving that ethics and business are a truly successful match – and that clothes can look good and do good.
Noticing the need
Sophie explains what spurred her to do something rather different.
“We set up because we wanted to do fashion in an idealistic, different way. We want to revolutionise the way people dress, working under the promise of no sweatshops and no photoshop, and are working solely with women’s groups and charities in order to produce our clothing. Many women’s groups produce beautiful clothing but face barriers when it comes to selling.”
Sophie and her business partner Sarah (middle, above) both worked in the charities’ sector before setting up Birdsong. They directly witnessed the fallout from the 2010 funding cuts and beyond, that hit women’s organisations hardest. Independent thinktank the Women’s Budget Group found that women will have taken on 85% of the burden of the governments changes to the tax and benefits system by 2020. Sophie and Sarah saw untapped skills in these communities and a way they could help.
“A lot of the groups we work with are migrant low-income women who’ve emigrated, or their parents have emigrated from Bangladesh or Pakistan. They often have these fantastic sewing skills but are locked out of the fashion industry because they don’t necessarily have the right qualifications on paper. We also work with elderly communities, and there are so many aspects of the fashion business that block older women or women who don’t necessarily have English as a first language from entering the industry.”
“Lots of the groups we spoke to were keen to sell online but they had massive confidence barriers and didn’t know how to set it all up – so, Sarah and I, as two 22/23-year olds at the time with access to Instagram, thought - we can do this! And it all spun out from there.”
A look into the Birdsong community network
One of the groups Birdsong works with is called FabricWorks, a safe space for women, predominantly migrants, who may have experienced domestic violence, don’t speak English, or are out of work because of mental health problems. They can come, learn to sew for free and bond with other women, and potentially get hired on a commission basis.
They also work with a group of dinner ladies, and with the help of London Fashion Week Designer (and friend) Clare, who ran a workshop using Pinterest for trend research.
“If English is your second language, it's really easy to type one word in and you get all this visual inspiration. “
“So we started them on these emoji boob T-shirt designs which they thought were hilarious, and we've been doing those for about three years and they're our bestseller now. We've done eggs, blood oranges, avocados – we come up with a new one every season. They're hand-painted using stencils and they get £20 from each T-shirt. The work is flexible and fits really well around their lives.”
Creating high-quality ethical fashion
The quality of the clothing produced is something that’s hugely important to Sophie. Birdsong are creating ethically produced clothing, but it’s still quirky, stylish, and made with quality materials. “I’ve noticed that a lot of companies scrimp on things like detail and finishing. So we're trying really hard to be better: paying people properly and thinking about the designs, so that everything is both well-considered and lovingly made.”
With this attention to detail and community focus, they are able to ensure that people are being treated well and that they are truly ethical in their production. “Most fashion businesses have 100 layers in their supply chain because they outsource everything. That’s where exploitation can arise, because they don't really know what's going on. Half of big brands don't actually know where items are cut and sewn. So we're quite lucky that we literally know everyone who’s involved in the sewing process by name.”
Running a social enterprise
Birdsong function as a social enterprise, not as a charity, for very good reasons. It means they can be financially sustainable rather than relying on grants: “we can't really say that we're building a sustainable revenue option for these women's charities if we're there competing for the same grants.” They are structured like any other company but put their ethics and community mind at the fore of the business.
But Sophie is passionate that this should be the normal way of running a business. “In our dream world we always talk about ethical business or social enterprise not really even needing to have that precursor – it should just be the way you do business, the way you do fashion: just being considerate about the environment and the people you work with. We see ourselves as a regular company that's just quite considerate. Well – very considerate!”
What's next for Birdsong?
“Short term, we're thinking of setting up a screen-printing group at a women's organisation near Grenfell Tower, as screen-printing is super easy to do.”
“Longer term we'd love to have this central cooperative space where everyone can learn different skills and hop between different disciplines with loads of stuff at head office and become more vertically integrated. I would love to provide a creche and yoga classes, maybe team up with other brands so there's a steady stream of work. That's the dream.”
Look out for Birdsong at their summer concept store in Hoxton this month (June 22 - July 1) where they'll be curating stock from cult designers Tatty Devine, Mary Benson, Clio Peppiatt and more... We’ll be going behind-the-scenes in our next article, looking at the design process and their new collection, and how they’re bringing it to the city.