Co-Founder Sophie Slater on how Birdsong are creating dress in protest
For our alternative fashion week takeover, The Gallyry is spotlighting sustainability in the fashion industry, from inspiring creatives and designers, to innovative organisations and brands.
Sophie Slater and Sarah Beckett founded Birdsong in 2014, inspired by the creativity they saw in local women’s groups and passionate about creating a brand that pledged both no sweatshops and no photoshop. Birdsong is built on core values of dignity, respect, and fun, and the garments are designed to empower people at all stages of the production chain; through paying workers the London Living Wage and advertising clothes to consumers with authenticity and integrity. The brand is creating a whole new framework for the fashion industry. It challenges us to expect more from our wardrobe and shows how high-street brands really can do better – not only in terms of representation and inclusivity – but in their production habits too.
I spoke with Sophie Slater – Birdsong’s Co-Founder – about the nuanced world of ethical fashion and what the future holds for the brand...
Tell me about Birdsong.
Me and my business partner Sarah met in 2014 while we were both working for charities. Sarah was working at an elderly people’s day centre. The knitting circle there had scarves coming out of their ears because it's so calming, meditative, helped with arthritis, and for the women there to feel purposeful. But they were selling them at bring-and-buy sales for a fiver, while stressing about funding opportunities for the centre at the same time.
I was working for women’s charities and doing a lot of feminist activism, but every women's group I worked with saw their funding get cut to shreds. So many older or migrant women have incredible sewing and making skills, but face huge barriers turning it into cash. We loved clothes and activism and the idea of making more women visible. So we decided to build a fashion brand as outsiders, experience, using our friends and activists as models.
We set the brand up as a Facebook page and simple website, shot our friend in the park, and launched as part of our postgrad course on Year Here. The next thing we knew, we’d got government funding to pursue our idea. The press and customer reaction was so great that it grew from there. Our core values are dignity, respect, and fun for everyone involved. We believe that good work and beautiful things should be available to anyone.
"Our core values are dignity, respect, and fun for everyone involved. We believe that good work and beautiful things should be available to anyone." – Sophie Slater
Birdsong feels unique in its championing of garment worker rights, a range of body images, and sustainability – why is it important to tackle all of these issues?
Everything we did was always built on a feminist foundation. That means using womxn and non binary photographers to avoid the male gaze in our photography, and championing women workers and charitable organisations by fairly sourcing our clothing through them, and supporting the work they do with women more marginalised than us. We’re also committed to using diverse models, making shoots a fun, positive experience for them, and never digitally altering their appearance. We use our website to tell the stories of everyone involved in Birdsong. We believe in collaboration and making women’s voices heard. We stand for optimism, and that’s why we’re rooted in sustainability and feminism, for a world that everyone can enjoy.
You say that dressing can be a means of protest, what does that mean to you and how does Birdsong support that idea?
Women have always found creative ways to make a statement with what they wear. From the power berets of the black panthers in the 60s to the quiet resolution to only wear clothes made in the UK, fashion is an important ally for change.
At Birdsong, we create clothing for women who dress in protest. We do the slogans too – our ‘No Borders and Still I Rise’ tees are some of our best-sellers – but we also make statements that last longer than the time it takes to read a t-shirt. Wearing our collection of original wardrobe staples is a protest in itself – against the fast nature of the fashion industry, against the obsessive pursuit of trends, and against the systematic abuse of women in the production line.
We design clothes for remarkable women, but were also made by them. We work with expert women makers who face barriers to employment – from artists and printmakers to seamstresses and painters – and pay them London living wage to bring our designs to life.
"Sustainability is complicated and nuanced and messy. And it can’t exist without transparency and regard for workers rights." – Sophie Slater
It feels like lots of brands are jumping on the feminist and sustainable bandwagon – do you think that this is fair to say and how do you ensure that Birdsong remains authentic?
I think it’s brilliant that brands and the people within them are thinking about this stuff, as long as it’s from a genuine place. Sustainability is complicated and nuanced and messy. And it can’t exist without transparency and regard for workers rights. These are the values baked into Birdsong – it’s why we started. Fashion wasn’t always necessarily the end goal, but it was the most useful, joyful tool to create change that worked for the women in our work.
Do you think 2020 could be the year that ethical fashion becomes the norm?
We’ve seen a lot around sustainability in the past few years, but unfortunately much less on ethics. That’s probably because it’s less profitable in the short term, but in the long term, paying Living Wages means you’re investing so much more into local communities. No industry can be sustainable if it’s built on producing excess resources and through exploitation.
What can we expect from Birdsong in the future?
Shop from us! Consuming less is great, but so is purchasing from communities like our makers, who live in one of the poorest boroughs in the UK. We’re using organic and sustainable fibres that can return to the earth, and most importantly building up resilience and opportunities for the women and people with learning disabilities we support. We can’t do that without you. And our clothes are the softest, nicest things you’ll ever wear.