As part of our founder interview series, we speak with Sophie from Birdsong about creating an ethical fashion brand with women at its heart.
What is the story behind Birdsong? How did friends come together to create such a powerful brand?
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, and the knitting circle there has scarves coming our their ears. 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. But they were selling them at bring-and-buys for a fiver, while stressing about funding opportunities for the centre at the same time.
I was working for women’s charities and doing 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, with no experience, using our friends and activists as models.
92% of women’s organisations in London have had a funding crisis since 2010, so that fact and an absolute love of clothing, how you can express yourself and feel in it, is where we started from. We also want to subvert people’s expectations about ethical fashion, by having great stock that as aesthetically pleasing as it is value driven. That’s where our design co-founder Susanna came in. She is fantastic at sourcing the best in sustainable materials and works really closely with our makers. With her help we launched our own brand line in 2016.
Birdsong has its roots in “feminist fashion”. What does this mean, and how does Birdsong help to empower its makers?
It’s estimated that 60 million women worldwide – aged 18-35 and working in the garment industry – make less than a minimum wage. These women are making the clothes we see on the high street everyday, and are hidden in the fashion supply chain.
We know it’s near impossible to track where your clothing comes from and who made it – and that’s why we’re here. We work with skilled women makers in the UK that face barriers to employment, and pay them a London Living wage. We also cast friends and activists as our models rather than using agencies, and never digitally alter their appearance.
What is the meaning behind the Birdsong motto: “Dress in Protest”?
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 know that women want more from their wardrobe but that the world of ethical, sustainable and local fashion can be a minefield. So we’ve ticked all the boxes for you.
‘Ethical Fashion’ can be a bit of a buzzword. What does ‘ethical fashion’ mean to you?
Treating people with dignity, respect and paying Living Wages. Having good personal relationships with all of our makers.
How have you seen the “ethical fashion” space in London change over the last few years?
So much more choice! Ten years ago when we first started out making ethical choices as consumers, we either had American Apparel (still morally dubious!) or vintage/second hand as options at our price points. Today there are so many more brilliant brands on the scene...as well as plenty of dubious greenwashing.
How would you describe the design aesthetic of Birdsong? What is your favourite piece to wear?
You won’t find anything like our collection on the high street. Rather than following fashion’s micro-trends, we create wardrobe staples: thoughtful clothes in bright colours, edgy silhouettes and original prints. We want you to feel good wearing Birdsong, which is why we handpick all our natural fabrics – like cotton khadi and bamboo – for their sustainable credentials as well as how buttery soft they are on you skin. Our slogan tees – with messages like No Borders and Still I Rise – were designed to make an immediate statement, while our block colour jumpsuits (my personal favourite!), printed trousers and super-soft knitwear will spark conversation for a lifetime (everything, obviously, is made to last). Oh, and you can buy when it makes sense for you – we launch our clothes in monthly drops, because who wants a winter coat in July?
Why was it important to you to use untouched images of models?
Honestly, as a big proponent of feminism and a team who were shooting our friends, and people we loved and admired rather than objectified, it didn’t ever occur to us that they’d need it! But we feel that way with everyone we shoot.
What is one thing you wish everyone knew about Birdsong?
That we go out of our way to make every single part of the business as curated, and compassionate as we can.
What do you look for in other brands that you support?
Integrity, coolness, a sense of humour and a really good knowledge of their supply chain. That’s all the points we hope we convey in ourselves!
How would you like to see Birdsong grow in the future?
We’re launching a crowdfunder next month. We setting out to unlock even more potential as changemakers in the fashion industry, and create a new, zero waste collection in eco-friendly Tencel, with extended plus sizing up to 24 on a permanent basis. After that, we can’t wait to have a permanent shop and workshop space for all our makers and customers to hang out in one day.