What do fashion brands really stand for? Nice new clothes? Keeping up with the latest trends? Creativity? Or maybe something else – diversity, perhaps, or empowerment? Capitalism? Greenwashing? Lining the pockets of rich old men who spend their time tax-dodging on yachts? No doubt your level of cynicism will dictate your answer.
But what if they could stand for something else? Meet Birdsong.
Birdsong was set up by two Londoners; 26-year-old Sarah Beckett and 25-year-old Sophie Slater. Their manifesto is simple: no sweatshop, no Photoshop. They make sure women at each stage of production are treated fairly, and what's more, they mainly work with women’s groups who’ve been particularly hard-hit by funding cuts, helping train them up and giving them most of the profits. One group of Muslim women from Tower Hamlets had a training session with Clio Peppiatt, during which the London Fashion Week designer taught them how to do visual research on Pinterest (for many of the women, English is their second language, so the image-based platform is a particularly useful tool). Since then they’ve seen a noticeable increase in sales.
Now, after a successful crowdfunding campaign, Birdsong has launched an IRL version of their shop, bringing together some of their favourite feminist brands. “We wanted to get all of the babes under one roof” says Slater. “The idea was to build a concept store, where you can buy gifts for all the best women in your life. We’re building a little feminist utopia.”
If you’re new to this kind of thing, the idea of a feminist fashion brand may jar. Why do we need a brand to be feminist? But it’s a notion that’s caught on in recent years, thanks to an increased awareness of how (mainly female) workers get treated by the hyper-aggressive fast fashion industry, whether they’re in a sweatshop or on a photoshoot.
“Initially people didn’t really get it. Feminist fashion? They were almost a bit hostile” muses Slater. “Now in the past two years there are so many brands that have feminist principles. The fact that Thinx, who are our main partner for the pop-up – they’re called ‘patriarchy-smashing underwear’ – are so popular now shows how far fashion has come.”
While technology has yet to revolutionise fashion manufacturing, its adoption at the consumer end (mainly through our love of social media) has had a profound impact on how ideas and movements begin and spread. Which is one of the reasons behind Birdsong's success. “With social and digital media at our fingertips, it is very easy to educate oneself and others instantly” says Ryan Patel, a global executive retail expert. “Consumers are striving to make informed decisions even to the point where they are in a retail store checking their phone or googling what they are buying.”
Dr. Carolyn Mair, reader in Psychology at London College of Fashion, has a different perspective, lamenting the industry’s shortcomings in adopting technology. “The really innovative nature of technology that we could have, that could make things better, doesn’t really happen” she says. “Because all it does is send tweets around of what we’re wearing. Which is fun but not particularly useful.”
Thanks to the modern wonders of technology, and the precedent set by the food industry, we assume that each part of the supply chain could and should be visible. And at some point, yes, we will be able to trace the origin of our clothes – just not anytime soon. “People often quote the food industry and there’s been some great work done there” offers Lauretta Roberts, editor-in-chief of Industry London. “There’s a suggestion that fashion will follow that model – and to some extent it can – but it’s a lot more complicated. Quite often, different bits of an item come from very different places.”
Mair has another concern when it comes to ethical fashion practices: that overexposure to the problems within the fashion industry is actually stopping positive behaviour changes from happening among consumers. “People are aware of the issues of climate change, and the problems of overconsumption, but I think that’s been done a bit to death” she says. “And the same with diversity. It just becomes diluted because we say 'diversity' all the time. What does it mean? We can’t have a model who looks like every single one of us.”
And technology doesn’t just help spread ideas and social movements within the fashion industry. Take 2016, for example. Fake news, Trump, Brexit: a lot of what’s happened this year has played out on and been fed by social media. And it’s left many young people feeling disenfranchised and powerless.
Your vote might not get you what you want, but how you spend your time and money can make a positive change.
So perhaps this is another factor driving the success of initiatives like Birdsong; your vote might not get you what you want, but how you spend your time and money can make a positive change. “When you have got a small disposable income, you want to feel like you’re spending it on a future you’re working towards” agrees Slater. “Even if, politically, you can’t get there with your vote.”
While other Instagram-driven movements like ‘clean eating’ and buying locally sourced organic food have become a status symbol for the social media age, many of us still brag about getting clothes for cheap. A £60 Zara haul here, a Topshop sale splurge there. But that’s because, according to Mair, wanting to buy new things is an intrinsic part of being human. “We have a desire for the new because we habituate” she explains. “It’s like any appetite; if you think of food, or even sex, we have an appetite and that gets satisfied for a while then it comes up again.”
Until there are more options to buy clothes that are as good for the women who make them as they are for those of us who wear them, we’re stuck at a crossroads. Then, of course, buying well and ethically is a luxury in itself, one that many people simply can’t afford.
It’s easy to call sustainable, ethical fashion a movement because of what we’ve seen trending on Instagram but, if 2016 has taught us anything, it’s that social media serves as the world’s most effective echo chamber.
There isn’t just a financial, class-based disparity here; there's a geographical one, too. “We had an interview with a French radio station recently and they were saying that the body-positive movement hasn’t happened at all over there, and it’s a very London-centric, New York-focused movement” says Slater. “We’re so aware of it, we live and breathe it. Yes, Birdsong has sold in 16 different countries now and we get customers from all over the country. But if people aren’t getting paid enough, they aren’t going to spend more on a T-shirt then they have to.” Roberts agrees: “You can’t chastise people for shopping in Primark when they have four kids and are just getting by.”
So yes, if we all start boycotting high-street chains then a lot of people will very quickly be out of jobs; from UK-based retail assistants to developing-country garment workers. But while we may not always be able to buy clothes that make a positive change in the world, thanks to companies like Birdsong, we can at least try every now and again. And at some point, those high-street fashion brands might start to take note.
After all, it’s us – the people buying the clothes – who drive trends. Not corporations. And if H&M’s recent foray into diversity teaches us anything, it’s that retailers will jump on any trend – whether it’s velvet boots or a widespread feminist social movement – if it bags them some more sales.
This article was first published December 15, 2106.