In a world of performative activism, Birdsong is one of the few brands delivering on its promises. In just five years, the women-owned boutique (Sophie Slater and Sarah Beckett founded the label in 2014, Susanna Wen has since come on board as the in-house designer) has created a small, close-knit team of makers across different charities and community groups. These artisans (each of whom is paid a fair, living wage) use their skills to create beautifully, sustainably made capsule collections which not only look the part but also generate profit for good causes – 50% is invested straight back into women’s organisations, whose funding streams have largely been cut under austerity.
Having cemented their blueprint, they’ve decided to launch a size-inclusive range, which will run between UK sizes 6 and 24, adding some much-needed colour to the extremely limited plus-size sustainable fashion market. It’s being sold through a crowdfunding campaign; contributors' rewards are effectively pre-orders. This way, the only clothes being produced are the ones being bought – a business model intended to tackle fast fashion’s notorious waste problem.
It’s a weekday afternoon when I call Sophie, who happily ducks out of the office to talk everything from greenwashing and fit testing to glam rock and the frustrating lack of pockets on…well, basically all womenswear ever made. Her friendliness and warmth make it easy to see how they’ve built such close relationships with their makers – and in an industry which so often renders workers invisible, the importance of this humanity can’t be understated.
What made you decide to launch the crowdfunding campaign?
We did one three years ago and saw it as a really nice way to connect to our customers. The pre-order rewards are useful, because we’re not making anything that’s not really wanted – brands are over-producing so can’t get rid of stock, and that’s really wasteful. Also, we’re a really small, independent, women-owned brand. We’ve not got loads of corporate backers, just a bit of social investment. We want to retain that independence in order to retain our values.
It seems like a small thing, but clothes for women and femmes tend to have no pockets, which is frankly, I think, quite sexist! We wanted pockets, and durability. Fashion Revolution put out statistics showing how many outfits are wasted because people wear them for one wedding, or a festival. So we wanted something multipurpose and long-lasting that you could dress up or down. We fit clasps so nothing busts open when you bend over, or gapes open at the front – the kind of things that poorly made dresses on the high street don’t tend to have, because they’re only made for one season.
How long does it take to research and source sustainable fabrics?
Part of the reason we’re crowdfunding is that we’re using Tencel, which is quite expensive but really good. It’s made from wood pulp fibre – it’s really antimicrobial and self-cleaning, and it feels soft and delicate on the skin. Our designer Susanna does our sourcing, and we have really good relationships with some small textiles companies. It can be hard as such a tiny enterprise, but we’ve spent years building those relationships and she puts hours into meeting suppliers – that way, she can grill them!
That’s definitely necessary – greenwashing can make it so hard to decipher what’s genuinely sustainable.
There’s so much greenwash! Nobody knows the answers all the time, but we were created as a brand to be sustainable – not the other way around. We’re open to using different fabrics, but there are pros and cons to everything. Like now, we’re talking to the Tencel makers about getting it made in Britain, which would reduce the carbon footprint even more.
Greenwashing has also contributed to quite a narrow view of what 'sustainable fashion' looks like; is that something you’ve come up against?
Absolutely. Sustainability is a technical and tenuous word. Brands take advantage of that and manipulate the public, because we haven’t had an education on what it truly means. For us, it’s circularity: things go back to the earth. But to us, it means 'ethical' as well. I wrote about it earlier this year – a lot of brands don’t take that bit on board! Are you really sustaining the planet if people are working for crap wages in horrible conditions? Why would you want to sustain that?
It’s also an issue of language – we hear words like 'sweatshop' which make people feel like the issue is pretty distant, that it couldn’t happen here.
It is definitely exoticised. There was an article about workers in Leicester being paid £3.50 per hour and the government knows, because they’ve read that report. They just aren’t doing anything about it.
Which ties into the fact that most of these workers are migrants and asylum seekers, and in the context of the 'hostile environment', it’s easy for people to turn a blind eye.
Which is why we make sure we know our workers by name and build a really good relationship. We had worked with women’s charities before Birdsong, and their funding was being cut under austerity. So we researched and found that NGOs were making things, because some of these women had fantastic artisan skills but so many barriers to work. Our supply chain is very different even to other sustainable brands', really. We went to our screen-printer’s son’s wedding, and our meetings will basically just be having a cuppa at their house!
This range will be size-inclusive as well, which ties into a huge problem: why has sustainable fashion been so behind on this?
It’s a really hard one. We started out making clothes to any size, and then we invested in better-quality fits and more fit testing, so we had to rein everything back a bit, which is a massive regret of ours. We had to focus on the sizes we were selling the most of, but then that becomes chicken-and-egg: if we had chosen to become a more plus-size-friendly brand, we probably would have had more plus-size customers.
That transparency and accountability is key, though.
I think we wanted to do everything at once. When we started, our fabrics weren’t particularly sustainable – we were all about the social mission, which felt like enough to have on our plates! Then we added sustainable fabrics, and now we’ve got more freelance capacity to do fit and quality testing. We’re a small team, which is why it takes so long – we’re grateful for our customers’ patience. We’ve been consulting with plus-size customers and followers to make this happen; we wanted to test on a wide range of bodies to make sure we got it right.
Plus-size collections also tend to be quite limited when it comes to style, or they tend to use terms like 'flattering' to justify clothes that completely hide bodies.
Exactly, when in reality we found that plus-size customers just want the opportunity to wear the same clothes. All bodies are good bodies – it’s not about creating some magical illusion! The difference with our plus-size options is mainly in the fit, but with design we stuck to what was in the Birdsong line: something classic and striking, which is available in different lengths and colours. We knew they would look equally cute on any body!
What inspired the actual design of the collection?
Glam rock. We were thinking about how the first climate change warnings came in the 1970s, so wanted to have an element of nostalgia but bring that to the future, and say although we can’t go back in time, we can try and turn things around. The stripe print is also a nod to Susanna’s first collection; there was a pair of culottes in reclaimed fabric that sold really well, so she digitised that print and gave it an update.
Finally, what’s next on your to-do list,and how difficult is it to keep the line accessible?
We really want to run more pop-up events and build that network; also a flagship store, and we would love to have a community space for makers to come and work together. We don’t make huge margins and we don’t sell wholesale – it’s why we’re online. We’re trying to make things as affordable as possible while covering our costs, but it does cost a lost, especially when you’re working in small community workshops rather than a factory line. Basically, we exist for our customers and our makers. We’re not going to be off buying yachts any time soon!