With their ethos of ‘no sweatshops, no Photoshop’ and beautifully designed pieces at reasonable prices, Birdsong founders Sarah Beckett and Sophie Slater hope to empower women from factory to front row.
Ethical fashion: historically badly cut or unattainably priced, niggling moral concerns may not be enough to push even the most feminist of souls away from the High Street. But this branch of fashion is changing and Birdsong is a brand at the fore.
FOUNDERS: Sarah Beckett & Sophie Slater
Producing beautiful clothes that celebrate women, support vulnerable women’s groups and challenge the mores of an industry enmeshed in modern slavery and on-going challenges of female representation is a whole lot of business goals.
We spoke to Sarah about how they are bringing feminism and fairness to fashion.
‘We met in 2014. We were both involved in the charity sector – I was working with Age Concern and Sophie had worked with lots of women’s organisations which were almost universally struggling financially and relied on traditional avenues for funding which were running out. We were seeing really vital women’s services having to close. We also saw that a lot of women with amazing, rare skills were barely covering their costs.’
And so the idea for Birdsong was born.
Putting their designs together with this expertise, Birdsong works with groups such as the Heba Women’s Group on Brick Lane and knitting circles, giving a platform and opening up the market for them. ‘We thought with the right design, marketing and photography we could help them sell more – specifically online where they found the biggest barriers but where we knew there was the biggest potential for growth.’
After a successful crowdfunding campaign, Birdsong designs are sold in 18 different countries with products currently sourced from 7 groups in the UK. They also buy wholesale from ethical groups around the world. ‘We know people want to shop ethically, but can’t always find what they want and there are now more, good, ethical brands getting visibility. We are offering a viable alternative that people really want to wear.’
Now with a full-time, in-house designer, Birdsong’s ethically sourced pieces include shoes, jewellery, trousers, dresses, knitwear and more. The stock is fully sustainable, featuring reclaimed fabrics, organic cottons and bamboos.
Made for different body types and proving it by using ‘real’ models of different shapes and sizes, the final link in the ethical chain are the untouched photographs. Birdsong wanted to show their pieces in a way that didn’t dilute that message of supporting women from all communities and throughout the whole from, as they put it, worker to wearer. ‘It just didn’t make sense to support women’s groups and then Photoshop the models.’
What’s next? ‘The ethical fashion market is by no means saturated. We believe people will shop ethically if they know they have the option.’ So go and do a little bit of feel-better shopping.
What is – or has been – your greatest struggle (either personal or professional)? I’m trying to get over people pleasing..! That’s a constant struggle for me.
What did you want to be when you were growing up? I always wanted to be an artist. I really loved it. And I went through a phase of wanting to be a book illustrator, which I still think would be quite fun.
Best advice ever received? From whom? “The best definition of success is that those who know you best, love and respect you the most.”
Who do you most admire? More than high-profile figures, who I don’t think you can ever really get a clear or unbiased view about, I have a lot of people in my life who I admire. I really admire my younger sister for getting through some of the things she has. I have some friends who are really brave or really great at being honest and authentic, or think about things in a very different way. That’s the kind of thing I look up to.
What keeps you up at night? The company running out of money! That’s probably my biggest worry.
When were you happiest? I moved to Lisbon for a year after I graduated and had the best life there. Really carefree and I had a big group of friends that I did everything with. Lisbon is the kind of place where you don’t need much money for a high quality of life, so it didn’t matter that I was only earning about €600 a month.
Favourite object you possess? I have one dress that I absolutely love and wear far too much in the summer.
Which words or phrases do you most overuse? ‘Like’ is a word I definitely use far too much.
What is the most important lesson life has taught you? An important learning for me has been that, when presented with more than one option, trying to do both usually leaves you with neither.
What is your guiltiest pleasure? Online shopping. I’m really bad.
What change do you hope for in your lifetime? I really hope we find a way of moving away from both fossil fuels and plastic.
Please recommend a brilliant brand or female led business you have used recently. Chatterbox is a really great social enterprise where you get language classes from refugees. They have a great range of languages you can choose from now. It’s run by our brilliant friend, Mursal.
Who might help you next? We’d love to set up a small factory and become an ethical employer for local women in Tower Hamlets. Someone who can help us make that a reality would be a huge help.