8 years of Birdsong

8 years of Birdsong

You may know the story: Birdsong was founded on the belief that women have always found creative ways to make a statement with what they wear, and that personal style has always been political.

Inspired by movements intersecting with clothing, from the berets of the black panthers in the Sixties to the quiet resolution to only wear clothes made in the UK, we wanted to celebrate fashion as an important ally for change. That’s the short version. To celebrate 8 years of making fashion fairer, here’s the longer version of Birdsong’s origin story, from our Co-Founder Sophie Slater. 

"I met my Co-Founder on an experimental postgraduate course in social innovation. This was back in 2014, which feels like a lifetime ago. She'd had been working at a day centre for over 60s, where a group of women had been knitting scarves as gifts or for car boot sales, but mostly because they loved doing it. I was working in women’s charities and hostels, witnessing the effects of austerity and funding cuts first hand. 

From the frontlines we could see the way charities were being made to compete for grants and tenders, to provide services to local communities here in London. Austerity was acting as a roadblock. Organisations that did vital work were being forced to close because of funding cuts.

The emphasis on employment based activity was well-intentioned, but local councils were prioritising it over supporting people with rare crafting skills. There was little to no funding or training for organisations to concentrate on these meditative, healing activities. They were seen as ‘soft skills’, despite the fact that industries like fashion were simultaneously crying out for more skilled, traditional craftspeople and talented, local labour.

So many organisations were (and still are) stretched too thin and too pushed for time to collaborate – these were all perhaps avoidable problems, but there were no resources to fix them. 

And speaking of the fashion industry, as it stood, it wasn't great. It still isn’t: from colonialism, extraction of resources, and widespread workers' struggles, the fashion industry is in direct conflict with our planetary and ethical boundaries. There’s a deep-seeded power imbalance at the heart of the fashion industry. 80% of garment workers are women. And yet, 80% of the richest people working in fashion are men. 9 of "The Top 10 Billionaires in Fashion” listed for 2020 were men, with 8/10 of them being white. 

What if brands strived for transparency in their supply chain and took steps to ensure they knew exactly who was making their clothes and what their working conditions looked like? What if brands paid their workers a Living Wage, so they could have dignity and security in their labour? What if clothes were made from responsibly sourced materials that had a minimal impact on the environment? What if brands only produced what was truly wanted and needed, with care and consideration to ensure the amount of waste was minimal too? 

This was the stage we were at in 2014. We knew that there were women’s organisations working with talented women with expert craft skills. We had worked with them, volunteered for them. These women made incredible things as a release from their challenging circumstances. Once we noticed it, we saw it everywhere we looked: women were patching up the holes left by the state, making do with what they had. 

Women’s charities in funding crises, struggling to make ends meet, and a fashion industry that didn’t make any sense - the situation sounded bleak but we wanted to do more than despair. We wanted to build an alternative. We knew we could put all these problems together and do things differently. We knew it wasn’t perfect but we hoped that it would make a small difference. 

We started Birdsong by picking up some clothes from a charity on Brick Lane. We ran a market stall all day in Camden to test our messaging and audience, then hot footed it to the local park. There, with a borrowed camera and a friend, we shot our first pictures. I went home and built our website that night, and the following evening we pitched to a room full of supporters. It must have gone well because we won our first thousand pounds in funding and sold most of our stock. At this point, our inventory was made up of lumpy, mismatching scarves and questionable blazers. But we kept going. 

Two years in we were joined by Susanna Wen, our designer. Susanna’s design experience and knowledge of sustainable and ethical fashion helped us create a collection of original wardrobe staples, designed in house for the first time. She hand sketches every silhouette, detail and print, building concepts around our makers’ skills to create our collections. 

Since then we have done and achieved some amazing things. 

We have written for Vogue and i-D. We have been written about too, by more publications than we thought possible: Elle, Refinery29, Stylist, the Guardian, the Telegraph, the Evening Standard amongst them.

We’ve won awards and accolades: the Queen’s Enterprise Award, Marie Claire’s Sustainability Award, we made it into Forbes 30 under 30 and the final of Drapers Independent awards

We’ve been on BBC news, had pop up shops in London, Warsaw and Berlin, one of our tees has even appeared on Channel 4’s Travel Man (thank you Aisling Bea!)

Most importantly, we’ve raised £195,000 in fair wages for garment workers and the local charities that support them. 

Throughout it all, we’ve been lucky enough to spend eight years doing work that we believe in: creating beautiful, sustainable clothes that empower the wearer, the worker, and the community that binds us all together. The fabrics we’ve used are sustainably sourced, we work with local women, in communities we are a part of and we pay them a Living Wage. We have prioritised transparency and published impact reports that outline what it really costs to create our clothes. 

And our makers have been at the heart of the work we do since the very beginning. Early on, we decided that our clothes should come packaged with the signature and portrait of the women who created it. It’s more than a gesture. We want to make a point: all of our clothes are made by real women, with aspirations and families and rich lives.

We’re proud to be able to say that we personally know every woman in our supply chain. They are the reason we do what we do, and the reason we do it the way we do it. I don’t know how many other fashion CEOs can say the same. That is why we set out to create a different blueprint for what fashion could look like. Systemic, industry wide change to the fashion industry is still absolutely necessary. 

Eight years on, we’ve had a wild ride. We’re now a certified B Corp, our clothes are made-to-order and we work in cycles of limited edition monthly drops. It’s all in an effort to reduce waste and avoid overproduction. But we’re still the same Birdsong, slogan tees and all. Lovingly made, joyful to wear and own, so you can continue to dress in protest.

The past few years have been tough on small businesses, but we couldn't have survived this long without you. Thank you to everyone who's ever bought from or supported us.

To keep us going for the next 8 years, please tell your friends about us, buy them a gift card, or sign up to our Patreon, to support our campaigning work behind the scenes."

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