Portrait by Elle Smith
Birdsong is an ethical fashion label for women who dress in protest; against garment worker rights, a polluting Fashion industry and co-option of feminism by mainstream brands.
Interviewed in London, June 2019
Sophie: “When I was young I wanted to be either a fashion designer, a social worker or a journalist. With Birdsong I’ve managed to do all three. We founded it five years ago. I was on Year Here, a post-graduate course on how to set up a social enterprise. We worked hard and did placements. I’d volunteered for women’s charities since Uni and knew how scarce funding is in that sector, yet they were supporting a lot of women who were skilled makers. My co-founder Sarah Neville was working at an old people’s day centre where they were knitting scarves and just giving them away or selling them at car boot sales. So we decided to sell the knitwear online, use the proceeds to fund women’s charities and start a feminist blog to go with it. We chose the name Birdsong as it was the name we disagreed on least, and because we were reading Maya Angelou at the time.
“We applied for a grant to cover our initial set-up costs. We continued the model of selling hand-made items from women’s charity makers for two years, before deciding to make it more of a fashion label. We successfully crowd-funded to raise £100k which was exciting – I used to check it every day and I had to go to Somerset at one point with no internet which was torture! With grants and crowdfunders, preparation is key. Make sure to do 80% of the work before your crowdfunder goes live, get around 15% of your target secured before you even launch, map out your whole network, and gobble up all of the resources that the platform you’re using make available to you. We’ve actually just launched another crowdfunder to extend our sizing options to 6 up to 24 at the moment. So please support that if you are reading this!
“It’s the same with grants: a lot of it is research, practise and persistence. Ring up the grant body to ask what they’re looking for before you fill in the application, get on their radar, look at their values and incorporate their core language and aims into what you’re writing so that they know you’re on the same page. And most importantly – keep on trying! if you don’t hit your target or get the grant first time around, absolutely learn from it, dust yourself down and try try again. We used the money from the campaign to recruit a designer, Susanna Wenn, to create collections in-house and started sourcing eco fabrics and buttons etc.
“What makes Birdsong ethical and sustainable is the way the clothes are produced. Fabrics are from different places, kadi is handspun in womens’ co-ops in India and bamboo is from China, but with stringent conditions. Our fabric supplier is a 76-year old running sustainable fabric business and everything apart from T shirts (which we get wholesale from India) – is cut and sewn in Tower Hamlets and embroidered or screen-printed either in Tower Hamlets, Kingston or Enfield at old people’s day centres. We pay the London living wage £10.55 p/h and at women’s charities we also pay £4.55 on top to the charity itself. There are lots of international projects operating like this but we didn’t see anyone in the UK doing it. The average garment worker in Leicester [where much UK fast fashion is made] gets £3.50 an hour and the Rana Plaza disaster was fresh in our memory when we started. I worked in American Apparel from age 18 til I was 22 and that massively influenced how Birdsong is run now – AA manufactured in-house in their own LA factory and paid garment workers fairly. We don’t have a factory but we do know all our suppliers rather than having a convoluted chain where you lose track of whether people are being exploited.
“We produce four small collections a year. Our margins are same as Primark’s [with higher price points] but we are much smaller. We’ve worked so hard to make our margins work. Then last year we surpassed the VAT threshold so now we have to re-do them all. We sell through our website, rather than wholesale. Our stock is really valuable because £90 dress £30 is labour costs which is roughly 10 times more than the High Street and ethical fabric costs are higher. Our warehouse is in Kentish town – everything is packed and posted by adults with learning difficulties – we try and think of the environmental and social impact at every stage.
“At the time we launched there was a gap in the market, apart from People Tree, which was pitched at a bit of an older consumer. In terms of style we wanted to be bolder with more design-led pieces. We aim for everything to be ageless and functional with deep pockets and user-friendly touches. There are so many eco start-ups now but they are all small and struggling like us. Then there are the massive high street giants that offer a single ‘sustainable’ range – but there’s a huge gap between the two. Ethical fashion is a small community and we all know each other as we all have the same aim – to change things at policy level. One great site is Know The Origin, – a marketplace of brands eco labels, so many good ones. I wear Birdsong five days out of seven. Otherwise I wear vintage and charity shop finds.
“We don’t use agency [professional] models, we street cast and use activists – all friends, activists and people in our network and people who are really passionate about what we do. Like the model of our summer collection Aoise Keogan Nooshabadi, founder of Supply Change, a platform that connects businesses with social missions and social enterprises with the public sector, to help them have a greater social impact in their local communities.
“Myself and Sarah are co-founders and Sarah has been the financial lead and CEO, Susanna joined two years ago, and she controls sourcing, design and production. I’m on marketing, communications, external partnerships and PR. Susannah is a fashion graduate who won ‘most sustainable collection’ award at Uni, then worked in USA as a shirt designer for A+F then worked at People Tree in UK.
“We’ve worked so hard and with only three of us and now two! [as Sarah is on maternity leave]. I’ve worked to the point of burnout a few times but I’ll never not care because it’s so important. I never originally wanted to be an entrepreneur or even considered it – now I don’t think I could do anything else. I didn’t identify as a business person, but I really do believe in the mission of Birdsong so much, that motivates me to keep going when I’m under pressure. I probably consider giving it all up quite regularly. Loads of times when it’s been really hard. I always want it to exist but I’ve questioned whether I should be the one to do it. When we were setting up the new website I worked 60 hours that week and when we do pop ups we work more and on weekends. But it is rewarding!
“Birdsong is my full-time occupation but I do occasionally freelance as well. I lecture on sustainability at Nottingham Trent and Bournemouth Universities and I write for i-D, Vice and Refinery29 and The Guardian about sustainability. I’ve also worked for social enterprises with girls and young women in schools and zine-making. The hardest thing is trying to live in London without paying market rent. I’ve had to move every 10 months to a year because it’s so hard to afford a proper tenancy. Full disclosure; I inherited £10k at one point which kept me going for a while. That’s the closest I got to a trust fund.
“In the future I really want to have our own workers’ co-operative and would like to work with more recycled textiles and recycled cotton instead of organic – I just need to find suppliers. We used to use deadstock but it was too hard to scale. Now we use eco fabrics rather than recycled but it’s the dream.
“The advice I’d give to anyone else who wanted to set up their own project, is to start small and put one foot in front of the other. Get a really good support network around you – mine is really nice housemates, friends and entrepreneurs in London. The sustainable fashion community is quite close and we all support each other. So that is something it’s nice to be part of.”