Birdsong is on a mission. The online fashion company wants women to demand more from their clothes and from the advertising they see every day. That’s why the founders are leading a fashion revolution by shunning sweatshops and photoshop.
Having a wealth of volunteer and fashion experience between them, the three friends – Sophie Slater, Sarah Beckett and Ruba Huleihel – started Birdsong because they wanted to see more diversity and body positivity in the market.
We spoke to Sophie, one of the co-founders of Birdsong, to find out what the brand is all about, and to understand more about their ethical fashion mission.
1. What is the inspiration behind Birdsong, and how did it become what it is today?
Myself and my two co-founders all met on a free postgrad course that was based around social change (it’s called Year Here). We were all in our early or mid-twenties, had done tons of volunteering. A lot of these groups, like the Age UK centre Sarah worked at, have women making things. The women there had formed a knitting circle that had been going for fifteen years, but they had mobility problems or lack of confidence or digital skills to be able to sell the things they were making.
I’d also worked in clothes shops for years, and Sarah had worked in digital marketing. So we were excited and inspired by fashion, but knew that sweatshops, and the way that fashion is marketed to women wasn’t doing much good. So we came up with this idea, tested it, and people really liked it. We won a place on an “accelerator” in January (where they give you money to support your idea, and workshops on how to run a business) and we’ve been working our socks off since then.
2. Could you sum up the ethos and aims of Birdsong as a brand?
We have an ethos of ‘no sweatshops, no photoshop’, which means that we want to create fashion that’s fairer for women, and get people to expect more from their wardrobes.
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All of our stock is sourced from really small women’s groups or charities with a social mission, we help them get money coming in. About five of them are super local – one group of mums we work with in Tower Hamlets hand paint super cute avocado print sweatshirts. 92% of women’s organisations in London have had a funding crisis since 2010, so that fact and a love of fashion is where we started from.
We also want to subvert people’s expectations about ethical fashion, by having great, stylish stock. As well as being really community based with our supply groups, we try and do everything from feminist perspectives and values. That’s where the no photoshop rule comes in, too.
3. We love the focus on body positivity. Who are some of the women that inspire you?
Our models inspire us, which is why we chose them to star in the campaign. We met Charlie and fell in love with her and Nail Transphobia. She started doing manicures as a pop-up art piece at different events, and now she’s everywhere. She does people’s nails and relaxes them, breaking down barriers and raising awareness of trans rights.
I’d met Sofya at a zine fair and she was really enthusiastic about what we were doing. She’s a really interesting Glaswegian girl who writes, cooks, takes photos, moonlights as a cheesemonger. And there’s Hanna, who my co-founder Ruba discovered, as a big fan of her writing and perspective on being a young Muslim woman. Edna is one of the older ladies who knits all of our scarves and jumpers at the Age UK centre, and our co-founder Sarah worked with her most of last year. They’re really good mates.
The idea with all of our models is that they’re underrepresented in the mainstream media, but they’re inspirational for the work they do, or how they live their lives. And how they look as well, because all women should know that they’re fine as they are, and don’t need to feel terrible about themselves or bend over backwards to change.
4. What made you choose Ruby Tandoh as a brand ambassador?
We love Ruby’s outspoken support of feminism, and how true she is to herself. Everything she does is with passion and self-awareness. She also appeals to women across any age, which is what we hope Birdsong is all about. Ethical fashion doesn’t have to be for just one type of person, it can be for everyone.
5. You are highlighting many relatively unrepresented women in your new campaign, and we are seeing more of a move towards this representation of a more diverse audience in many media outlets now, why do you think this is? Do you think people are demanding more from advertising?
I think the move away from traditional media, and the rise of the internet means that more voices are being heard. Whereas thirty years ago everyone might read the same paper with the same editor, now women and under-represented or unlistened to groups can write something online that goes viral, and have more of a say. And that’s better for everyone.
Women in London see up to 3,500 adverts a day, and most of them will look nothing like us. We want to change that, so we’re starting a conversation on #AsWeAre. In January, we hope to start an IndieGoGo campaign to raise money for London tube advertising with 120 posters of women of different races, shapes, sizes, ages and abilities.
6. I love this idea of fashionable but ethical clothing, totally debunking many stereotypes of ethical fashion. How do you select your brands?
We choose our brands because they have a great social mission, amazing skills, and because the products they make are great. If they’re not quite there with the products but we know they have potential, we’ve started pairing them up with super fashionable young designers. We just had Clio Peppiat, who’s just shown at LFW/PFW doing a workshop with our Tower Hamlets mums group. It was the best morning ever, everyone involved was beaming ear to ear, and the clothes turned out great. We have to sell beautiful, affordable things, because we feel that buying ethically shouldn’t be a luxury. And it shouldn’t mean that you traipse around in an ugly hemp sack either.
7. What advice would you give to your 16 year-old selves?
I would say, you can do it! None of us thought we’d be entrepreneurs, because to us that meant men in suits. But do what you love, work hard, and if you’d scared, work through it anyway. I’d also encourage myself to love my body for the fact that it’s mine, not for judgements other people place on it. I did a bit of modelling back then and my underweightness was applauded, which meant I struggled a bit with eventually having a healthy, adult-sized body. We want young girls to grow up believing that all bodies and all women are good enough, as they are. We want to show that for women, there are infinite ways to be.
8. And finally, what is next for Birdsong?
If it goes well, we’ll be crowdfunding to get non-sweatshop, non-photoshopped London tube ads up in the new year. But we want people to be part of that conversation, so get involved on #AsWeAre. At the moment we’re just working our socks off to find new groups, support the ones we have, and work with really exciting feminist photographers and creatives. There’s so much we want to do. We want to buy a van and drive round finding unknown knitting groups and makers.
We also want to connect all the energy and optimism that feminism has given us over the past few years, to more women in our communities who could really use it. In the future it’d be cool to have a Birdsong world.