Birdsong was founded by Sophie on very strong principles, producing beautiful Pre-Order ethical and sustainable fashion with the wellbeing of their makers as a corner stone of the business. She has proven that when you create a brand from the ground up with people and planet in mind your skilled makers can have the best working conditions without unrealistic pressure and with total control of their craft. Because everything is made Pre-Order nothing is wasted. Sophie shows us how to create a beautiful slow fashion business, which allows you to feel good in the clothes you wear.
D: Where did you grow up Sophie?
S: I was born in Sheffield, England and grew up in North Tyneside in a little seaside town about 10 miles from Newcastle. It’s a really beautiful place to grow up, but I was really bored. It was quite run down when I was young, though it's quite trendy now. I think all seaside towns are having a kind of Margate moment. Mum and Dad both work within the local community, Dad at Newcastle City Council doing sustainability and regeneration projects until he was made redundant because the Tories decided they didn’t have money for that. Mum worked as a basic skills, and arts and crafts tutor for people with learning difficulties. They both have always had really strong values so as a family we've always been embedded in the local community, which really influenced my values growing up. I have always wanted to do something with a social mission, it is the norm for me.
Both my parents grew up in working class families, but because of their education I grew up in a more comfortably. Mum was really good at reminding me of the power of education and craft. She was only person in her family who went to university, so that goal was important for me too. She also instilled the idea that culture is for everyone, fashion and art should be enjoyed by everyone no matter your class or educational background.
D: I couldn't agree more.
Do you have any siblings?
S: Yes, I have a little sister who works for Public Health England. She's the only scientist in the family, the rest of us are in the arts. We have a huge family in Sheffield who mostly work in retail. We jokingly call M&S the family business because that’s where most of them work. When I was 17 and still at school I worked part-time in a vintage shop, it opened the window to clothing for me. I've always loved working around clothes and chatting to customers.
My first brush with the fashion industry was when I was 15. Back then I was really, really skinny and was scouted by a model agency at the Clothes Show Live. I was completely flabbergasted by it because growing up in the North East it really wasn't seen as attractive to be skinny with no boobs and pale. It was not the look that was cool in the 2000s, which was the age of Jordan, that Katie Price look. But it meant I got to go down to London and go to some castings. The whole experience was a bit uncomfortable, and I never got any work. As I got older I realised there was a lot of really problematic stuff around modelling, but it gave me an amazing glimpse into the fashion industry, it made me aware of different magazines like Dazed and I D, which I would never have come across in my hometown. I fell in love with fashion journalism, fashion photography, and the creative elements behind the scenes.
D: Did it affect your self-esteem?
S: I had such low self-esteem anyway, it was already rock bottom but being scouted and then not getting any work - they inferred that my bum was too big and that my feet were too big and that I wasn't tall enough, that kind of thing. But it was nothing compared to what I used to get in the corridors at school.
D: Where did you go to Uni?
S: Manchester, I studied History and Classics which is what my father made me study. I really wanted to go art school, but he said ‘you'll never get a job in that’. Because he had studied History and became a civil servant, he suggested I follow the same path.
D: Because you don’t earn much money as an artist…..
S: I think he thought that. I wanted to do a few things, I wanted to be a writer or work in fashion or be a civil servant. I had no idea how to go about the first two, because all my family and friends, were civil servants. I didn't really know what other jobs there were. The career choices I knew were teacher, or the shop floor, or a doctor. I didn't know what fashion marketing was, nor would I ever have dreamt that it was even a thing, or to even have the thought of running my own business.
I remember doing one of those questionnaire things on a computer programme in school and it came up with graphic designer and I said ‘ooh that sounds great what is that?’ but my teachers didn’t know. My best mate went on to study graphic design at Saint Martins but she was the only kid in the whole school to manage to do that.
D: Out of the three things that you mentioned you managed to do two of them.
S: I love chatting and communicating and I also love doing that digitally and visually. I like connecting the bigger picture, connecting the bigger themes in the garment industry. I feel fashion is a great microcosm that shows the bigger negative effects of capitalism.
My History degree came in useful in a lot of ways as I studied labour movements, a lot of which were started by garment workers especially in the US in the early 20th century. There was a lot of political thought during the course which opened me to feminist organising and I became the women’s representative at my university. Which meant I took part in outreach programmes for women and girls on body image, which was quite handy and helped me unpack the whole modelling experience from my childhood.
During Uni I had a part-time job working at American Apparel, on one level they were amazing as the business was transparent and had their financial forecasts on the home page of their website so you could see up front how the business was run. I could see the margins on everything, what they paid their workers - but the CEO was a complete sleaze bag.
My feminist awakening at university made me think, hang on a minute American Apparel and the modelling agency are both really weird which completely put me off fashion. But at the same time I was so bored on the shop floor that I found myself reading financial reports and trying to figure out how the business worked. This had me asking questions like, what does a business look and feel like if you pay people properly?, why is there a trade-off between this and being nice to women and not sexually harassing your employees? So those ideas were percolating. Then I decided I wanted to work in social justice and thought that fashion and the idea of fashion was something I had to throw out entirely because it didn't reconcile with my beliefs.
D: Yet with that in mind, you set up Birdsong straight after university.
S: After uni I applied for a masters and was accepted at Oxford but couldn't afford to go. Then I found a free alternative masters course, called Year Here. Luckily my best mate had a spare room in London they couldn't rent and everything else fell into place. It was billed as a crash course in the social sector, with design principles and design learning with a lot of creative and entrepreneurship training, which sounded like everything I was interested in.
As part of the course we had a charity placement and from that the goal was to create an innovation project. We were given free rein to address a problem that that charity had identified. My six month placement saw me working with marginalised people, mostly ex sex workers, survivors, women with complex needs who were living in a homeless hostel in Croydon. To prepare me for it I was given a bit of training around sexual violence, domestic abuse and trafficking awareness. With advice from Mum, I created crafting workshops for the women. At the time there wasn’t even Wi-Fi in the hostel, it was a really depressing environment, it wasn’t even a woman's hostel either, it was a mixed hostel which was not ideal. The women loved the workshops though and we were able to introduce information on feminism and sexual health, domestic abuse and unhealthy relationships. I really enjoyed doing it and because they knew I had experience working with women’s groups and women's charities, they let me do that project, as a 22 year old, which was pretty amazing, it was really powerful.
I then created a map of all the women’s charities in London and tried to get them to do outreach programmes. Every single charity I spoke to said ‘we would love to be working with these women, they are exactly the women we should be working with but we are on our bare bones we have had so many funding cuts that we just can't do it.’
Subsequently I read a report that said that 90% of women's organisations had had funding cuts in London.
After the placement we had a project, where we could work on anything, with the aim to come up with an idea for a social business. My business partners placement had been working in old people’s homes, it was a completely different vibe than mine. They were painting watercolours and doing Tai Chi and puzzles. The people she was working with had a knitting group. They had knit so much for Help the Heroes that they had said ‘please stop we have enough.’ They were still knitting but now donating to charity shops because it allowed them to keep giving.
Mixing our two placement experiences with our social enterprise project, we thought, why don't we approach charities that are struggling for funding but have some sort of craft making arm. This was in 2014, the year after the Rana Plaza factory collapse and Fashion Revolution had set up as an organisation. Obviously I'd been really interested in ethical fashion I could see the potential of moving in this direction. Also feminism was a massive conversation and Beyoncé had just put it on stage. Women’s services were already at the sharp end of the patriarchy, meanwhile feminism was having a massive moment and consumers were gaining awareness of fashion supply chains that are mainly staffed by women and are really toxic, deadly and unsafe. Together we felt if we could gather that #girlboss feminism vibe and use it to make money for the struggling charities, that that could be really cool.
That was our initial rough idea and we worked with Heda, a grassroots community charity in Brick Lane to do it. They had been there for 30 years, they made clothes, they had a creche on site run by and for women of colour, mostly Bengali immigrants to the area. They were selling at Spitalfields market, but the audience had changed, and they really wanted to sell online but didn't know where to start. We had found a lot of the women’s charities we had spoken to felt exactly the same way, saying it was overwhelming to sell online and that they didn’t know where to start with social media. So we set up a website and social media like Instagram, Facebook and a blog.
Then we took over selling whatever they had made and wrote a couple of blogs on feminism and fashion. Then we created Instagram posts and built Birdsong from there.
D: Where did the name Birdsong come from?
S: A couple of us were reading Maya Angelou ‘I know why the caged bird sings’ and thought it sounded optimistic, a new way of doing things.
We applied for funding which meant we could work on the idea full time for six months. During that which I realised that this is exactly what I wanted to do with my life. Over time there have been a lot of changes, my original co-founders left to do other things, but we had hired our designer Susanna in 2017 who is now my co-founder. She designs everything and sources all the fabrics. Before that point everything was knitwear made from wool from Wilkos because that's what the older women were buying and knitting with.
Birdsong is now a brand that designs around the skillset that our makers have.
D: What are your aims with Birdsong?
S: We don’t want to be, the next big thing is us, or a massive company or polluting. One of my biggest influences is E.F Schumacher's ‘Small Is Beautiful, Economics As If People Mattered’, which is an economics book from the 70s. It’s all about climate change, foreshadowing that if we don't do anything by the year 2000 we are going to be in serious trouble, which I wish everyone had read back then. He says the best way forward is that there should be lots of little, community minded, ecological businesses.
The vision with Birdsong is to create a blueprint for that, to show that you can pay people a living wage, people can make garments in non-stressful environments, with a cup of tea, with a creche, with chat. You can hire people from backgrounds that face barriers to work whether that’s at our warehouse with disabilities and autism, or the refugee women that make for us. You can do that, and you can be cool and successful and create beautiful, beautiful things. I would rather see 1000 small Birdsongs than become massive. It’s about creating an alternative model and to be an example of how you can do that.
D: You have different people you work with like Mona who embroiders for you. How did you find Mona?
S: Our friends were running a community pop-up, based on a community organiser in Chicago where they brought everyone from the local community together. You get soup for dinner and you chip in a donation, then local communities, activists or people with a project that benefits the local community stand up and pitch. Then you award the money to the idea you like best. Mona was pitching at one of these because she's taught in the local community in Popular for about 20 years. She works with a lot of survivors of domestic violence and people with learning disabilities and a lot of migrant and refugee women, all people from the local estate. The council gives her space so she can teach sewing classes. Tower Hamlets is the most unequal borough in the country because you have Canary Wharf on one side where a lot of the money making institutions are and on the other, one of the highest child poverty rates in the country.
Mona is really embedded in that community, so when we met her, we asked if she would like to work with us. She had an embroidery machine and we started embroidering garments together and from that our embroidered T shirts became absolute best sellers.
D: Who else do you work with?
S: We work with Fabric Works which is the social enterprise community charity called Stiches In Time. They are the amazing seamstresses that make all of our blouses, skirts and dresses.
D: Were they were they part of Heba?
S: No, Heba was the first workshop that I mentioned that we built the idea around. Unfortunately, the building they were in saw the rents go up overnight when their landlord died. His kids tripled the rent and then gave them 10 days to move out. Which sucks because they were an incredible charity that had been going for 30 years.
That’s when we turned to Fabric Works who are amazing, they have quite a similar setup and are based in Lime House Town Hall and are run on very similar principles. Lime House Town Hall has all sorts of charity gatherings it’s a real community hub which is lovely. They have Fabric Works which is where all our cutting and sewing is done. It’s really great to be able to support them.
D: Your fabric source is sustainable too.
S: We are always learning, because I feel that no fabric source is 100% sustainable, unless it was made of compost (laughs). We use a lot of reclaimed, end of roll fabric and we have a partnership with Traid the textiles recycling charity, then there is a massive warehouse of reclaimed rolls in East London that we go to quite a lot. We use organic cotton for all our T shirts and make sure it’s from a supplier that uses renewable energy and has a 90% carbon reduction. We use a lot of Tencel fabric and have a supplier who prints in Lancashire with eco-friendly dyes. We have used cardi cotton in the past which is handwoven by women's cooperatives in India. Unfortunately though there are not many super stainable textiles made in the UK. Fully regenerated fibres are really hard to get hold of and because our trading model is Made to Order - to minimise waste, you can't always pay for minimums. Our aim is to only buy the fabric we need so nothing goes to waste.
We've worked really hard to build up these partnerships with our textile providers.
D: You consider everyone and everything in your supply chain right down to your delivery service.
S: Yes, that is a really lovely charity in Kentish Town in North London they support adults with autism and learning disabilities with apprenticeships in fulfilment. We pay around £2.00 per package which includes the folding and putting the label on. We have seen the trainees there grow and flourish and it's really lovely to also see them grow in confidence. Paying a premium for the postage means the charity can also offer wrap around support for the trainees during difficult times like the pandemic.
D: I love that you pay the London living wage. I don't understand why anybody would ever pay anybody less than a wage that they could live on. You have set your business up around treating people really well.
S: I'm quite lucky that I don't have much fashion industry experience. You see brands now trying to shoehorn social impact into a business that was never set up that way. Because at the start we were quite naïve, people were always saying ‘oh but you'll never make any money, you are going to fail, why would you do business like that? My reply was ‘why wouldn't we do business this way? what you are saying doesn't make any sense to me’. So much of the fashion industry is set up with only maximum profit in mind. That model creates everything that's wrong in the industry, over production, over consumption, no care for the people or the planet. Whereas the best bit of my job is the relationships we have with our team and makers. I go will to see Mona to talk about a T shirt and will chat for 2 hours. If you are expected to do that with your colleagues on say a Friday after work, then why can't you treat your suppliers the same way? She's my colleague, we love her.
D: Are you still working with your original knitters?
S: We are but their whole thing from the start was non-commercial the money raised from their knitting was donated to charity. We don't pay them living wages because they don't want to be paid. We've experimented with charging living wages but then couldn’t sell anything because it so expensive, as you end up having to charge £400 for a jumper and they would tell us off because we hadn’t sold enough. They are great.
D: Tell us about your jewellery range.
S: Our jewellery is made with a global social enterprise called So Just, they work with women's cooperatives in India. Traditionally metal smithing is a male dominated field, but they can earn a middle-class wage doing it. There are three women that we know by name who make our jewellery, it's such beautiful jewellery, I love it. We would love to go meet them, it's important to know your makers if you are creating product as cleanly as we are. With our T shirts we use the best supplier we could find, and with our local makers, we know if they're stressed, we know if they are not happy, we know exactly what’s going on. So Just have incredible impact reports and we can see through those that they align with our values.
D: Another advantage of having your garment manufacture locally is that you are minimising your carbon emissions.
S: There is an Oxfam report that says that the average item of clothing passes through seven countries. It's ridiculous to have a component made in one factory, then another component made another factory and on and on, then a distribution centre somewhere else.
For us when we create, if it's a dress for example - the little zips and things might not be sourced in the UK as they can be quite hard to find. But the dress fabric will be sourced in Hackney, it will go to Limehouse where it is made, then we courier it to Kentish Town where it is sent out to our customers, most of whom are in the UK, so out footprint is light. We can make a garment to order in 2 weeks which is pretty incredible. We can design something and make it with a much faster lead time than even the massive fashion brands. Unless you are Zara who go from design to shop in a week but that’s because everyone's so stressed.
D: How do you see the future?
S: You know I said I would love to see lots of little Birdsongs, we want to scale up to buy Mona a screen printing machine so that we can create screen printed T shirts and can create more designs and have a lot more fun with that. We have 6 seamstresses, and we want to get them all on their ideal wage. We have a couple of other charities, social enterprise factories that we would like to scale and be able to work with. We are setting up our repair service and will be creating Birdsong patterns so people can create their own clothing from home. The bigger vision ideally is that we want to create an open source platform where any charitable organisation, small tailor or seamstress can access the designs - there will be a set of criteria, like paying living wages and being embedded in the community plus a small subscription fee to access a database of patterns, fabrics and prints, that way there can be Birdsong designs on every High Street in an ethical and sustainable way.
Website - Birdsong
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