These days, it seems every company has worked out that they can use feminism as a marketing tool – there’s even a fake ad agency dedicated to it. But while businesses might shout from the rooftops about their ‘empowering’ products for ‘real’ women, they forget to actually focus on genuine issues like like ethical manufacturing or advertising that doesn’t alienate or isolate its audience. Enter Birdsong, the webstore set up by three proud feminists with the aim of selling sweatshop-free products that give back to women – like Madi underwear, who donate a pair to a women’s refuge for every pair bought, or Khama prints, where 75 per cent of the cost of an item goes to making women breadwinners in Malawi.
Their latest campaign, dubbed #AsWeAre, features (un-Photoshopped) women unrepresented in mainstream advertising, including trans activist Charlie Craggs, hijabi feminist Hanna Yusuf and 86-year-old knitter Edna, who makes jumpers sold on the site. “We want to start a dialogue, and for every woman who sees our ads to realise that they’re good enough as they are,” says Sophie Slater, who founded the company with partners Sarah Beckett and Ruba Huleihel. To celebrate the campaign’s launch, she discusses the problems with advertising, why we need to pay attention to worker’s rights and how fashion and feminism can’t stop at Tumblr.
Can you sum up the main ethos of Birdsong?
Sophie Slater: Our main ethos is ‘no sweatshops, no Photoshop’. We want to create fashion that’s fairer for women, and get people to expect more from their wardrobes. We love fashion and clothes, but the garment industry is horrendous to its workforce, which is about 85 per cent poor women. All of our stock is sourced from really small women’s groups or charities, we help them get money coming in. Ninety two per cent 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 really nice clothes that aren’t ridiculously expensive or hemp sacks.
Everything we do is from a feminist perspective – from using feminist photographers to eradicate the male gaze to championing women workers and charitable organisations by fairly sourcing our clothing through them. We’re also committed to using diverse models, making shoots a fun, positive experience for them, and never digitally altering their appearance. We use our website to tell the stories of everyone involved in Birdsong. We believe in collaboration and making women’s voices heard.
“We love fashion and clothes, but the garment industry is horrendous to its workforce, which is about 85 per cent poor women. All of our stock is sourced from really small women’s groups or charities, we help them get money coming in” – Sophie Slater, Birdsong
Can you tell us about some of the brands on there?
Sophie Slater: We have 14 brands on site, but are always on the lookout for knitting circles or amazing seamstress groups. Our jewellery brands, Relevee and Jit-Win-Yan, are made in India and Thailand, by women who have survived human trafficking, or are exiting sex work. They earn middle-class wages from selling that jewellery. We also sell from maker’s groups in Swaziland, Kenya, Ghana, Malawi, and we have bras and pants (with motivational messages in the gusset) made by single mums in the US. Our co-founder, Ruba, is Palestinian and grew up in Jerusalem, so obviously the conflict is really close to her heart. She got Two Neighbors on board, who work together to create dresses across Palestine and Israel that pay for wages across both sides, as well as medical supplies and water in the Hebron hills.
A lot of our time goes into supporting the groups we have here in London. Like the Bradbury knitting circle at an Age UK centre, or Mohila, a group of mums from migrant communities in Tower Hamlets who make our super cute avocado-print sweatshirts. We also support Heba in Brick Lane, who’ve been running a women’s project, creche, and seamstressing for 25 years. We pair them up with designers and run workshops to boost their design confidence, hang out there a lot, and make sure their stories are heard by interviewing them for our site.
What do you identify as the main limitations of popular fashion advertising?
Sophie Slater: Most fashion is marketed to us in a way that’s a total fallacy. It’s meant to be ‘aspirational’ and ‘unattainable’ but we know that’s not what women necessarily want, or need. Most senior positions in advertising are men, and I think that’s why we still have patriarchal advertising for the most part. But we built Birdsong ourselves as three critically minded young women, so we have the opportunity to do things differently.
Why do you think it’s important to challenge these?
Sophie Slater: As a team of three young women, we’ve all felt alienated at some point by a culture that objectifies women and sets unrealistic standards based on our beauty as worth. We wanted to create a campaign that would fit in with our feminist values. It’s really important, and we think the time’s really right to get involved in conversation around they way women are sold things, who gets represented, and in what way.
I did a very brief stint of modelling when I was 15. I grew up in the north east but I got a contract with a big agency in London. I was told to ‘stay as I am’ when I was medically very underweight and mid-pubescent, which isn’t sustainable. And even though it’s shit for everyone to be held to those standards, I’m lucky that I get to see people who look vaguely like me at least represented in the media. Most women in London see up to 3,500 adverts a day featuring women who look nothing like them. That’s not cool.
So many brands seem to hopping on the feminist bandwagon – how do you make sure that what you do has authenticity?
Sophie Slater: We started Birdsong because we’d all worked in the social sector or volunteered with survivors, refugees and older women, and saw how badly funding cuts were affecting them. I think if more brands adopt feminist values that’s great, but it can’t just be ‘Feminism Lite’ for middle-class white women. For us, worker’s rights, funding cuts and a lack of diversity are all top priorities. It’s an amazing time to be a feminist creative in London at the moment, but we need to make sure it’s including and empowering women in different communities outside of the Tumblr bubble. That means always having amazing relationships with our customers, and our suppliers. And listening to them, most importantly.
“It’s an amazing time to be a feminist creative in London at the moment, but we need to make sure it’s including and empowering women in different communities outside of the Tumblr bubble” – Sophie Slater, Birdsong
How did you find models?
Sophie Slater: Our main model, Daniela, is an old friend I met living in Bristol years ago. The rest of the models on our site are all either good friends who don’t mind being in front of a camera, or women we really admire. For the #AsWeAre posters, we approached people like Sofya, who I’d met at a zine fair and was really enthusiastic about what we were doing, or Hanna, who Ruba had discovered, as a big fan of her writing and perspective on being a young Muslim woman. We’d already met Charlie through a mutual friend, and fell in love with her when interviewing her for the blog. 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.
What can we expect from Birdsong in the future?
Sophie Slater: 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 in #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 birdsong.world instead of birdsong.london.
Follow Emma Hope Allwood on Twitter here @emmahopeall