Birdsong Pop-Up to Challenge Fast Fashion

It is unlikely that many of us give much thought to who makes the clothes and jewellery we buy. For many people in their late teens and twenties, it is also unlikely they can afford to in any case. H&M is cheap, Primark is cheap and that's as much analysis as we give it. I am as guilty as the next person when it comes to buying without having the faintest idea where the things I'm buying have come from.

And yet, most of us are also aware of the ethical implications of this cheap, throwaway fashion culture, even if we choose to ignore them. Every month or so, a new article draws our attention to this. Cries for help sewn into Primark clothes were dismissed by the store as a 'hoax'. An entire factory collapsing and killing workers in Bangladesh was brushed aside as a tragedy to be softened with retailers dolling out payments to families affected. While huge brands have a moral obligation to ensure their employees work in safe conditions and are paid well, we too, as customers, have a moral obligation to think about where our purchases come from. 

A pop-up store in Hoxton could provide a solution to those that wish their Christmas gifts to be ethical. Birdsong, the brainchild of Sophie Slater, Sarah Beckett and Ruba Huleihel, was launched in 2014 as an online marketplace, selling clothes and accessories made by women's charities and collectives. Now, it is a successful business, with each purchase giving back 50-85% to the women who made it. Items come from as locally as Brick Lane to as far afield as Nepal. 

To celebrate their pop-up shop, which can be found on Charlotte Road between Shoreditch High Street and Old Street stations until 19th December, the co-founders are holding a week of open evenings, hosting DJs and screening films. I went along to last night's event, a screening of five documentaries by Brazilian filmmaker Ana Terra Athayde, commissioned by documentary streaming start-up Yaddo. An ethical pop-up shop couldn't be more of an apt location for the screening of five documentaries by a female filmmaker highlighting social issues. 

Two of the short documentaries stand out and were particularly relevant to the screening's setting. One, entitled Luana, follows its namesake, a trans sex worker, as she discusses the hurdles trans women face in Brazil, a country which has the highest rate of trans homicide in the world. Luana is feisty and bold and uncompromisingly honest - and the documentary is eye-opening. 

So, too, is my other favourite, in which Ana has conducted interviews with the owners of a small bar in a favela in Rio. The owners stress how safe their neighbourhood is - there is no drug dealing, no crime, they say. In fact, tourists often come there, to a jazz night just around the corner from their little café. And yet, no one stops in for a drink. They have been told about the night, and go from A to B - not once setting foot off the beaten track. It challenges our notions of what life in favelas is like, without turning the bar owners' situation into a sob story.

It is after watching these films that I catch up with Sophie, who is buzzing on the adrenaline of seeing all her designers' work being sold in a physical shop. The evening is busy, the atmosphere is warm and welcoming. 

The idea for Birdsong came about, she says, when she was working with homeless women a few years back. She had worked for numerous women's charities before and had been seeing them getting cut to shreds since 2010. "Austerity has meant that 95% of women's organisations have had a funding crisis and so many have shut down," she says. "Eave's, which helped victims of trafficking and homeless women, have shut down after 30 years, loads more charities have been shut down in the north east." Meanwhile, her friend and business partner Sarah was working at a day centre for elderly people, many of whom spent their days knitting scarves and jumpers, to keep busy more than anything else. 

"At the same time loads of the women's organisations I was working with made stuff for therapeutic purposes but didn't know what to do with it - it was just kind of sitting in a cupboard," Sophie recalls. "They would want to sell it and make an enterprising arm, but they were literally so rushed off their feet that they didn't know how to go about it." Sophie and Sarah had also been talking to Heba Women's Project based in Brick Lane - not far from the pop-up store. The charity has been going for 30 years and is essentially a safe space, with a free crêche, for migrant workers to learn how to sew, and take English and IT classes.

"But their landlord died," says Sophie, "and their kids inherited the building, their rent got tripled and they were given just ten days to move out the crêche. On top of that they lost their local authority funding." The group had been selling their wares at Spitalfields market for 30 years, but of course over that time the demographic in the area changed hugely. The chains moved in, complete with piles and piles of sweatshop clothing, and people no longer wanted to pay for handmade. 

And so a solution was born - Sophie and Sarah started selling their items online, along with the knitted goods from the day centre for the elderly and the pieces by the women's charities that Sophie had worked with. "We started selling online and it's just so much easier," says Sophie. "We shoot one item, do all the marketing, and do the stuff these women don't have the time or the skills to do. If you're a migrant woman you don't necessarily have the language and the access to training that we have as privileged younger people, so we started working with these organisations, selling whatever they had."

Since, the idea has grown from strength to strength, from a marketplace to a custom built website and, temporarily, the shop. Birdsong also connects designers with the women's groups.They have just done an investment round which saw 350 people invest in the company. The idea is growing and people are beginning to think more about where their clothes come from, and how a simple change in purchasing habits can genuinely change the lives of groups of people, both in the UK and abroad.

The clothes in the shop are beautiful. One collection in particular catches my eye - grey T-shirts and jumpers with emoji-inspired prints, avocados, bananas, pomegranates. "This group, they're called Mohila," says Sophie. "They are a group of eight Bangladeshi women who live in Tower Hamlets. Their kids all go to the same school and they get together and paint. They were making Christmas cards and Eid cards, but you can't really charge much - it takes so long to do but the end product is something very small." Birdsong brought in Cleo Peppiatt, a London Fashion Week designer, whose designs they also sell on their website. 

Cleo did a workshop with the group of women from Mohila, teaching them how to do trend research on Pinterest, and eventually they all came up with the set of emoji inspired designs. "We sold out of the pomegranate T-shirts yesterday," says Sophie, "So they've just painted eight more for us to pick up today. They love it, they're doing so well, and they get paid ten pounds an hour for each design, so for everything they make they get roughly half the RRP."

Business is still small scale for most of the designers and makers, and a lot of the groups choose to donate the profits back to where they come from. For example, the knitters tend to work mainly for a sense of purpose rather than any profit, so donate all their earnings to development of the day centre, redoing their kitchen and therapy room. Other projects from which Birdsong buys wholesale employ their staff full time. Sophie, too, is finally making a living solely from her business. Since August she has been able to pay herself a (small) salary. 

"It's less than minimum wage, and I'm living in my friend's living room, but I love it, so it's fine!" says Sophie. "We were really lucky, we got a bit of government funding when we first started out, so I was freelancing on the side, but since we did this investment round, and got another grant, I've been doing it full time." To have an actual store in which to sell the products is the icing on the cake of a busy year. "I feel like I'm playing shopkeeper!" grins Sophie - just as someone pulls her away to the till to take payment for another pomegranate jumper. 

Shop online at the Birdsong website. The store, at 46 Charlotte Road, is open until Monday.

Words by Imogen Robinson
Photos courtesy of Birdsong London