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Susanna, Sophie & Sarah
of Birdsong

"It is better to get something out there rather than squirrelling it away for forty years and not showing anyone because you want it to be perfect. You need to get it out into the world so you can get feedback from people. One person can’t make something perfect, it’s got to be torn apart and then built back up again."

Having met on a social change postgraduate course, the three ladies behind ethical, feminist fashion brand ‘Birdsong’ combined their collective experiences from volunteering with women’s groups to create a sustainable label that puts women first.

‘No sweatshops, no photoshop’ is their ethos which is accomplished by paying local women’s groups the London Living Wage to produce clothes which work for and empower the wearer, and then by using realistic ‘non-models’ to showcase them- celebrating all facets of the female form.

With an ever expanding collection – which includes beautiful hand-knits, hand-painted sweaters and embroidered slogan tee’s – the team have been able to invest tens of thousands back into community groups through funding skills-based initiatives or work-room improvements.

Discovering them through Instagram, I fell firstly for the clothes and the no nonsense imagery – my own wardrobe has now expanded to include a sweater and jumper with room for more – before even learning of the social concept behind it.

Nested in a small studio in north London, the Birdsong crew enthused about eco fabric sourcing, feminist fashion and using bingo as a relaxation tool.

Susanna, Sophie and Sarah from Birdsong

What does success look like to you?

Sarah: Well we have got a few goals I think. One is to become financially sustainable. Eventually we really want to open our own factory because at the moment we are working with all these different, individual women’s groups. We would love to have our own space where we could actually start to offer jobs to women in London who are facing barriers to employment. If we could grow that to be a few hundred women that would be cool.

In terms of the collections and the brand, are there similar goals?

Susanna: Aside from the social aspect, I suppose making sure that every single part of the garment is sustainable is a goal. I’m quite passionate about the eco-friendly side, even down to the fabric dyes. We are using a fabric at the moment called Khadi [handspun, hand-woven natural fibre cloth] for our next collection. I would like to use more textiles like that because it’s all woven by women’s cooperatives in India who pay a fair wage.

"When we started four years ago there was a lot of stuff that was kind of ‘hempy’. I mean hemp is great but we don’t necessarily want to be part of a luxury hemp sack movement."

Do you source the fabrics yourself?

Susanna: Yes but through various contacts.

Sophie: There is this really old guy called Kishore, I can’t even remember how we got in touch with him now, he could have retired a long time ago, but he is really into Khadi so he comes to our studio and shows us samples. He goes back and forth to India quite a lot I think.

Sarah: We are really keen as well to develop a product range which stands out from the rest. Something which has personality, is well thought through and has its own identity.

Susanna: Yes and if it stands up, even without the social side, even better. We are getting there, it’s a learning curve, and we learn loads every time we do new things.

Social aims and beautiful design don’t always go hand in hand, but it’s obviously very important for what you do.

Sophie: You are not going to spend that money on something good if the evil equivalent is really beautiful.

Sarah: When we started four years ago there was a lot of stuff that was kind of ‘hempy’. I mean hemp is great but we don’t necessarily want to be part of a luxury hemp sack movement.

What do you see as the biggest challenges going forward?

Sarah: I guess funding is always an issue. We have managed to scrape by on not much money which has been cool but that’s always an ongoing challenge.

Sophie: Surviving in London as young people is really hard so we’ve had to do lots of additional jobs over the years on top of this.

Sarah: Another challenge is in scaling the brand in a way that is operationally viable, yet also doesn’t take away the benefits from the supply chain. We don’t want to squeeze down on price the ladies we commission. We need to do things in a way that is manageable but still maintains the benefits.

That must be hard because you have a relationship with these women, they aren’t anonymous.

Sophie: We know all the women by name, we sit and have tea with them and we have sat and chatted with them about life and stuff, so we know most of them pretty well, especially the ones we have been working with for three and a half years. It can be tricky but most of the time we work around their conditions. The whole point is that it’s not a big factory floor where they have to make a hundred pieces an hour, it’s more that they are crafting because it’s relaxing, so obviously we are not going to get the same productivity rate as in a sweatshop. If you were going to start a fashion brand you wouldn’t think to do it this way.

What characteristic do you most admire in other people?

Sophie: Being hard working. I definitely admire it in you two.

Sarah: I think bravery, I admire that in all people.

Susanna: I would say patience.

Sophie: That’s good to know.

If you are finding things tough, what cheers you up and keeps you going?

Sarah: I am no good if I haven’t had any time alone or time at home. I go out quite a lot which keeps me happy but I always notice if it’s been too much. I know that I need to book in an evening at home when I’m feeling stressed.

Sophie: I’ve got loads of amazing pals. A lot of them are freelancers or activists or get similar sort of stresses running their own businesses, so I see them and we go and play Bingo. We go to a massive 90’s style Bingo hall in Elephant and Castle. On a Tuesday night you can go for a fiver. It’s total silence, you absolutely have to concentrate on the numbers so you can’t think about anything else, it’s really meditative. There is a break for half an hour where you can chat and buy chips for £1, its really cheap.

Susanna: Mine would probably be reaching out to someone I haven’t spoken to for a long time and catching up on their stuff. That takes me away from my own which is nice.

"We are really keen as well to develop a product range which stands out from the rest. Something which has personality, is well thought through and has its own identity."

What is the best piece of advice you have ever received?

Sophie: Perhaps just that doing something is better than doing nothing. I think that if we had known everything we would have had to think about all at once when we started, it would have been crushing, so just putting one foot in front of the other is the way to do it. It is better to get something out there rather than squirrelling it away for forty years and not showing anyone because you want it to be perfect. You need to get it out into the world so you can get feedback from people. One person can’t make something perfect, it’s got to be torn apart and then built back up again.

Susanna: Maybe it sounds cheesy but, you know, the next day is a brand new day and you can do something else.

What advice would you tell your 21 year old self?

Susanna: Maybe it’s that no one worries about what you’re doing as much as you do. To be less self conscious.

Sophie: To keep working hard and not to get distracted by boys.

Sarah: To be more decisive. You just have to do it I think.

Is there anything you couldn’t live without?

Sarah: I’d probably say my Church. My friends there are just brilliant and it’s great to take my mind off things once a week every Sunday.

Sophie: I immediately thought of my mattress topper because it makes my bed so soft. I should probably say my best friend or something, but it’s so comfy though, it just makes my bed the nicest place to be in the whole wide world. I think because I have moved house ten times in eight years and slept on my best friend’s sofa for months at a time, I really appreciate it.

Susanna: I can’t beat a mattress topper. I have to criminally say my phone because I need to be able to contact everyone I know. It’s tragic but true.

"The whole point is that it’s not a big factory floor where they have to make a hundred pieces an hour, it’s more that they are crafting because it’s relaxing, so obviously we are not going to get the same productivity rate as in a sweatshop."

Birdsong

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St Mary’s Flats
Doric Way
London
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