“We should all be feminists.” (Chimamanda Ngozi Adicihie)
A recent Stylist magazine article featured Nigerian author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, wearing a Dior t-shirt (£490 and currently sold out) with the slogan “we should all be feminists” embroidered across the front. So it seems feminism is back in fashion. Which in some respects shouldn’t be surprising . . . Women are, after all, the primary consumers of fashion.
Jodi Muter-Hamilton, founder of Black Neon Digital, and I thought it would be interesting to get together a group of women entrepreneurs to discuss fashion and feminism.
These are the women who joined us for lunch and a chat.
Lucy Tammam (and daughter, Dora) – Creative director and founder of Tammam, a bespoke fashion atelier. Lucy is currently fundraising for the One Dress project which she describes as: “a textiles art piece which aims to reclaim traditional women’s crafts such as embroidery, that have been devalued by mass production, and bring the creator and consumer back together . . . This dress will tell the story of women. What does it mean to be a woman? What does it mean to be a “feminist”?”.
Sophie Slater – Co-founder (with Sarah, above left) of Birdsong, an ethical online marketplace selling fashion made by women’s groups. Birdsong produce “fashion that’s fairer for women”, with a promise of no sweatshops and no photoshop.
Hayat Rachi – Founder and CEO of Neon Moon, which she established to sell “body positive lingerie for women of all shapes and sizes”. Neon Moon operates on a sweatshop-free, photoshop-free, sexualisation-free and objectification-free basis.
Sophie, Birdsong London was established to sell ‘fashion that’s fairer for women’. Why is this so important to you?
Birdsong London evolved from a number of different experiences, including ‘body policing’. I got scouted by a modelling agency when I was fifteen. Even though I was seriously underweight at the time, I was told I was perfect the way I was and instructed not to put on any weight.
Then a couple of years later, I got a job at American Apparel. I was initially excited to be working at a company with an anti-sweatshop policy, and which campaigned on LGBTQ issues. But I quickly became disillusioned with the sexually exploitative advertising materials, and with the way female staff were objectified. (In fact, the founder/CEO was subsequently fired amid allegations of serious sexual misconduct with staff and models).
Then, after university, I did the Year Here programme working with some of the UK’s most vulnerable and disenfranchised women. I encountered women with amazing skills making stuff on therapeutic programmes, which then just ended up in cupboards or in charity shops because no-one knew what to do with it.
I found myself wondering why can’t we do ethical fashion in a way that’s good for women from every single angle? And that’s how Birdsong London was born; with a mission to source clothes from women’s groups, and to market them in ways which don’t exploit models.
Hayat, In your Kickstarter campaign you said: “I found it difficult to find a lingerie brand that shared the same ethos as myself”. So you launched your own brand, Neon Moon, to sell body positive lingerie.
Yes. No-one should have to sideline their self-esteem to buy a bra or knickers. When women buy a bra from us they’re not just buying a bra; they can buy a bra from anywhere! They buy a bra from us because they identify with us. If you’re a global brand and you bring out a feminist t-shirt, how authentic are you really? It’s so much easier if you’re a feminist business right from the start.
Being photoshop-free has been such a positive for us. We set up a Selfies page on our website and it looks just like our own advertising campaigns. We make women feel represented; they feel that they’re part of the brand.
Lucy, ‘One Dress’ sets out to explore what it means to be a woman and to be a feminist. Tell us more.
It’s the tenth anniversary of my label, House of Tammam, this year. I originally started off wholesaling clothes, but I got more and more disillusioned with the amount of waste generated by the fashion industry. So I started creating bespoke fashion. But even then I had to create collections to showcase my bespoke pieces, and they would only fit the model, so there was still waste in the process. Last year I got to the point where I thought I’ve had enough ..! But I’m a creative person and I can’t not create because it’s what I do.
I’d been working on curating the FiLiArt showcase and it made me want to turn my own work into activist art, so I came up with the idea to create One Dress to represent all women.
The design is a modern interpretation of dresses worn by suffragettes, in respect to the women who made such huge sacrifices for our right to vote. And it’s being hand-embroidered with words chosen by women around the world to represent their collective experience. One Dress will bring together everyone who’s part of the project; the people who help fund it (via Crowdfunder), the people to whom they dedicate words they sponsor, the skilled artisans who create One Dress, and the inspirational women who wear it.
So is feminism back in fashion?
Lucy – Ten years ago, when I founded the Tammam label, sustainability was hardly thought about in the fashion industry. My focus was very much on fair trade at the time, mainly working with disadvantaged women in India and Nepal. People’s understanding has changed so much since then, consumers understand sustainability and fair trade are feminist issues now, and they care about them.
Sophie – Kids in school are identifying as feminists now, and that never happened when I was a kid. It’s like the fourth or fifth wave of feminism now.
Hayat – It’s become so much more acceptable. Girls and young women are seeing high-profile role models, like Beyoncé, speaking about feminism and saying it’s cool, so it becomes cool. We don’t have to explain it so much any more. Now our customers are voting with their money to see us grow as a feminist start-up and a female team.
Sophie – 85% of makers in the garment industry are women and girls, which makes fashion a feminist issue. But fashion is also a really good platform for campaigning; you can get an issue across in a fashion magazine.
It seems we should definitely all be feminists and increasingly more women are. We want fashion that’s more respectful of the women who buy it. And we want a fashion industry that’s much more accountable to the women who create fashion garments.
(In the second part of our discussion – here – we get into body politics, and explore the relationship between women who make fashion and women who wear fashion).