“Clothes aren’t going to change the world. The women who wear them will.” Anne Klein
Women are the primary consumers of fashion. Yet women (generally not the same women!) also form the overwhelming majority of a hugely disadvantaged and underpaid garment industry workforce. Is feminism particularly relevant to fashion? And, if so, how do we understand the seeming disconnect between the women who buy clothes and the women who make them?
Jodi Muter-Hamilton, founder of Black Neon Digital and I thought it would be interesting to get together a group of women who’ve put feminism at the heart of their fashion business model to discuss why.
These are the women who joined us.
Sophie Slater – Co-founder of Birdsong London, 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.
Is feminism particularly relevant to fashion?
Lucy – Fashion has always been a platform for activism. It’s creative so it has the potential to shock and to cause debate. Just think about flappers in the 1920s, utility wear in the 1940s, or Katherine Hamnett‘s work (most recently, collaborating with Help Refugees on the Choose Love t-shirt).
Sophie – Fashion is a really good way of expressing yourself. Particularly for women who’ve not always had the biggest voice in society or been silenced. It’s a language that, if you’ve got that skill, you can speak. And that’s really powerful; clothes help you express that part of yourself in a visual way. Any good brand is like a club; a symbol of recognition. You get that a lot with queer culture: your underwear speaks volumes you wouldn’t necessarily be able to say with just words. Or, if I see a woman on the street with pink hair and a septum piercing, I know we probably read the same blogs . . .
Jodi – I think that fashion is a very powerful medium, it can be more about unspoken than the spoken.
Hayat – Even with lingerie, which you can’t inherently see on someone, it still makes you feel a certain way, makes you feel good. Lingerie is the first thing you put on in the morning, and it’s so close to the skin. I wanted to have a message with a real impact when it came to natural beauty and body politics, so lingerie was the obvious way to do it.
Sophie – When we first started people told us that, if we wanted to make as much money as possible for women’s charities, we should use conventionally attractive models. But it’s commodification of women’s bodies, and we’d be just like every other company if we did that.
Hayat – Neon Moon launched on Kickstarter and photoshop-free was what differentiated us, it was what people got behind. They voted with their money saying, yes, we want to see advertising with women just like us wearing underwear.
Hayat – We’ve even had a mannequin with hairy armpits. We got some flack for that. But it was great to stop people on the street, to make people talk. Nothing’s going to make everyone happy. You might as well take a good standpoint, make a good difference. It’s all about mindset; if people don’t agree now, maybe in two or three years’ time they will agree.
And it’s about choice. That’s where feminism comes in. If you want to shave, you shave. If you don’t, you don’t. The key thing is no-one has the right to tell you how you should look.
Sophie – Birdsong‘s main priority is generating income for vulnerable and disadvantaged women in women’s charities. We didn’t want to be a charity and compete for increasingly limited funding. Instead we support women by providing an outlet for products using artisanal (and often therapeutic) skills which might otherwise be overlooked, and by paying a fair wage for their work.
We work with a number of women’s groups in London including Heba (a safe space for migrant and refugee women), Mohila Creations (a group of migrant mothers), Knit and Knatter (a group of older women who donate the cash raised to a different charity each month) and The Bradbury Centre (where the women donate their pay to the day centre where their knitting group is based. We also work with women’s groups abroad, such as Two Neighbours, which is a social business and peace project based across Israel and Palestine.
Hayat – Being sweatshop-free is more in line with people’s views and values now. The Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh in 2013 was the turning point: women thought: “Oh my god, someone died to make me this £2 t-shirt!”.
But isn’t there still some ‘disconnect’ in the fashion industry between the women who make clothes and the women who wear them?
Lucy – Going back to, say, the 1940s when things were made more locally in your own communities, you would see the people who were making things, they’re part of your community, you have to live with them. There’s a saying – you don’t shit on your own doorstep. Now stuff is made so far away, it’s so far removed, it’s harder to care. I really think we need to step backward in some respects to move forward.
Lucy – But now we have the technology to do that. We could be live streaming into overseas factories, seeing how things are being made.
Hayat – Neon Moon has a mantra of empowerment from production to end wearer. It would be hypocritical to empower women in once place by exploiting them in another. So we showcase our factories: we have a photo of our workers on the website, and we Snapchat when we visit them.
Hayat – Transparency closes the gap between who makes fashion and who wears it. It answers the price point question, the logistics question, the team question, it answers all those questions. And it’s an ongoing thing, not a one-off promotional exercise.
But large brands don’t show that, they choose not to. That’s where the disconnect is.
What are the most important things we can do to empower all women?
Sophie – I love bringing women from different backgrounds together. I think there’s a real value in that. And it addresses the empathy gap as well.
Hayat – We can only make women feel truly represented and included if we grow, and our customers know that. They are very savvy. If Neon Moon grow as a company, we can do more, and have more impact.
Sophie – We are thinking about this constantly. Young people, most people, are so disillusioned with the current political outlook. And women are feeling the effects of austerity more. But, if you can’t use your vote to change the world, you can choose to vote with your money. What excites me and my business partner is finding opportunities to reclaim the economy, creating these little alternative pockets of economy.
Technically, Birdsong London was established as a for profit company. But where that profit goes is much more interesting than just saying we’re for profit. It’s really exciting to think about how you can transform local communities, how you can redistribute wealth elsewhere.
Jodi – For me it’s all about business. To keep artisanal skills alive you need to develop viable products and make it work as a business. And legislation is also key. The 2015 Modern Slavery Act is a good starting point. It only targets one issue, but it’s the sort of law that needs to happen to hold companies accountable.
Lucy – There needs to be a ‘crap’ tax. If companies were charged for all the consequences of their actions, cheap garments wouldn’t be so cheap and customers would think, well, I might as well buy better quality in the first place. There’s a missed opportunity to engage small businesses who aren’t being credited for that they do. We need financial incentives for companies to be socially and environmentally sustainable.
Sophie – It blows my mind that slavery is still a thing in the modern world . . .
Will clothes change the world? Well, fashion plays an exciting and central role in achieving equality for women. And the women who wear fashion have immense power in their hands to drive change (not least by supporting feminist brands such as Birdsong London, Neon Moon and One Dress).
Your companies aspire to empower women from maker to wearer, and you’re ambitious to increase your turnover and profile in order to have ever greater impact. But you’ve also identified that the wider context matters.
Transparency is essential, and big companies in particular need to do much, much more in this regard. But you’d also like to see good social and environmental performance recognised and rewarded. Perhaps a ‘carrot and stick’ approach with incentives to reward best practice, and legislation to deter irresponsible corporate behaviour.
(If you want to know more about Hayat, Sophie and Lucy’s brands, and you haven’t already read the first part of this conversation, you can find it here).