Imagine you're going shopping. It's payday and you want to treat yourself, but you don't want to spend too much. Now imagine you bought the perfect outfit and you're wearing it. Great, now just take a moment and think about what you're wearing and how it makes you feel. Now think about the brand and how much you paid for the outfit. Next try to figure out how much it cost to make. Including materials and cost of labor. Think about where it was made. And under what conditions?
So you might have heard about what happened in Bangladesh- a factory collapsed killing over twelve hundred people. The brand you're wearing might have sourced from that very factory. Now, you might think if your label says made in Britain that's fine right? Everyone in Britain must be paid a living wage. Right? What if I told you that most textile workers in Britain are paid three pounds an hour or less? You probably know these factories as sweatshops, and yes they exist everywhere, even in 21st century Britain. People around the world rely on jobs in these factories. Especially women, who make up 90% of sweatshop workers.
The way things are now, women and fashion have an ambivalent relationship. Fashion employs women around the world. Yet employment conditions are unacceptable. Fashion inspires creativity and self-expression. Yet we're bombarded with messages about what our bodies should look like and what we should wear. Have you ever tried something on, looked at your own body and felt like you're not beautiful enough? The way things are now, our markets are flooded with mass-produced, fast fashion.
And also, fashion trends have gender differences. Generally speaking, men's clothes are more about what's wearable and comfortable while women's clothes are about what's on trend. And there is a clear difference in quality. This is changing of course but mainstream fashion hasn't caught up yet. Why? Is it about us? Is it about our personal style or how much we can afford to pay? Or is it about what's easy for fashion brands?
These questions are what inspired Sarah Beckett, Sophie Slater and I to start Birdsong - an online shop where you'll find clothing made by women's groups. We're trying to affect change as a fashion brand which as you can imagine comes with many challenges. How do we build a fashion business without falling into the same patterns? We don't have all the answers yet but we're building our values into the core of our business. For example, we refuse to to alter the appearance of models, because people that make our clothes look good. Not the other way around. We work with suppliers and offer them tailored support to sell their products. The clothes we sell are made by organizations supporting and employing women. This includes jumpers and scarves from a knitting circle in Kingston - Bomber jackets and bags made by women in Malawi - and blazers and dresses by women in Brick Lane. With our suppliers and our partners we want to build a community that brings together both feminism and fashion.
As a Palestinian woman, one of our suppliers, Two Neighbors is an organization that's very close to my heart. There is a group of women in the South Hebron Hills in Palestine that are among the few who still make traditional Palestinian Embroidery - Tatreez. This type of embroidery is becoming a rare art, but there are still women who teach their daughters and pass it on to the next generation. Collectively, each piece they make is so intricate it can take over a week to complete.
These pieces are then taken over to Tel Aviv, where a group of Israeli women sew the dresses together with the embroidery. Most of the Israeli women in the group learned their skills in the former Soviet Union and have been sewing since their early teens.
These two groups of women are separated by physical barriers, checkpoints, and a whole world of politics. Without this initiative, they would never meet or even know of each other's existence. The dress that I am wearing today, is made by them. In a dismal and unbalanced political reality, Two Neighbours are defying oppression and hatred in favor of beauty, common sense and shared economic benefit. In their own words they come together to bring sustenance to their families and beauty to the world.
What do all our suppliers have in common? Whether dealing with the challenges of old age and isolation or facing harsh political realities these women come together to improve their lives. These are the people that make Birdsong what it is.
Now let's go back to your outfit and discuss the cost. To make it easy, let's say you're wearing a shirt that costs £10. How much of that do you think goes to materials and how much to labor? About £2.60 covers materials. £1.30 covers other costs like manufacturing, insurance and taxes. So how much goes to the person who made that shirt? Less than 1 penny. That means that £6 goes directly to the retailer - that is a 60% mark-up. As you can see, mainstream fashion is not about the consumer and certainly not about workers and their aspirations. It's about making a profit.
With the way things are now, change seems almost impossible. But this is simply not true. As people we have the power to question and the power to choose. As consumers we have the responsibility to question big brands and hold them accountable, because it is possible for them to change if we pressure them to. There's a whole movement calling for a fashion revolution! So don't settle for less than you deserve and choose style that respects and empowers people from all walks of life.