When Sophie met Sophie:
The Holborn’s Sophie Skarbek-Borowska met Sophie Slater of ethical clothing company Birdsong to talk fashion, politics and women’s recognition.
The idea for Birdsong germinated after (or during) your time with Year Here. Can you tell me a bit about your experiences on the programme? Why did you decide to do it and what were the most important things you learned?
Year Here was an incredible career opener for us. I wouldn’t be my own boss as my first graduate job without it.
I’d initially wanted to go into the Civil Service or academia, but also wanted to do something creative and socially conscious, so Year Here and its design principles appealed to me on every level.
I’d received an offer to study an MA at Oxford, but the fees were extortionate. Year Here taught us so many more social and professional skills than a traditional course. How to approach a project, how to conduct a meeting, how to manage your time and emails are all skills you have to learn on the job, and I did that with Year Here.
Above all, it gave me the confidence to try everything out and teach myself.
You chose to be a social enterprise rather than a charity for greater independence. Can you give me a couple of examples of where this has come in useful?
It’s meant we could do a crowd-funded investment round, which enables people to have much more ownership when they give to Birdsong.
It makes us really proud that our friends, photographers, models and even some makers are investors in our company and own a small part of it. It also means that we can be really responsive, and can do what’s best at the time for our strategy, without being tied to grant conditions or trustees who are really hands-off.
Above all, I think it gives us greater creative control and transparency.
There’s a longstanding debate over the difference between exploitation and emancipation, particularly when it comes to the labour-intensive work that women do. What would you say to people who argue that work in the garment industry helps women gain recognition for their economic input?
I think there’s long been an argument that work for work’s sake is better than nothing. However, I don’t think that means that women should be expected to work for poverty wages or in unfair conditions by any means. I firmly believe that a living wage should be an essential part of any good business plan – otherwise it’s inherently flawed.
There have been reports and studies which found that workers actually preferred rural labour or sex work to enforced garment working in poor conditions. Economic recognition is one thing, but it has to be met with dignity, respect and autonomy too, or you’re not improving that person’s quality of life. That’s what we strive to do with Birdsong.
The latest general election proved that a large number of people do still hope they can bring about political change through voting. Birdsong helps people to bring about small but important changes through economic exchange. Do you see a time when economic solidarity might bring about political change?
We’re really interested in the idea of creating pockets of alternative economies, and working within an imperfect system with the skills we have. If we can leverage the power we have to redistribute some to low-income women, that’s great.
I’m reading Take Back The Economy as we speak, so it’s something we’re thinking about a lot. I definitely think that a lot of people who want political change act on that with their spending power: buying more thoughtful, considering products that go back to family business or community initiatives. Even if it’s as simple an act as buying a craft beer instead of a big corporation bev!
Interview by Sophie Skarbek-Borowska