Feminist fashion retailer Birdsong are hosting an evening of events at Rich Mix in Shoreditch on Tuesday 8 March to celebrate International Women's Day and to raise funds for Heba Women's Project, a Brick Lane-based project that combines fashion production with community training, including language classes, and local enterprise.
"If this place wasn't available, maybe I wouldn't be able to speak," explains Rehana, a seamstress at Heba for 11 years, adding, "I never want to stop coming here. I always pray that Heba is open forever". This important project is facing an uncertain future as rents rise and government funding cuts continue to tear at the seams of society, so Birdsong is asking the fashion community to come together on International Women's Day to address this issue, and help to alleviate some of the current pressure.
The Fashion Against Funding Cuts event on International Women's Day will include a panel discussion about how the fashion industry can fight back against austerity, featuring Polyester zine editor Ione Gamble, Anjum Ishtiaq of Heba and Craftivist Collective founder Sarah Corbett. There will also be DJs, garments made by the Heba Women's Project available to buy, and a display of Birdsong's #AsWeAre campaign, which rejects airbrushing and challenges the lack of diversity in the fashion industry.
Birdsong's #AsWeAre campaign
i-D caught up with Birdsong co-founder Sophie Slater to find out more...
How is Birdsong redefining fashion's relationship with women?
We aim to redefine fashion's relationship to women in every way we can think of; from a fully feminist perspective. That means using young women photographers to eradicate the male gaze, to refusing to photoshop our models, aiming to represent a broader section of women than is typically seen in the media, and treating our workforce right. For #AsWeAre we asked our friends, role models and suppliers to wear our clothes. This meant that women who aren't typically represented, like 84 year old Birdsong knitter Edna, for example, got to be visible and seen on the BBC local news.
Also, the garment industry is notoriously exploitative of its 80% female sweatshop workforce. We work with smaller groups and charities that support women with other social missions. That way the clothes aren't alienated from the labour, and women are given living wage directly as a result of our product sales (for example, the goldsmiths who make Relevee Jewellery earn a middle class wage) or elect to donate it to their group to provide things like counselling (Sweet Cavanagh, our group who work with women recovering from eating disorders and addictions do this).
What is Heba Women's Project?
Heba Women's Project was set up 25 years ago by a group of talented Bangladeshi seamstresses. They set up shop on Brick Lane and provided sewing, English and IT lessons to women in the community. They also had a free crèche for women who were working there, which is obviously incredibly valuable for any women seeking to learn new skills. They're a big reason we set Birdsong up, as we were seeing women's organisations struggling with funding all around us, but they often had a product output or untapped skill, like the knitters we work with at a day centre. They were selling at Spitalfields but the redevelopment of the area meant that the product wasn't quite right for the market anymore and they were really missing out on sales. We took everything online, and now we hook them up with designers, develop new clothes, and do all their marketing, sales and fulfilment so they can concentrate on providing a safe space for the women they work with.
How are funding cuts threatening the project?
Unfortunately, Heba had their rent doubled this summer and lost their local authority funding. This means everything but the sewing room has shut, which is a tragedy. That's why we're fundraising for Heba at the moment, so we can keep them open to make more clothes and support more women. According to a women's aid report, 92% of women's organisations in London have faced funding cuts or a funding crisis in the past six years. With charities like Eaves [which addresses violence against women and girls in the UK] going under every few years, we think it's vital that feminism works to support these women. That's why our business plan is built around supporting women's groups, and introducing them to young feminist creatives to maximise potential for everyone, and for social change.
Heba Women's Project
How will your International Women's Day event help?
Our IWD event is donation based and 100% of profit from ticket sales will go to Heba. Also, 70% of sales from clothing sold on the night will go to them too. We're also supporting Anjum, who's been the manager of Heba for over a decade, to have a platform to speak out about the cuts and hopefully raise awareness and a sense of collaboration about what we can do.
What exciting things are on the event schedule?
We have some really exciting speakers, including Anjum, Sarah Corbett, founder of Craftivist Collective, Ione Gamble, editor of Polyester Zine, music from three amazing DJs and a raffle. We'll also be showcasing images from our successful #AsWeAre campaign, challenging the lack of diversity in bodies and faces that are typically represented at London Fashion Week, and we'll have the new Heba collection for sale.
The two DJ sets we have are from Anu Ambasna. Anu grew up in Hounslow and has been surrounded by music of all sorts, leaning towards world music. Aside from working as an illustrator and running a music magazine called Equaliser, she DJs around London and hosts a monthly radio show on Balamii. Her sets move around genres and across decades, all connected by a unique dancefloor sensibility. She's also modelled for Birdsong recently.
And Moonbones -- the collaborative DJ moniker of Eleanor Hardwick's collective music project Moonbow Music and Ayesha Tan-Jones project YaYa Bones, fusing often female-fronted 90s garage and R&B nostalgia, 80s tropical new wave and current experimental pop that you may not have heard of but can definitely dance to, all the while accompanied by original tripped out freestyle vocal jams over the top from Hardwick and Tan-Jones.
Text Charlotte Gush
Photography courtesy Birdsong