We all knew of the cracks that cut through the fashion industry but the smoke and mirrors of glamour and exclusivity did a pretty decent job of concealing them – until now, of course. The pandemic has revealed not only the worst of fashion – from unfulfilled factory orders leaving garment workers destitute to the truly excessive number of collections produced each year – but also the instability of its very foundations. As designers and brands try to adapt and evolve, this fashion month is proving to be anything but ordinary. With shows going virtual, front rows relocating to sofas and street style replaced with loungewear, what place does fashion’s old guard have in the new normal?
While many luxury houses are scrambling to prove their ethical and sustainable credentials – particularly to garner headlines during a fashion month that no one can attend IRL – those that are shining through in this year of uncertainty are the smaller, independent names who have incorporated genuine social responsibility into their DNA from the very start. London-based designer Bethany Williams has long led the way and her truly conscious brand might just be the blueprint for change the industry so sorely needs.
Williams founded her eponymous label in 2017 and has since received the Queen Elizabeth II Award for British Design, been shortlisted for the LVMH Prize and won the Emerging Talent Menswear award at last year’s Fashion Awards. She’s the indie favourite of the industry but she plays by her own rules. Rather than looking for the most prestigious collaborator for her debut collection ‘Breadline’, Williams worked with Tesco and Vauxhall Foodbank. She partners with a changing roster of charitable organisations, from drug rehabilitation centres to food banks and homeless shelters, and donates a sizeable portion of the proceeds from her collections each season. She also employs people via charity services to help create her collections – from members of the Isle of Man’s Manx Workshop for the Disabled to Italy’s San Patrignano drug and alcohol dependency programme – creating a cycle of skill sharing, income and meaningful employment in local communities which are often overlooked. Even as the pandemic disrupted production and proved an uncertain future for many brands, Williams, alongside fellow designer Phoebe English, founded the Emergency Designer Network, a volunteer-led endeavour to provide PPE stock for the NHS and other frontline workers.
Besides driving social change, Williams’ brand is the antithesis of murky greenwashing and one-off conscious collections. Transforming waste into the wonderful by using recycled materials, factory deadstock and offcuts to make her pieces, circularity has been at the heart of her label since day one.
At London Fashion Week this weekend, Williams continues her collaboration with the Newham-based Magpie Project. Working with children and mothers who are homeless or at risk of homelessness (80% of whom have no recourse to public funds), Williams’ SS21 collection, aptly titled ‘All Our Children’, draws inspiration from the stories of people she’s met and worked with at Magpie as well as “the importance of family spirit in a child’s life”. Hosting playtime drawing workshops with the organisation, Williams then worked with illustrator Melissa Kitty Jarram to turn the children’s drawings into prints and patterns for the final collection, in which deadstock, organic and recycled materials become contemporary tailoring, corsets, kitsch knits and handbags inspired by children’s lunchboxes.
Williams’ democracy goes one step further: her brand may operate under the menswear label but her clothes fit and are made for everyone. In lieu of a catwalk show, at Somerset House this weekend Williams’ presentation is accompanied by a poem written by the playwright Eno Mfon and photographs and a film shot by photographer Ruth Ossai, capturing five families wearing the colourful collection. The whole thing is joyful, powerful, playful and a celebration of unity.
For most brands, looking to the future involves trend forecasting and predictions of consumer behaviour but for Williams it’s about caring for communities, whether that means those making our clothes, those impacted by climate change or marginalised groups that society often ignores. Here’s hoping the rest of the industry uses this season as an opportunity to take note and follow suit.
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