Who Made Your Pants?

Gorgeous Pants. By women, for women.

Who Made Your Pants? responds to Mary Portas’ ‘Kinky Knickers’ launch

On the 9th February 2012, Mary Portas launched her ‘Kinky Knickers’ range at Liberty, London, and ‘turned the lights back on’ for Great British Manufacturing, after four months in development and training apprentices.

It’s fantastic to see someone with the media presence and impact of Mary Portas tackling an issue that so many of us have been involved with for years. UK Manufacture is a hugely important issue, for all kinds of reasons. It’s important to keep skills alive and to have jobs for the crop of talented and creative graduates coming through courses like Contour Design at Leicester De Montford every year. I’ve had a personal concern about labour rights and standards overseas, as well as unnecessary ‘clothes miles’ and waste in the lingerie industry and it was this led me to set up Who Made Your Pants? In 2008. Based in Southampton we create jobs for vulnerable women who need them by turning end of line fabrics into new knickers and training, and then jobs, whilst also challenging the bigger brands to be open about their supply chain. It’s been a tough four years but we are incredibly proud, not just to be supporting traditional industry in Britain, but to be able to provide women with valuable skills and rewarding work making gorgeous, comfortable, quality underwear.

And we are not alone. Despite headlines to the contrary, the lights haven’t quite gone out on British Industry. In fact it’s quite a thriving scene Mary is joining. There are scores of independent brands out there, struggling to compete with the multinationals yes, but together making a significant contribution to British manufacturing, British brands and the British economy. Brands like Ayten Gasson and Kiss Me Deadly have been steadily doing their thing for years, building a loyal following and producing gorgeous, wonderful things.

Saying that, it’s true that there’s almost no-one who can shine as big a light on the scene as Queen of Shops, Queen of Frocks, Retail Tsar Mary Portas. She is the ‘go to’ person for this stuff because she is good at it. And now Mary is bringing the story of UK made underwear to our TV screens. Speaking in the Guardian on Friday 24th February 2012, regarding the programme that will hit our screens soon, she said,

“Should we compete with the sweatshops who can make knickers more cheaply? No. That’s not what we should do morally as a nation…. But we can compete with the Marks & Spencer, John Lewis and Boots [market]. That’s where I believe we can genuinely compete.”

I spoke to Mary about just this subject, price and competition, in June 2011. Mary was the keynote speaker at the Co-operative Congress, and we, the audience, were asked to put forward questions for her. I asked ‘How can small producers with higher costs make it onto the high street? There are certain mark ups demanded by retailers which might be hard to achieve without compromising the business model’. And my question was selected and answered by Mary herself. ‘You have something they don’t have. Your story. Tell it loud and unashamedly’ she said directly to me. It was good advice. Independent brands in Britain indeed have our own unique and individual stories to tell. But we also have to tell our story collectively. We have strength in our numbers and we must support each other.

Mary’s skill in drawing attention to British industry in the lingerie category is an opportunity for those of us already in the industry to share the spotlight. We need to celebrate our combined efforts and show the public that they already have lots of opportunity to ‘Buy British’ every day. Whether high end or everyday, lace or cotton, ethical or just plain pretty there is a lot of choice being produced by people who would love to come out of the shadows and share their stories of UK manufacture with the public at large. We are many small voices but if we sing together we will be heard.

I really do hope that Mary Portas, champion of the independent and the underdog in retail, uses her formidable strength and enviable media presence to celebrate all UK manufacturers. I’m sure I speak for many of us when I say that if her TV crew want to visit other UK manufacturers they would be most welcome. I’m sure that all of us, who are keeping UK manufacturing alive, would appreciate a little of that light.

Responses to Kinky Knickers Launch

http://www.thefullfiguredchest.com/2012/02/why-we-should-support-indie-lingerie-brands-and-accept-no-imitators/

http://www.aytengasson.com/news/Lates_News/British_Designer_Supporting_UK_Manufacturing_43.html

http://franticaboutfrances.co.uk/2012/02/05/mary-portas-turning-the-lights-back-on-for-uk-manufacturing/

Use of training

http://www.lingerieinsight.com/article-1875-lawyers-help-recruit-mary-portas-apprentices/

Press re Kinky Knickers Launch, some with comments

http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2012/feb/24/mary-portas-big-plan-smalls

http://www.lingerieinsight.com/pics-1830-mary-portas-launches-kinky-knickers-at-liberty/

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Right here, right now, right here, right now..

Good morning all! How are you today? It’s sunny and bright out there and don’t I feel better for it.

Things here at pants HQ are still pressurised and we are very much doing what we call firefighting – just the urgent stuff, nothing else. Della has been reduced to packing my kit for events rather than, oh, managing staff or writing management plans and reports, as we’ve been massively short on woman power. But today feels a brighter day. We’ve a great atmosphere here today – lots of women in the production area,a good number of volunteers, and that elusive sunshine filtering in through the windows.

So, what’s happened since I last wrote? I’ve done a few tiny posts but my last proper entry was the 8th Feb – my desperate oh oh woe post. Thanks so much to everyone who got in touch afterwards – real support and help are invaluable. Thank you. Since then, plenty has happened. We’ve finalised our colour plans for the year and sorted out what colour bows, threads and gussets we need. I’ve started my mammoth events calendar. Through March I have eight separate things to be at, and am working some nights until eleven pm (sob) so there has been a scheduling task to make sure I take the time back and don’t conk out, but then also catch up with Della. If I’m out at events, then out taking time in lieu, I’m not here and it’s amazing how fast Della and I can get disconnected and lose track of what each other is doing.

Our new press assistant April is doing really well, she’s keen and competent and comes to me with lists of questions and also suggested solutions – bliss! We’re putting some press out, hopefully today, as a call for BUMS – we need bum models! We’ve had some good press too – I was very proud to be featured in the South Wales Echo, a newspaper from my childhood! Have a look at these links if you’ve not seen them yet.

http://www.ogunte.com/innovation/featured-women-socinn/324-becky-john-who-made-your-pants
http://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/wales-news/2011/03/01/becky-unveils-her-patriotic-pants-91466-28252876/

We’ve also had out first photos from our new photography assistant. Looking good. I’m excited about getting photos of our new gift sets soon too. They make me so happy! Another volunteer, Aga, has been rifling through the boxes of ribbons we’ve been sent from Lush – they are extras from their gift department and we’re going to turn them into gift wrap for our sets. I want to play…!

We’re starting to get more applications for voluntary work in response to the calls I’ve been putting out. I’ve had a great meeting with Southampton Voluntary Services (long may they continue – I’m personally terrified for them that they will be cut. How the hell are we supposed to have this ‘Big Society’ run by volunteers if there is no support and training for volunteers? My mind boggles…) We’re getting clearer about what we need – we need a minimum of 6 hours a week and a commitment of at least ten weeks. It takes four week for someone to learn where things are and how to do things and it can be a huge drain on Della’s time if she has to constantly support people. We’ve agreed that, in future, we’ll be happy to open up more volunteer roles to people who need us, but right now, we need people who can help us. The reality is, BIg Society watchers, that it is A Very Hard thing to find experienced, competent people who will do the work, unpaid for enough hours to *run* an organisation or activity – they tend to, erm, have jobs, and be busy. Mr Cameron, take note!

What else? Oh! we’ve launched some super smashing splendid pants for St Davids Day and ran a competition about it too – see previous posts – and we’ll announce the winner soon. They are gorgeous and the lace is great quality – it feels nice and strong and supportive without being too weighty. I’m quite demanding about the lace that we take on – it;s easy to get carried away with all the pretty colours but we need it to have certain stretch qualities and it;s best if it’s a certain width as it means less tweaking of patterns.

I’ve been to my very first RSA event and had a lovely time. I’m looking forward to getting more plugged in to their networks and events programmes. The library blew me away – I’m a complete bibliophile and had purposely taken no bag so I could not take loads of books home. I limited myself to two and am going through them with delight.

What else.. I’ve been filmed by Midshires Co-op for a film on ‘why co-ops’, applied for bursaries to hold two co-ops events, been to PURE London, a huge fashion trade show – I love the shuttle buses between the two venue. Old Routemasters! Have had a meeting with another local place about a refugee/co-ops event in summer, appointed a new Committee member, been approached by a newswire, done a volunteering fair at the University of Southampton, started the process of moving our website to a new hosting and development solution (thank you to J who hosted, developed and supported for soooo long) written a reference, caught up with local happenings at the City Council,met Ethiopian and Eritrean women, spoken for the University Feminist Society, arranged to be at the University for two International Womens Day events, written template lists of what I need for different sorts of events, played with bows for colour matching. Busy busy. And we now employ ten women part time, and are training one more. I LOVE that.

If you want to come and see me, I’ll be at a bunch of events in March. Highlights are…

3rd March
Evening sales stall at Fashion on the Age of Austerity at V&A Museum of Childhood, Bethnal Green.

7th March 2011 TBC
Evening sales stall and Speaking at a Student Union IWD event Uni Southampton

8th March International Women’s Day
Sales stall, Uni of Southampton, 10-4 with University Feminist Society, selling pants on campus and promoting us.

http://www.teapigs.co.uk will be running a discount code promo and competition to their 16000 strong mailing list 7th March ref IWD.

10-13 March WOW festival
Speaking 12-1 on the 12 March, selling stall all day Saturday

17th, 18th March Responsible Business Event.
We’ll have a stall exhibiting both days and I will be speaking at a seminar for 20 mins on Friday 18th.

Maybe see you there? If not, happy March!

Love

Becky
x

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Ain’t fashion funny? or… A fish out of water…

Last week I went to a conference on Sustainable Fashion at the London College of Fashion (LCF). I was delighted to be invited, it’s just great that such a prestigious college is championing this new face of fashion, and it was a great opportunity to meet new people and talk about new initiatives.

But… I’ve never been a ‘fashion’ person. I love clothes, and I love how they can help people feel good. There is no doubt that clothes can affect the way a lot of us feel about ourselves. I love the way good underwear can make you feel taller, not to mention stop backache. But ‘fashion’, or at least my understanding of it (a merry go round of styles invoked cyclically by designers that tend to stick to wearing lots of black) has never done much for me. I like clothes to express something about the person wearing them, and I’m not sure mass produced (particularly, fast) fashion expresses anything more than a desire to fit in and follow the crowd. I don’t need to be told how to dress – I can manage that fine by myself. And I find it strange to be told that I ought wear this shoe or that skirt or this trouser length. Why? What will it achieve? I like difference and individuality and innovation. And I wear things I’ve had for fifteen years because I love them, and the way they make me feel.

So it was strange to be at a conference on fashion for me. A fish out of water would describe, pretty accurately, how I felt. It seemed to me that a lot of people there wanted to ethic/green up fashion, whereas I was coming from the other end and starting with ethics and not thinking of ‘fashion’ as such but thinking instead just of ‘clothes’. I was dead chuffed to meet some like minded people in the midst of the fashionistas, and hope to stay in touch with them. But it really opened my eyes and made me see that whomadeyourpants? might have a harder battle on it’s hands than I’d thought in some ways. I don’t want it to be part of the ‘fashion’ industry. I don’t want to have to use teeny tiny cake hungry models to be accepted. I’ve been to fashion shows before, but I am always stunned by the size of the models. (I’d had a piece of cake in my bag earlier that day, given to me as I left a meeting with a group of women here in Southampton. I’d eaten in the park next to Bethnal Green Tube, while watching squirrels run and adults rustle joyfully through the leaves, all the while thinking how lucky I was to live in a world where there is cake and freedom. But looking at the girls who opened the conference with a fashion show, I couldn’t help but feel I could have kept the cake and shared it. They looked so hungry!) I want to use real women, all sizes, all colours. It certainly gave me a lot to think about.

The show before the conference was amazing – truly. Some really innovative approaches had been taken by designers, interesting use of fibres and it showed, happily, that at the cutting edge of fashion study in the UK people are really aware of the impact of sweatshops and child labour and want to make changes. This is all good news. I’m not sure how effective the goodwill will be at making changes – for as long as people want to buy as many clothes as they currently do (and this number is increasing – research shows that growth in the fashion industry over the last few years has been largely due to volume increases, not price rises. This means that people are buying more, cheaper clothes. One source suggests women now buy an average of 71 items per year as opposed to 51 a few years back) and think they have the right to low, low prices, exploitation in the fashion industry will continue. There can never be much left over for the worker out of a t shirt costing even a fiver, let alone under two quid after the retailer, distributor, transporter and manufacturer have taken their cut.

The conference itself was really interesting. There were loads of people, perhaps 250, and it was the culmination of a long period of hard work by the LCF and they deserved the praise they were given for achieving it. There were buyers, designers, retailers, journalists… but as one person pointed out, no workers. We talked, in the group I was in, about responsibility and it was interesting to hear the differing viewpoints about what changes might be made, what barriers there are to change – it was pointed out that manufacturers are already subject to a barrage of forms and policies and as they become more burdensome, they stop engaging with the UK. Tricky. But I had some good conversations with people who are interested in maybe selling pants, and will people who work in recycled materials. It was absolutely worth going.

Some of the lasting impressions I’ve been left with will take a while to shake out of my head. I don’t think I’ll be wearing my tights over my shoes, or wearing anything made out of wallets, but I will be reading up on the designers that exhibited, and following up on contacts I made over the two days.

I keep thinking – how can ‘fashion’ EVER be sustainable when it encourages people to change and buy more and new every few months? I’m just not sure it can. Unless the clothes are all compostable. But more so, I keep thinking ‘what do these people eat?’ I know it’s the College of Fashion but really… four lettuce leaves, eight pine nuts, twelve slivers of beetroot, a disc of bread and about an inch cube of cheese do NOT a lunch make. Not for this Ms UK Average size anyway!

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