Who Made Your Pants?

Gorgeous Pants. By women, for women.

Who Made Your Pants? You know us, but how much do you know? Here’s our story.

 

 

It occurred to me recently that when I’m out at events, I get asked a lot about how we started and why and that while we have some of this stuff on our website, I’ve never really written it all down. I tell the same story to people at all the events that we do, so I’m going to set myself the task of writing down here what I say there, and let’s see how much sense it makes! I’m writing as I speak so if you’ve met me at an event, i’d love to know if I remember this the same way you do!

There are three main influences behind us starting. A love of lingerie, a love of human rights, and a personal change. So, starting at the beginning…

I have a quite ridiculous passion for underwear. I love it. I’ve been a C cup and about since I was 14 so good underwear has always been important to me. For some women it’s makeup, lipstick, maybe perfume, or some amazing shoes but for me, the thing I do for myself every day to make myself feel proud is wear amazing underwear. It really isn’t about anyone else – i’m single and happily so. I just love pants. And bras. Love them. I’ve got this one bra set, it’s orange and pink and yellow and it looks like a sunset. In fact, I love it so much I have two. It’s be Freya, a brand I love – I wear their Deco bras everyday now- and I was looking at this bra one day and I just thought, I have no idea who made this. I have no idea where it was made, where it’s been, which countries it has come through, how many pairs of hands had held it. And I thought to myself, I don’t know who made my pants. And then I thought… There’s something in that. That sounds like a business name…

Alongside this, I’ve been selling things since I was eight years old. I grew up in Wales and back then, if you were a girl, you didn’t play rugby so I got involved by selling sweets in the rugby club sweet shop. I then went on to work in Dorothy Perkins and while I’ve never really been interested in changing fashions, I loved the underwear deliveries coming in. It was like opening a treasure chest. I remember there was a fashion for block coloured satin sets in deep deep colours – a beautiful emerald, deep garnet and an almost black purple are the ones I can still see in my mind’s eye. I loved that part of my job. Anyway, I worked I retail and then sales and ended up in corporate sales, selling software development tools to big banks. I sometimes say that I felt I was using my powers for evil. I’m a good sales person because I am honest. I don’t bullshit, or fake discount,or play the stupid games so many bad sales people do. Never have. And then on May 27th 2006, I saw an article, this article http://www.guardian.co.uk/money/2006/may/27/careers.work in The Guardian, with UnLtd, writing about social enterpreneurs. And I though, hey hey… This looks good…

And then, alongside this, I was also involved in human rights activism and other campaigns. I petitioned Loreal at the age of 15 to stop the LD50 test, and started boycotting Nestlé and Loreal then. I got involved with Amnesty nationally, just a member, I got the magazines and wrote letters. After I moved to Southampton, a few years later, I joined the local Southampton city Amnesty Group and got involved in their Central America Special Action group. One of this things I did for that was be filmed, by the Open University, writing a letter to the mother of a woman who had been killed walking home from a sweatshop. There’s been a huge culture of femicide – killings of women – in places like Ciadad Juarez, and it almost seems state sanctioned. And I wrote to the mother of a woman who had been killed saying, you may feel alone, but know that you are not. Know that you have friends that care in other countries who know of your pain and who know this was wrong and who are writing to your government asking them why this goes on. And then they filmed this woman reading my letter. It was one of the most moving things I’ve ever done, and it still chokes me up to remember it. That was a real woman, killed, walking home from a sweatshop. I had no idea what she’d been making and I realised I could be wearing something made by someone killed shortly after. I’m casting no aspersions at all against Freya or any other brand right here – but what I realised was, precisely, that I did not know. And I wanted to have no part in lives being so full of danger. I wanted the things I wear to make me feel gorgeous and happy to have a gorgeous and happy start in life. Work, earning our own money, is one of the most empowering things we can do – it should not be a place of risk or exploitation.

Another thing I knew about from Amnesty was that there was a big refugee population in Southampton. These are people who have fled horrific places and come here, to this land of drizzle and grey skies that I adore (I often say here that if you put me on a beach in the sunshine I get confused. I grew up in Wales. Summer = warm drizzle), because it is better, safer, for them and their children. I knew that within that group, it was often the women who were the most marginalised. The husbands, more often than not, come to the UK first and, often, have to promise the government that they can support their family before the family is allowed to join them. Their wives get no benefits, in many cases (the refugee/asylum/economic migrant/ benefits issue is massive. I’ll write about it properly another day) This means that husbands might be working 14, 16 hour days. They’ll almost certainly be learning English. Children will be at school, learning English. Mum is sitting at home, on her own, developing depression. This is not good.

The final piece of the puzzle is something that happened to me. In September 2005, I had a breakdown (I actually usually say I went mental but that feels a bit woooahh Captain Sparrow to write down) and ended up in counselling with Southampton Rape Crisis over something that happened to me when I was younger. They gave me my life back and showed me that what I had previously thought was happy was, in fact, rubbish. They showed me that the world was an amazing place, that I could go and play in it, that I was strong and powerful and that I could do whatever I wanted. I usually touch my nose at this point. I have a dribbling wreck fear of needles and got my nose pierced as a reminder to myself that I *can* do anything. It’s a little touchstone for me. And I thought, if I can share this feeling, with just one woman, it can bring some good from what happened to me. And I wanted to share that arms outstretched, I AM WOMAN HEAR ME ROAR kind of feeling.

So, what we have here is a group of people that I though might want a job, a product I wanted to buy and me feeling like I could take on the world. On December, I think, 5th, 2007 my counsellor said something to me in a session that just blew my mind. It was a statement that blew apart a bunch of ‘rules’ I was living by that weren’t mine and made no sense. I was so elated, I was so transformed, I was asked out four times that night. I realised that I was powerful, that I could do things, that I could make choices, my own choices I could do things I enjoyed. And I decided that I’d spend my Christmas break just thinking about what I wanted to do. And I went back to work in January knowing I was going to hand in my notice at the end of March and leave my job at the end of June. And that’s what I did. I had my first meeting with a co-ops development worker on January 7th 2008, started work full time on Who Made Your Pants? On July 1st 2008, we legally incorporated on the 12th December 2008, launched the training project, sold our first pants and ‘pants futures’ in 2009, perfected our current design in May 2010, launched our 14th colour in October 2011 and we launched our new branding on February 18th 2012.Image

Almost everyone involved has worked unpaid for at least some of the time – and I mean everyone from me and Della to our board to our web developer to our IT folks and photographers and friends who donate goods and time, and branding people and finance people and our designer and the chap that manages the building we’re in. Della and I both take home significantly less than we ought, as we’re building this. Everyone cares. Everyone wants this to work. We have engaged with over 60 women on the last four years, some of whom were illiterate in their own languages, let alone English, many of whom had just no idea how to have a job. I sometimes say that we’re an employability project masquerading as a knicker business. We’ve given every single one a chance and have now settled on our team of seven as they showed us that they cared, they wanted this to work.

And so there we go. I quit a well paid public sector job to do this, seven women are taking wages home today that were not before. Four more have taken some time out – they are still on our books but their jobs are open to them when they come back. They are richer. And I’m poorer, much poorer than I was, but so, so much happier than I was before. Every day I get up knowing that what I do matters. There is nothing, nothing I want to do more.

From a news paper article on the 27th May 2006 via being founded in 2008 to today.. Our story…Hope you like it

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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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