Vintage at Southbank 2011: Eco Design Fair

Vintage at Southbank 2011 (the follow-on from last year’s Vintage at Goodwood festival) was held in London last weekend. I volunteered to help man the stand for whomadeyourpants? in the outdoors vintage/eco marketplace. We were positioned in the Upcycled Marketplace curated by Louise Kamara of The Eco Design Fair. Whomadeyourpants? is a Southampton based social enterprise founded by Becky John and I have volunteered with them in the past, assisting with marketing and events to the best of my ability. Although their key selling point is the fact that you can trace the production of your pants back to a marginalised woman in Southampton, (who through whomadeyourpants? is gaining improved employability skills and confidence), to fit with the theme of the fair we were emphasising the upcycled nature of the products.

‘Upcycled pants!’ People would say, ‘What does that mean?’ All seemed relieved to hear that they weren’t in fact, reused knickers, but just that the lingerie fabric was upcycled from the lingerie trade. Fabric such as offcuts and end-of-rolls, that would otherwise be thrown away are used to create these beautiful pants. This is a bit of a dirty secret of the industry, all of the fabric which is never used. In the fashion industry, for every line of garments by a big manufacturer, fabric will be kept in reserve as ‘liability stock’ in case something goes wrong with the main production run.

Other brands at the fair took a more literal but still ingenious take on upcycling, using sub standard colouring pencils to create jewellery, or ring pulls to design bags. There were plenty of vintage stalls which needed far more rummaging time than I could give, but still I bought three scarves and a 1960s tiny beaded purse/bag. See the pictures below for the whomadeyourpants? stand and my purchases.

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Whomadeyourpants? Social Enterprise Starts at Home

Whomadeyourpants? is a fabulous social enterprise based in Southampton. They set up in 2009 and started selling pants at the beginning of 2010. Stated simply, whomadeyourpants? is a social enterprise selling ethical underwear made by local women who might otherwise have struggled to find employment due to lack of confidence, qualifications or language barriers. Most of the workers are refugees and through whomadeyourpants? they can learn English, employment skills and gain an NVQ in Manufacturing of Sewn Products. They are a co-operative so all of the members have a vote towards business decisions.

The social enterprise model has grown significantly over the last few years. As I’ve said before, I think it is particularly interesting when applied within the fashion industry because fashion should be full of joy and beauty but often when you get behind the shiny retail image and product, it is far from that. The social enterprises that have sprung up within the fashion industry prove that more sustainable retail models are possible. In many cases, they are based abroad using local artisan skills and exporting products to the West. Whomadeyourpants? is quite unique in that sense, being based here in the UK.

I think when you look into the whomadeyourpants? story though, it is clear how vital enterprises like this could be. Whomadeyourpants? has become a life line to the workers within the co-op, and for us as the consumers we can be comforted to know exactly where are undies have come from. They produce their products with offcuts from the lingerie trade and manufacture from their base in Southampton. If you buy pants you can even log on online and check to see who was working on the day your pants were made, and thus see who made your pants!

Founder and director, Becky John kindly answered my questions.

1. What is the biggest challenge you have faced since starting the enterprise?

There have been a number! Issues re initial lingerie design not working and us not understanding why until a lingerie designer came in. Cashflow and the balance between wanting to pay our own way and not be grant reliant but realising that we need to support the initial stages of production with grants or else there’s too much pressure on the women and then they panic and we do the opposite of what we wanted to and upset them. Language barriers also meant things got lost in translation.

2. How has wmyp made a difference to the lives of the female employees?

Increasing financial independence, eg. new bank accounts in their own names. They are given hope for the future – a number are planning what jobs they want with us or elsewhere. When we ask what life is like with no wmyp, they say it’s boring! Children see their mums in work which is great.

3. Do you believe the wmyp social enterprise model could be replicated in other areas of the UK?

YES! And we plan to 🙂

4. Do you think more needs to be done to educate consumers to shop with ethics in mind?

Tough one – I personally think so but it’s a hard balance. I don’t think anyone would actually want to buy something made by kids or in bad circumstances, I think more of people than that – but how do you get the message out? You don’t want to be preachy. We encourage people to ask their own questions. We want to be open and honest so people wonder why other people aren’t.

5. What are your plans for the future?

More whomadeyourpants? in the UK and beyond. Make this a nice replicable model so it’s easy to set up. And I personally want to get every restaurant to know that parmesan and pesto are not vegetarian.

Visit them at

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What is a Social Enterprise?

Having a bit more time on my hands to pursue other areas of research, I have zoomed in on the work of social enterprises within fashion and textiles. I will soon be featuring some interviews on my blog with representatives from both UK and overseas social enterprises so I thought it best to provide an introduction before the interviews get under way.

So what is a social enterprise? I have to admit, I had barely heard of the concept before I started volunteering for social enterprise whomadeyourpants? in 2009. According to the Social Enterprise Coalition “Social enterprises are businesses trading for social and environmental purposes. Many commercial businesses would consider themselves to have social objectives, but social enterprises are distinctive because their social and/or environmental purpose is absolutely central to what they do – their profits are reinvested to sustain and further their mission for positive change”

Social enterprise can be traced a long way back, but it only really came into mainstream society in the 1990s. Social enterprises don’t want to be thought of as a charity, they make their money by selling a product or service. In ‘What comes first: your business message or your social mission?’ Chris Smith emphasises the need for having a high quality service or product because you cannot do social good without having a viable business behind you. This made me think of my interviews with Continental Clothing for my University research. Continental Clothing created the world’s first Carbon Reduction Label for a t-shirt and were always keen to highlight the importance of having a fashionable, good quality product in parallel to considering the ethical impact.

Many UK based social enterprises are providing a service. Perhaps this is an easier model to adopt, or maybe it just makes sense because social enterprises often help those from a disadvantaged background, and what better way than providing jobs, experience and a greater sense of community for those involved. The recent budget provided extra resources for entrepreneurs such as tax breaks and less red tape. Grants and extra assistance have been available for many social enterprises for a number of years, much of that help coming from UnLtd. The challenge is ensuring self sufficiency once those grants run out, and that involves really engaging the public towards the cause.

I find the idea of social enterprises within fashion and textiles particularly fascinating. An industry often thought of as exploitative and wasteful being used for a positive impact. Of course this is the direction that fashion needs to be going if we are to move towards a more sustainable future. These enterprises often use the native skills of workers in developing countries. Indeed my own MPhil survey found that fair trade fashion has connotations of sourcing items from countries such as India, Peru, and Bangladesh. Places renowned for embroidered textiles, hand weaving and such. Anyway, this is a continuing research project for me. I’ve come across some wonderful enterprises at ethical fashion events but if you know of any more or can help my research in any way, please let me know.

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Do you know WhoMadeYourPants? Probably not! It was this thought that led Becky John to form the Southampton based co-operative WhoMadeYourPants? when she failed to track down pretty, ethical knickers for herself. Becky has been involved with human rights campaigning for many years as a member of Amnesty International, and she wanted to do something positive for others. WhoMadeYourPants? employs local Southampton women, marginalised through no fault of their own. About 80% of them are refugees who held good jobs in their home country, but have struggled to find work and settle into life in the UK, mainly due to a lack of English skills. WhoMadeYourPants? gives them a supportive, women-only environment to learn English, gain qualifications in sewing, hold down a part time job, and most importantly gain confidence.

So that’s the background info out of the way! I was prompted to blog about WhoMadeYourPants? because an article has just appeared in the Guardian. Press coverage has been steady, when the Observer mentioned them a few months ago they soon sold out of stock! I’ve been working with WhoMadeYourPants? as a press volunteer since October 09 and have met many of the workers. It’s really great to hear them speak about the opportunity they have been given, as many of the women barely left the house before. Becky hopes to expand the model across the country, and branch out to WhoMadeYourBra? but this will of course take time. I think the model is fantastic though, to use materials left over from the lingerie industry and manufacture something beautiful using local labour, here in the UK. Criticisms have focused on the cost of the knickers, £10 a pair, which compared to some High Street prices, yes may seem step. But compared to a lot of quality and designer lingerie it’s cheap! I hope this co-op gets the support it deserves, go on, get your guilt free undies!

I happen to know that a new range will be coming out soon, to replace the ‘Jasmine’ collection.

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