In a cultural climate where the volume of your voice appears regularly misinterpreted as strength, Bethany Williams embodies what it means to be in possession of soft power. The petite, quietly spoken 30 year old – disinterested in glitz and glamour, and reluctant to have her photograph taken – doesn’t necessarily fit the stereotype of this industry. But during a period when fashion is being forced to reconsider its impact – as the climate crisis accelerates to the point of no return, and austerity politics decimate arts funding – she is setting a new standard for how fashion operates, one which situates sustainability and philanthropy at its very core.
© Olivia Rose
Growing up on the Isle of Man, much of Williams’s childhood was spent volunteering with her family and learning to sew with her pattern-cutter mother (they’d even knit their own dishcloths). “I think I’ve got a lot of my personality from being from somewhere small, and from that sense of community,” she reflects. “If something really bad happens there, everyone gets involved.” After relocating to Brighton to study critical fine art practice, alongside working with social project Impact Initiatives, she went on to complete a master’s degree at London College of Fashion. Her graduate collection, titled Breadline, wove recycled Tesco boxes and waste materials from a Vauxhall food bank she volunteered at into fabric. “I’ve always loved the idea of taking something that’s discarded, giving it some time and making it beautiful, but I don’t think people really got what I was doing,” she laughs. “I was actually a bit scarred after the MA – I’d worked so hard, and got a bit ill. So I worked in a pub for a bit. I needed a minute.”
Then, last year, Williams unexpectedly found herself thrust into the spotlight. She’d only recently left her job at the pub – after completing an arts residency, she’d been working there in the evenings while building her business and volunteering during the day – when, in February, she staged her first fashion show and was presented with the Queen Elizabeth II Award by the Duchess of Cornwall. In December, before a crowd that included Tom Cruise, Rihanna and Julia Roberts, she was celebrated as The Fashion Awards’ British Emerging Talent for Menswear. It was certainly unfamiliar territory. “I feel like I’m between two worlds, because in my day-to-day I’m working with people who are really struggling and fashion can be a bit of a bubble,” Williams smiles, slightly uncomfortably. “But, on the other side of things, it can also be used as a platform to amplify ideas and make changes.”
Never was that sentiment made more clear than during the presentation of her autumn/winter 2020 collection in January. She opened her unisex show with a poem written to reflect the experiences of mothers engaged with The Magpie Project, a Newham charity she had been both
volunteering and collaborating with in the six months before. In the east London borough, one in 12 children are homeless, with an estimated 5,000 families living in temporary or unstable accommodation. Often, these are families that have what is known as “no recourse to public funds”: they are not illegal immigrants, but people whose leave to remain applications or refugee status are tied up in bureaucracy (according to Magpie, the process regularly takes more than two years).
During that period, mothers are provided with up to £42 a week, depending on their circumstances, have no access to the NHS and are likely to be housed in poor accommodation – rooms that are infested with rats, don’t have fire doors or extinguishers, don’t have kitchens. Other times they are sleeping in churches or mosques, or walking the streets with their children until they can find someone who will take them in for the night. They are not allowed to work, and are at risk of being relocated across the city or country at any time. Often, these are women who have been trafficked to the UK for sexual or domestic slavery. “A lot of people who come to us are incredibly traumatised,” explains founder Jane Williams. “We ask, ‘How did you arrive?’ And they respond with one word: ‘Lorry.’”
It’s an unimaginably horrific problem, and one that is hidden from public view. Magpie was founded after Jane observed these women’s apparent reluctance to engage with a local children’s centre – they told her they were ashamed, that they were scared, that they couldn’t afford the bus fare to travel there. So she set up a drop-in centre where children could play while their mothers sought advice from the likes of Shelter, London Black Women’s Project, and other women who had been through the same experiences they were struggling with. Magpie provides nappies and prams, legal and advocacy advice, clean clothes – but perhaps most importantly, treats its clients as people rather than case numbers. “We try to create a place of belonging, a sort of healing space where we make people feel like they matter again,” says Jane. Its success rates have been staggering, and, for these women, dropping the name Magpie has become something of a protective shield.
“I want to speak out on behalf of these women through the collection,” explains Bethany. Her clothing explored the idea of motherhood through swaddling wraps and patchwork blanket coats; ribbons repurposed from toy factory waste; Melissa Kitty Jarram’s illustrations of mothers and children printed or appliquéd on to gently quilted tracksuits or recycled denims. Twenty per cent of the profits will be going straight back to Magpie, while Williams is encouraging her customers to learn to knit, via a pattern she designed with Wool & The Gang, so that they can donate socks (one of the most needed and least provided garments for the homeless community) to the project. Every decision she made for the show was run past Jane, and dozens of Magpie mothers sat front row. “Bethany has opened up her spotlight to people who would never ever usually be able to tell their story on these sorts of platforms – and it’s such a hidden problem that getting the story out there will begin to change things. Because you can’t change things if you don’t know they’re happening.”
Bethany’s clothing also supports a wealth of other initiatives. Her jersey pieces are created through Making for Change, a fashion training and manufacturing project established in 2014 at HM Prison Downview. In the UK, about five per cent of the prison population is female. In 2018, 82 per cent of their offences were non-violent, and the reoffending rate of women serving short prison sentences is 71 per cent. “Those figures really hit me,” says Bethany. “So I wanted to support something giving women skills and educating them.” Later this year, she’s hoping to extend her denim production to the scheme, and is taking on in-house sampling machinists from women who graduate there.
Elsewhere, her buttons are made with the Manx Workshop for the Disabled on the Isle of Man; her weaving takes place at San Patrignano, a long-term addiction rehabilitation centre in Italy; and, it’s almost needless to say, but all of her materials are recycled or organic (everything from denim to blankets can be sourced from a recycling plant in Kent).
“For me, this is about changing people’s mindsets,” says Bethany. “And the programmes we’re working with change people’s lives. The power of making is amazing – it’s empowering, it makes you see what your abilities are – and by next year, I want every stage in our production chain to be in connection with a social enterprise.” Hers is a radical reinvention of how fashion can be used as a force for change – and it’s one that certainly sets a new standard for the rest of us.
For more information, visit Themagpieproject.org
More from British Vogue: