The times are changing and if you want to stay in the game, you need to look ahead. Bethany Williams has been rocking the sustainability boat since 2017 when she set up her fashion practice. It’s easy to get lost in all the big brands’ manifestos that sadly have often more to do with greenwashing than an actual will to change their means of production. Luckily, there’s Bethany, motivated as ever and freshly after winning BFC/Vogue Designer Fashion Fund, ready to take the wheel and show us how it’s done. This time, she’s gone full out, revealing her first large-scale statement.
“We’ve been commissioned by Coal Drops Yard to create like a 90-piece flag installation. We’ve been working with an illustrator called Mellissa Kitty Jarram and the Magpie Project. They are a charity that supports women and children in temporary accommodation,” says Bethany. As a designer committed to social changes and a humanitarian who’s seen the inequalities first-hand when volunteering at homeless shelters and food kitchens in Brighton, she understands that fashion can be an activist’s tool. It’s her third collection with Magpie Project and there will be more projects to come. “We just really believe in their work,” Bethany sums up.
“We’ve also been working with Making for Change, who are manufacturers. It is a training program in Poplar where our studio is based and we worked with them to do storytelling workshops and take childhood stories and how they’ve transcended into adult life and into community groups,” the designer says. To translate the stories into the canvas, Williams has invited South East London artist Mellissa Kitty Jarram to design illustrations printed on the flags.
“As an artist, to create the artwork for this, I made workshops with the mums and the kids. Storytelling workshops, basically. We all met on Zoom and we all told each other the folklore from our countries and cultures but also our favourite childhood stories and stories that the children had made up,” Mellissa comments.
“In addition to that, I did the same thing with Making for Change which is a company that actually put everything together, all the flags. They actually stitched them all up and a lot of the Making for Change community workers were from Bangladesh, there’s a lot of images in there from the recollection of their childhood: how it is growing up with mango trees and going to school on a boat and fishing. Fishing was a quite significant thing that came up in all the childhood recollections. All of it was just based around their stories. The message that we were trying to get through was just that as a society we are shaped by the narratives that we’re told. That’s really what’s so important about it. We found that the same morals lay in all of these different cultures so that’s one thing that we all have in common,” the artist adds.
While the splendid installation stretches between the industrial roofs of Coal Yard Drops for now, that’s not its final destination. The artwork will get a second life, repurposed as a limited edition of a unisex collection including shirts and matching shorts, tote bags, masks and accessories. All to be found in Kiosk N1C in Coal Drops Yard and Browns Fashion soon. In alignment with Williams ethical practice, the flags are 100 per cent recyclable and created from an organic Hemp Slub. It’s a reference to the old tradition of flag making and rebellion against currently dominant Nylon or PVC based production.
One thing is clear, Bethany Williams is not afraid to stand out from the pack: “For designers, fashion is used as self-expression so I think it’s used in so many different ways. I do love being able to support projects and people through our work and especially grassroots organisations like Making the Change and Social Manufacturing projects. I’ve been working with two. I just like being able to work in this kind of way and be responsible for materials at the source,” she says.
While the installation can be enjoyed as one entity, it is in fact a continuation of Bethany’s short film featured as a part of this year’s London Fashion Week, ‘All Our Stories’. It’s a heartfelt journey showed from a communal and cross-generational, child-like point of view, narrated by tender lines of poet Eno Mfon. “We’ve been working quite closely with the V&A Musem of Childhood and we’ve been looking into their archives. I’ve been inspired for the collection through that and then they allowed us to come and film in the museum when all of the objects have been removed. They’re redeveloping the museum so we were allowed to work in an empty museum space and we invited all of our collaborators like Mellissa, the artist, Sam [Gosling], who’s our set designer, Eno, the poet to come in and to work alongside the project with us,” Bethany says on the creative process, “It was just about sharing community stories and sharing how they transcend into adult life.”
Bethany doesn’t believe in the exclusivity that often goes in pair with most the higher-end fashion shows: “For us, it’s been really nice to actually produce films with people we work with and democratising so anyone can see our work, not just 500 people like in a traditional show. That’s been nice to be able to allow people to see our work and then also allowing people to enter this world. Public art and public spaces are just free for anyone to enjoy,” she elaborates.
It’s a solution that a lot of fashion houses worldwide have applied this year, from Balenciaga in infamously genius SS22 deepfaked show to a legion of London’s alternative designers and graduates. There’s no doubt that a new approach is a by-product of the pandemic-caused regulations but also a shift in a good direction in this overproducing and elitist industry. In isolation, Bethany Williams, already operating on its outskirts, went even more inward, analysing in detail her work so far. “We’ve been able to slow down because we haven’t been travelling for sales or for projects. I just really had some time to be able to focus and even able to develop tailoring more and we moved on the side with our manufacturers. Everything has a nice flow about it at the minute; just being able to slow down and actually focus on ourselves and think about what we’re actually producing and the work we must be working on,” she says.
When Bethany’s team stayed in and appreciated the chance to level up their sustainable game through a deeper understanding of the world and upcoming eco materials, the customers also found time to catch up with Williams’ mission. “I feel like the customer is definitely becoming awakened to this way of behaving and thinking about the value systems and the products that they’re buying. Obviously, there are greenwashing trends but I do think there’s a growing need and people will be researching more into products and asking brands questions,” Bethany states.
Bethany Williams’ revolution is a quiet one. Amongst all the sparkle and glitz that we’re bombarded with every day from both sides of the sustainability debate, Bethany stays a soft-spoken hero. She’s humble even when presenting grand ideas. They’re imbraided into the core of her brand and now are spreading into the rotten subconscious of the fashion industry. The change has already started and the mainstream mindsets will follow. It might be a long process but Bethany’s not alone. Society’s waking up and we’re here for it.
Watch Bethany Williams’ short film ‘All Our Strories’ below now.