Video and images by Ruth Ossai.
Poem by Eno Mfon.
Text from Vogue.
A flag with the words All Our Children is flying from the roof of Somerset House. Made by Bethany Williams, it’s a publicly visible statement about the work she does with the Magpie Project, a London charity that cares for immigrant women and children to whom the state refuses access to benefits or health care. “They repeatedly hear from councils that ‘these are not our children to look after, they are not our responsibility,’” says Williams. “We’re like, No! These are the most vulnerable people in society. So we wanted to reclaim that phrase and raise a flag above London to say these are all our children.”
Yesterday, she’d filled a gallery in the grand arts institution to exhibit photographs of families: mothers, babies, and teenagers wearing the latest installment of her partnership with Magpie. “During lockdown, my artist and illustrator friend Melissa Kitty Jaram sent the mothers and children a project, asking if they’d like to draw each other. Then she made their pictures into little prints, which we’ve used in this collection,” explains Williams.
Williams indivisibly folds caring for people and the planet into her definition of sustainability in a way that’s as visually uplifting as it is exemplary. Moving along an installation of her clothes, she related how the making of the collaborative mother-and-child collection sprang out of the Mothers and Minis creative play sessions that the charity organizes. “These are made from white vintage bedding that we asked our sorters to find; these knits are patchworked together with crochet from reclaimed sweaters. The canvas jeans are made from bell tents; the corsets are made of fruit packaging waste by Rosie Evans. And oh,” she paused for breath, “the screen printing was done by a female printing company in Peckham.”
After everything was made, there was a socially distanced photo shoot by Ruth Ossai at the charity’s HQ, with mothers, infants, and Magpie Trust youth standing against fantasy backdrops. Helen Kirkham, the London trainer remaker, made children’s shoes from upcycled sneakers.
Twenty percent of Bethany Williams’s proceeds always goes to the charity. On hand to explain the impact of providing this happy moment of respite for her clients was Magpie’s founder, Jane Williams. “The very phrase homeless toddler should never have to be spoken,” she says. “In our one London borough of Newham, there are 2,000 children living with mothers who have no legal recourse to welfare. It is the same all over London: women living on the very edge, who will have been sex-trafficked, brought to London as domestic slaves or who have fled domestic violence. COVID-19 has made things worse for them, yes, but it’s far down the list of concerns for people coping with their levels of trauma.” In Newham the women are housed in decommissioned office tower blocks on industrial estates or roundabouts. “They’ll be living in one room with no insulation, sometimes with three children, who have nowhere to learn to crawl or walk. Mothers tell us about staying awake holding their children through nights to keep them safe from vermin. This is why we focus on the under-5s,” says Jane Williams. The only provision members of this destitute community receive from the British Home Office is 37 pounds a week. They’re not entitled to access to health services. “When our mothers give birth in a hospital, they are handed a 7,000 pound bill,” she adds.
Fashion’s relationship with humanitarian aid has been a long but typically distanced one. Bethany Williams’s softly spoken mission is to bring home the fact that there is also a desperate need to take direct action to alleviate the scandalous abuse of vulnerable people in our own cities. She acts more than she preaches, as a hands-on volunteer, but she also consciously uses the conversations she can have in fashion as a catalyst for opening eyes and raising funds. “Bethany isn’t about printing a slogan on a T-shirt,” Jane Williams testifies.
Her persuasive advocacy is making personal bonds with much more powerful people within the industry. This season she also has a collaboration with Adidas, using fabric the brand accumulates in its customer buyback scheme. A brilliant stroke of inspiration brought it right back to the theme of childhood. “We reached out to our network of suppliers and buyers and asked them what their hopes and dreams were for the children of the future, and also for photos of themselves as children. So we’ve made blousons that have their faces patchworked into them,” says Williams. Well, which of those buyers wouldn’t want to order those?
Her way of doing things—fashion as a nonprofit social enterprise, involving, respecting, and uplifting the life chances of women and children—rewires the whole process of what a clothing business is for. The self-searching refrain repeated by so many heads of fashion companies in the age of COVID-19 is: What is our purpose, how can we be more sustainable, how can we contribute to social justice in our communities? They could easily hire Bethany Williams to advise on that. Consultancy is part of her business model. In 2020 young people are in the position of being able to teach their elders, if only they have the sense and the humanity to listen.