Bethany Williams has built more of an NGO than a fashion brand, that much was made extremely clear when we sat down to talk shortly after her International Woolmark Prize nomination was announced. That's not to say that her clothing isn't incredible, because it is, just that the social impact of her clothing carries as much weight as the design.
Williams grew up on the Isle of Man, an island between England and Ireland. "It's really small. There's a population of like 80,000 people. I grew up there with my mum and my grandparents — my mum was a pattern cutter for a factory and my nan taught me how to knit." It was a household of makers and she embraced upcycling from a young age, largely because the local offering was pretty dire. "There was one Topshop and one River Island and then nothing, especially not before internet shopping. So I'd always have to buy things from a charity shop and then remake them or change them or alter them just so I could have something that was unique."
Pairing upcycling with a quest for uniqueness and supporting charities has, over time, become the core of Williams' label. Except now she's selling her pieces via some of the biggest luxury retailers in the world, collaborating with sportswear giants, and setting a standard for what partnering with charitable projects could, and arguably should, look like within the fashion space. And she's doing a lot of that work with the help of donated and recycled textiles. "We have yarns donated from different suppliers in Italy and then we just use those materials. If one store has a different colorway to another store, it's because we've run out [of one particular yarn or material]."
Her recent adidas collab was built via donated textiles, too. "adidas has a campaign called Stuffstr where you sell your adidas stuff back to them and then they'll wash it or repair it or shred it. We've been taking that and making that into clothing." She also turned it into furniture for the brand's Carnaby Street store in London. "We worked with this artist called Melissa Kitty Jarram" who focused on "female sponsored athletes and adidas endorsed artists, and we patchworked them into big murals, which we then stretched over furniture."
Stuffstr is just one of the many social enterprises Williams has an active relationship with; the number of projects she lists over the course of our conversation was a task in itself to keep up with. "With each collection, we work with a charitable project in the UK and donate 20 percent of our profit to them. We work with social projects on our manufacturing, like San Patrignano in Italy. It's a drug rehabilitation center and has one of the highest recovery rates in the world. It's a community of 1,200 people and has 50 different sets of craftsmanship. We work with the handwoven textiles department; we make new textiles that are handwoven from recycled content.
"We've also been working with The Magpie Project for two collections; a charity that supports women and children under five in temporary, unsuitable or no accommodation [in London]. They have a playgroup, shoes, prams, nappies, and they know their rights for housing. It's a massive support network. 80 percent of the women who need the project are under legislation called No Recourse to Public Funds (that's the name of Williams' FW20 collection, btw), which affects your immigration status — you have the right to work, right to reside, but you don't have access to the welfare system."
"We've seen through COVID how that really affected families that can't access the furlough scheme, can't access sickness benefit, and can't access NHS. So we bring them into the project [to tell their story] through the collections, to raise money from the collections, and then also introduce them to our partners to seek further donations. It affects a hundred thousand children in the UK."
The brand has also worked to support women leaving prison, on building support networks that help reintroduction to life outside the system, and to reduce reoffending rates. "Moving forward we want to continue working with council projects and continue donating," Williams explains.
"I think activism needs to be speaking about issues but it also needs to be about tangible solutions and how to move things forward. So that's what we're trying to do, [cultivating] tangible change through employment and empowering people through the power of making. The people who make our clothes are really important."