Involved in fashion since her childhood, Bethany Williams has always seen the world from a sustainable point of view. Her family has educated her to respect people and the environment, and thanks to this and to her personal experience, she has been able to get involved in the fashion industry with her own ideals and principles. 
But in addition to working with only recycled or organic materials for every garment she produces, she’s also socially conscious. Part of her sales goes to charities, and some of the textiles she develops and works with are hand-woven and treated, for example, by a drug rehabilitation community in Italy. She believes in second chances, inclusivity, and hopes for a better future. After watching the news and reading about world events, we’re sure you’ll like to read what she has to say to find a silver lining.
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After reading about you, I discovered that your passion for fashion and sustainability was totally natural as your mum was a pattern cutter and designer, and your family was concerned about other people and the environment. Did you always know you wanted to become a designer or did you have another dream job when you were younger?
No, I didn't know I wanted to become a designer. I went to do my art foundation when I was younger, after sixth form. I also applied to go to St. Andrews in Scotland to do sustainable management – so it would be like managing a country's resources. So while studying my art foundation and wanting to maybe do something related to textiles and fine art. I was stuck between the two. Then, I made the decision to do art and be creative, which is my passion. I've tried to fit sustainability within it and merged it with design and fine art.
You work and collaborate with a charity organization each season, and sustainability is integral to your collections. Through collaborations with communities and charities, you hope to create collections embedded with real people and hope to cause a real effect in the social space we engage with. But what’s the impact your work in charities and around sustainability has had on your personal life?
I’ve been working in shelters from quite a young age. When I first started at university, I was working at Garage Magazine. I was a research and fashion assistant there but I was also working in a shelter in Brighton. I just wanted to be able to have an effect in the world, like helping to organise a shoot with budget and then going back and being with people who can’t even afford to have dinner or a place to stay. I just wanted to be able to work in the fashion industry to sort of get infiltrated and work with the system to help others. It’s made me more understanding. I love working with people from all different backgrounds – it’s the most interesting thing in my work.
Where do you buy your clothes? Or do you wear your own clothing?
I wear my own clothing because I’m setting up a brand. Probably, if I were to buy anything, it would be from a charity shop or a second-hand one. I just did a collaboration with Wool and the Gang and they’ve given me a jumper that is a hundred percent recycled wool, which I can’t take off.
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For your graduation fashion show at London College of Fashion, you created a collection where you partnered with Tesco. I’ve read that the decision to collaborate came very naturally. Is there any reason why Tesco decided to collaborate in your graduation collection? What were the points where you and Tesco agreed, and which ones didn’t coincide? How did this partnership help each other? Do you have any other partnership with other sustainable brands?
I was volunteering at the Vauxhall FoodBank and they came in to view it. I think it's one of the best because the Trussell Trust is a charity that runs the majority of the food banks across the United Kingdom. In the Vauxhall FoodBank, you can come and collect food, but they also provide a hot breakfast for everybody. So a mum can come with all her kids and they can all have a hot meal together while they're waiting for their parcel, which not all the food banks do. Tesco came to look how it runs.
I was introduced to them through that and then I asked them to donate the branding and if we can use the food. They were really open about it and really happy, which is great. They were also really happy to see the final prints in the collection. They also have their own clothing label and they were even trying to put me in touch with it to maybe get the waste and the off-cuts. They were really helpful.
Regarding the partnerships with other sustainable brands, I worked with San Patrignano, which is a drug rehabilitation centre in Italy, on my second collection. I’ve also partnered with Making for Change, which is a London College of Fashion project that helps female prisoners by training the women in manufacturing skills and helping them find meaningful employment on their realise. For my new collection, I’m going to work with Quaker Mobile Library. And in addition to do that, I also consult for brands such as Kering, Adidas and I do projects for the V&A, the Design Museum, etc.
Let’s keep talking about Tesco and the food banks. You developed a collection using waste materials, recycled cardboard, and branded organic prints. Through traditional techniques and by working with local craftsmen/women, you created handcrafted woven, printed, knitted and embroidered materials. How important is recycling to you and your brand, and how is the process of choosing the materials when first thinking of a collection?
I think the fashion industry employs one in six people on the planet and I believe it’s on the top five most polluting in the world. It's really important that we stop things from going to the landfill and instead use them through innovation. It’s about taking disregarded materials and turning them into beautiful textiles through work and love.
When working with the food bank exchanges I have to be quite specific and put parameters around it. I need to start designing and seeing what I want to do, so for example, in this collection you’re talking about, I specified that I would be doing knitwear and denim. I must specify things, otherwise, I would be getting lots of things I couldn’t use – and I don’t want to be wasteful in that sense either. Forty percent of the material was from the food bank and the other sixty percent from a sorting factory in Kent.
Since you don’t follow the ‘typical’ process that other brands and designers do, I wonder how long does it take from having/finding the idea to the production of garments or the entire collection? If you first sketch a collection and then start looking for the materials that might fit, or if on the contrary, you first decide to use cardboards or certain materials and then sketch the possibilities they offer, for example.
It always starts with the material and developing the textile, with its innovation. I need to know what the material is in order to develop the shape and know how’s it going to behave. This season, I worked with a hand-woven textile made from wine production waste, which was like an aluminium sheet. But it moves – it’s kind of crazy – so I had to keep a very simple shape.
With the last collection, Women of Change, I went out and worked with the girls in San Patrignano for two weeks on material innovation. I developed three for myself, and then three more for the London College of Fashion because they’re doing a project with the Zanya Foundation in Italy. I actually like having text in the textiles because it informs the prints and the knitwear.
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How do the sustainable ideals reflect on your clothing? How can we perceive or know that Bethany Williams’ garments and collections are ethical, and socially and environmentally responsible, in addition to the use of materials?
I try to make a hundred percent sustainable products. So sourcing is not just about the materials, it’s about the components of the garments too. I use a Lampo 100% recycled new life zip, the thread’s all organic or recycled, and the cord is recycled – every aspect must be the either recycled or organic, actually. And that's just the material.
And the social aspect is about me working with charity and donating a percentage of my sales back. For example, with my new collection, Women of Change, I worked on the jersey pieces with the women in prison. I’ve also been working with San Patrignano making recycled materials with the girls who’re there for rehabilitation. I pay for the production, which funds them, and then I also donate twenty percent of my sales back to them as well.
What’s the most difficult piece you’ve ever made and why?
In this collection I did a silver jacket that was really difficult to produce. Weaving and cutting it was very time-consuming, and then the sewing process also took a long time because the fabric was very fragile. But then, from my breadline collection, because most of the pieces are made from cardboard, I developed a seaming technique so it was like seamless, and they're woven into each other. That was probably the hardest thing to make for that collection – it took me like four weeks for each jacket. I was doing it with my friend Nat, so it was the two of us hand-waving; it was quite intense.
Can you tell us something about your new collection, Spring/Summer 2018? Was the danger on work or factory workers your inspirations? If not, what inspired you?
Through this collection and my work with London College of Fashion, UAL and San Patrignano I was able to work with marginalised parts of society to bring about positive change and encourage social enterprise. In an interesting twist on the on going discourse around gender when a man buys a piece from the ‘ Women of Change’ collection, a proportion of the proceeds will go towards supporting some of society most vulnerable women.
So the theme of the collection was all about the women in both the rehabilitation facilities and about how that project helps and supports them. I asked them what does the word and concept of ‘change’ mean to them, and their handwritten answers became the prints in the clothes. So the textile has their personal responses. Overall, it was all based on supporting women. If a man buys the piece, he’s supporting the production and the twenty percent donation to the community.
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So how’s the change for those people you work with?
Through the donations to support the communities but also through developing the confidence of the women. For example, seeing the work they create in stores or in magazines, or the shows. Also, I went with Crack Stevens, a film director, to make a film for i-D. It was all about having a new chance, focusing on textiles and the people who’re given a second chance in life. We shot eight people from the community in different departments – they have several: hand-woven textile, hand-painted wallpaper, organic cheese, organic wine, a bakery, one for horses, and one for cultivation where they grow everything. So these eight people were wearing the garments so you could see their story. We were very lucky to do that because the community put their trust in us.
The future of fashion (and actually, every industry) is – or at least should be – sustainable and more environmentally responsible. Do you think young designers graduating now are already incorporating green and ecological philosophies in their brands’ DNA and collections? What’s your advice for people starting in the industry and looking forward to contributing to a better, healthier and less polluted planet?
Definitely, people are really thinking about their impact on the planet. I lecture at London College of Fashion and I'm seeing the younger designers coming through. It’s really given me faith in humanity. It’s incredibly important that we think about what we're doing to the planet. But in addition to it, people are also important, so helping them is necessary as well.
Regarding any advice to people starting in the industry, I can say it’s just about getting them involved as much as possible in internships and in volunteering. It’s actually about being really proactive and, in that sense, to get the experience and the knowledge. When I first started, for example, sourcing organic jersey and ribbing (in sewing colours) was really difficult. Also, the zip I got from Lampo was just in two colours. Now, they have it in thirteen! That means that this is becoming popular, so I think that as technology advances and people support it, it will keep growing thanks to innovation. As designers we have to create through innovation, because the problem of our generation is our planet.
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