For the best part of the last two weeks, designer Bethany Williams was on the phone to Italy trying to locate metres of precious fabric that she needed to complete the spring/summer 2019 collection she showed at London Fashion Week Men’s on Saturday.
The delivery had vanished somewhere between Milan and London and, in the end, she had to complete her show lineup using different yarns. For most designers, replacing the fabric would have been a simple – if expensive – case of reordering the shipment, but Williams, 28, is not most designers and this wasn’t just any fabric.
She is carving a name for herself as a pioneer of a more respectful and sustainable arm of the fashion industry. And this is far from being a gimmick. Williams’ collections have garnered her critical acclaim and cult stockists worldwide, including Dune in Tokyo, Odd92 in New York and Galeries Lafayette in Paris.
The lengths to which Williams goes to support others with her work are practically unheard of. The missing fabric, for example, had been on a journey that began earlier this year when the designer sourced book waste from Hachette publishing in the UK to break down and make into recycled cloth for her outerwear. She had then taken this waste to the San Patrignano drug rehabilitation community in Italy, where a group of women she works with spends weeks weaving the waste into fabric by hand. The fabric is then painstakingly waxed to make it waterproof before being packed up and shipped off – into the unknown.
“I think I wanted to make work that was meaningful and can help people,” she says. “I love taking something that is disregarded and making it into something beautiful with my hands. I didn’t feel that there was a brand that was young and vibrant with cool clothing but also one that was organic or recycled and was supporting people.”
Williams originally didn’t want to get into mainstream fashion “because of the waste” involved, but a love of textiles inherited from her pattern-cutting mother and a final-year project for her London College of Fashion (LCF) Menswear MA that involved working with the New Life charity shop in Walthamstow, east London, set her on her current path.
As well as working with the community in San Patrignano, Williams has adornments made by people at the Manx Workshop for the Disabled, on the Isle of Man which helps people who have physical or mental disabilities into work. Her jersey cloth is made by female inmates at HMP Downview in Sutton, who are trained to be industrial machinists as a part of LCF’s Making for Change initiative.
She sources her denim second-hand from responsible recycling company Chris Carey’s Collections, and unpicks it by hand before sending it to a family-run business in Tottenham, north London to remake. All of her threads come from organic textile producer Green Fibres and her buttons are hand-carved from silver birch branches by a woman in the Lake District who sustainably grows her own trees.
“I really try and keep everything quite small when designing [to limit waste], but it’s also about [consumers] buying something that is better made, and saving up to buy something that they really want to take care of,” she says.
Aesthetically the leg work pays off too. “Her designs are bold yet wearable and show the value in their construction. They speak to the streetwear category,” says Candice Fragis, buying and merchandising director at Farfetch, one of the first online retailers to sell Williams’ designs.
The amount of time that goes into each item – Williams estimates one of her jackets takes two weeks – is reflected in the price. At £750 for an embroidered jacket, £1,500 for a jumper and £4,500 for one of her elaborate coats, this is not cheap clothing. But there is little mark-up after the costs are calculated, and from that Williams donates percentages back into the communities she supports.
For her first collection, Breadline, which saw her collaborate with Tesco to address the UK’s hidden hunger problem, she worked with Vauxhall Food Bank in south London, to which she donated 30% of the profits. When the collection she showed on Saturday goes on sale later this year, 10% of the profits will be donated to the Quaker Homeless Action charity library, which provides books to people in the UK who don’t have a fixed address – without which you can’t borrow a library book (hence the paper theme for Saturday’s collection which is called “No Address Needed To Join”).
She won’t take on an intern until she can afford to pay them, so right now Williams has five jobs on the go, including consultancy work and a bar job in her local pub in Peckham. “It’s difficult but definitely worth it,” says Williams in ever positive tones. “When the girls in San Patrignano see something they have handwoven in Vogue, it gives them encouragement and confidence which is really needed in order for them to progress.”
She is already looking at the forthcoming topics she wants to raise awareness of with her collections – next on the list is women’s homelessness – as well as ways she can increase production without compromising the support she provides. There’s also convincing people that working in this way is crucial for the fashion industry.
“As a designer thinking for the future, it’s a case of problem solving all the issues that face our generation – from the planet to the people – if we don’t do it, who is going to?” she says, already having come so far along the path she set out on when she was 21. “You know, I remember saying at university that I wanted to create this system, and someone in my class actually laughed.”