IWD: Women Hold Up Half The Sky

IWD: Women Hold Up Half The Sky

Stephanie Steele Monday, 8 March 2021

International Women's Day 2021 has the theme #ChooseToChallenge. The call to action is to show your hand held high to show commitment to choosing to challenge inequality, call out bias, question stereotypes, and help forge an inclusive world.

International Women's Day is a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. It is a chance to celebrate women's achievements, raise awareness about women's equality, lobby for accelerated gender parity and, fundraise for female-focused charities.

Head to the "Mission" section of the website to find women in different sectors that are choosing to challenge.

"The story of women's struggle for equality belongs to no single feminist, nor to any one organization, but to the collective efforts of all who care about human rights." ~ Gloria Steinem, world-renowned feminist, journalist and activist

In this article, we choose from our very own guest experts to highlight women that are challenging the status quo within fashion and textiles.

Women hold up half the sky

Though originally a statement by Chairman Mao Zedong, leader of a communist China, "women hold up half the sky" was transferred to a movement instigated through a book Turning Oppression Into Opportunity For Women Worldwide by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. A TV series took A-list celebrity advocates to ten different countries where there was an introduction to women and girls living under difficult circumstances and bravely fighting to challenge them. It explored the issues of sex trafficking, forced prostitution, maternal mortality, and gender-based violence and proposed how greater education and economic empowerment can help.

Sustainable Development Goals

Now we have the Sustainable Development Goals. While equality for women fits into each and every goal, number 5: gender equality, number 8: decent work and economic growth and number 10: reduced inequalities work specifically towards targets to challenge pay, opportunities and health for women.

Choose to challenge

Within business, there are many ways in which you can choose to challenge. It can be about how you organise your team, what and who you advocate for, production methods and material choice, the way you communicate with customers, those you wish to partner with and receive funding from... The decisions can be small, and they can be large. If you are questioning and raising awareness on a little-discussed topic, you are challenging. With these lessons and tidbits, we hope to inspire and galvanise you to implement goals for the short and long term. What can you do today, and what fits within your master business plan?

Social projects

Gung Ho - Wearing Your Heart On Your Sleeve

This presentation from founder Sophie is about getting started with a successful cowdfunding campaign. If you do not get funding, how can you start your business and be on the way to making social change? By getting media attention and building customer trust about your idea, you are already on you way to creating a tantalising option over the common faster model.

"Gung Ho has a meaning behind every print, hidden messaging in the design, and a talking point at its heart."

Birdsong - An Inspiring Social Enterprise Supporting Women

What motivates you to challenge the status quo? What’s upsetting you about the industry at the moment? Birdsong are a social enterprise that support women through local production, living wages, and raise up their skills - especially makers who face barriers to employment in the UK. See the origanisations and makers they work with here, including Fabricworks, Knit & Natter, Mona and Mohila. They are well known now for creating statement sweatshirts that last longer than it takes to read a t-shirt.

"No entrepreneur creates something that has already been done. You shouldn't be afraid to try something completely outrageously new that doesn't exist yet." ~ Susanna Wenn, Birdsong Designer

Image one: Gung Ho / Image two: Birdsong

Bethany Williams - In Conversation With The Magpie Project

The Magpie Project is an East London charity that supports women and under 5's who are in unsuitable and/or temporary accommodation. A lot can have immigrant status, which means accessibility of benefits and the usual human rights are removed. Bethany Williams is a designer that uses her platform to speak out about issues such as No Recourse To Public Funds, and to share the stories of people living in unnecessarily horrific conditions.

Ruby Moon - How To Make An Active Impact With RubyMoon Swim

In being made redundant during the 2009 recession, Jo-Anne Gooden realised that she still had her skill set. From this understanding of the technical and production side of the fashion industry, Jo set about creating a swimwear brand. Jo had also read the book Half The Sky and so working with London-based charity Lend With Care, RubyMoon will select women in 14 developing countries to invest in so that they can grow their businesses. So far the brand has helped 1000 women invest in their own businesses. Money comes back, as it is just a loan, and then they can reinvest in another woman.

"Women in developing nations with money invest in the important things: education, health, housing and raising children in a positive way. But they also gain a voice too."

From Belo - Bags Of Kindness

Social inequalities are rife within the favelas of Brazil. This was discovered by From Belo's founder Charlotte Bingham-Wallis and her business partner Maria Costa, and so they came upon creating a business idea in response to the everyday hardships of the people in this region. This led to exploration of found materials like seatbelts and car seat fabrics, working with local artisans to create sturdy bags, and donating to food banks with each accessory sale.

“It’s all about building relationships and building trust. I think that’s the most important thing.”

Image one: Ruby Moon / Image two: From Belo

Textile production and ethical manufacturing

Alice Robinson - Leather Production Under A Regenerative Regional Model

Designer and researcher Alice V Robinson has been exploring the role of local, full-animal production through her work. You will have spotted her at the V&A museum's Food: Bigger Than The Plate exhibition, with collection Bullock 374 that took a whole cow from rearing to slaughter to the creation leathergoods and meals. This is not how the industry runs at the moment, and Alice is challenging what the norm should be. How can we create a regional model that benefits fashion, farming, food and the animal through a high welfare and high value operation? How can a designer make a difference to how the system runs?

“It’s really important [...] as a designer to be able to know the questions I want to ask, rather than being told the answers that I’m supposed to hear.”

Alice Robinson's Bullock 374 collection. Image credit: Joshua Fray
The Seam - Connecting People With Seamstresses And Tailors

Often a simple idea is one that can have a large impact. The Seam is a marketplace for makers: it gives you the platform to talk about who you are, and receive work. Along with this, it can highlight skilled workers you may never have come across, or give you an idea for clothing you did not have before. Challenging the industry comes also from the bottom up, and highlighting inefficiencies within systems right at home.

Maggie Marilyn - In Conversation With

Starting her eponymous brand in 2016, at the young age of 22, it only took one year before Maggie Marilyn gained the notice of Net-A-Porter, and very quickly after - the world. Showing her first collection in Sydney in 2016, it was immediately picked up by Net-A-Porter. Other stores followed suit, and, fast forward two years, Maggie Marilyn is now stocked at over 75 stores.

However, her quick success and rapid rise to notoriety have not let Maggie allow her commitment to sustainability to slip. 90% of their collections are produced locally in New Zealand, with only knitwear outsourced to Italy due to lack of infrastructure. We see now how much energy and effort is put into translating this transparency of material sourcing and production, and though we hear and know the difficulties in it, it is also empowering to hear of the possibilities even within a fast-growing brand.

"I love the relationships we’ve built with our makers. I feel like they are an extended part of our family. Building a community is so much more important to me than increasing my own profit margins to manufacture offshore."

Flavia Amadeu - Wild Rubber From The Amazon

The Amazon rainforest is the only place in the world where rubber trees grow wild. In the depth of the rainforest, families of rubber tappers each cover 500 hectares on foot, collecting the sap of the trees which can be productive for over 50 years, to make into latex-based products, primarily rubber. These rubber tappers are considered "guardians of the rainforest". Flavia uses her business to both empower these guardians and surrounding local communities while helping to preserve the rainforest. The products are materials you can use in your own business, and ready-made fantastic colourful rubber products.

Erika Knight - Reviving The Knitwear Industry

Erika Knight is a highly respected knitwear and crochet designer, as well as the creator of her eponymous yarn range. Determined to support British manufacturing, and with an unwaveringly-held belief in the importance of treading lightly on the earth, Erika's 'simple' ethos has a unique interpretation of craft: her mission is to simplify and communicate accessible yet enticing projects to inspire everyone to experiment and, above all, enjoy creating.

One of the best tidbits she gave us when we met for this collaborative event with other pioneers Made And Worn is:

"Use the best yarns you can afford".

Sustainability and ethics often gets touted as being privileged. But it need not be a segregation. This is a mindset, and does not require the buying of brand new fancy products - as a consumer or maker - and instead creative can sometimes be most exciting when in a place of restraint.

Global issues

Sometimes, solutions can only come with research and patience.

Rachael Z Miller, Rozalia Project - Cora Ball: Finding A Solution To The Marine Plastic Pollution Problem

Clean water advocate, Rachael Z. Miller, is a part of an inspiring group of change-makers working on the solution to the vast environmental problem of microfibres in the world's water streams, caused by the release of tiny plastic particles during the wash cycle of clothing. Rachael is the founder of the Rozalia Project, a non-profit organisation dedicated to the clean-up of our oceans and the co-inventor of the Cora Ball, the world's first microfibre catching ball.

Maveen Pereira, Traidcraft Exchange - Advocating For Women's Rights In Cotton Farming

Maveen is the Director of Programmes at Traidcraft Exchange, a non-profit organisation who operate to fight injustices in trade. Through first-hand experience, and both a realistic yet optimistic vision, Maveen is working on combatting issues on gender inequalities within the programmes Traidcraft Exchange lead on.

“All research has pointed to the fact that if you put resources in the hands of women, the community will develop. If you put resources in the hands of men, men will develop, or perhaps the household.”

We have five fantastic lessons from Maveen, with four of them focussed on specific projects, and the final one on what fair trade does to fight injustice:

Social norms

Panel Discussion: Bold Intimates, PANTEE and The Underargument - The Intimate Business Of Sustainable And Ethical Lingerie

These three businesses and four women are highlighting discrepancies within the intimate apparel sector that cause lack of confidence, increase body-shaming, give insufficient fit and use poor materials and construction. They are standing for a stronger system that puts women back in control of their bodies.

Image one (Roze) and two (Caroline): The Underargument

Kristen Anderson - Building A Meaningful Intimate Apparel Business

Kristen is a galvanising entrepreneur. Having worked in the industry for 10 years for many different brands, Kristen's own US-based design and development studio, Krstn Ndrsn, is aimed at fashion business start-ups looking for guidance. With a wealth of insight, hot perspectives and invaluable knowledge, Kristen speaks and guides from experience.

"If you wear a properly fitting bra, your band should really be pretty tight. And so what happens is this tissue comes out of the side, and it was always a really big problem for me, and I hated HATED this. So I thought there must be a way to create a well-fitting bra, that would also contain that part of me, because I want to push it more forward and together versus out and to the sides, which almost all bras will do at some point."

Image: Matthew Pull for Bold Intimates
Louise Cooke, Sharewear Clothing Scheme - Understanding Clothing Poverty And The Donation Economy

We see it all too often now; unwanted clothes that were exported overseas to developing nations so that we didn't have to deal with them, are now clogging up landfills, destroying soil, releasing toxic gases and affecting local skills and economies. There are ways that we can extend the life of our clothing so that it stays in use for longer, yet if we still don't want them, then there are many people right here on our doorstep that would love what you have. Louise is the founder of charity Sharewear who now have a massive reach and support network for those in clothing poverty.

"The word stigma is why we don’t know how many people are in clothing poverty, because the stigma is what prevents them from speaking out."

Volunteer sorting clothing donations


Holly Rose - Leveraging Campaigns Through Collaboration

With millions of blogs out there already, reaching out to fellow ethical businesses is a sure-fire way to get your content a little more traction - and build impactful business partnerships along the way. It is also a way to increase conversation on a particular topic that is close to your heart. Understanding how to write blogs, build an authentic social media presence, and how to create visually appealing content. Get this right, and you are in a better position to reach your audience - and beyond.

Sabine Harnau - Harness The Power Of Storytelling

Writing powerful copy is another way to reach your audience, and then grip them so that they go on to tell your story - word of mouth is basically a free marketing tool. But how do you write copy that will resonate with your tribe? Sabine's focus is on authentic storytelling, and is especially focussed on ethical brands. She believe that terms like “ethical fashion” are overused and tired, and what you need is depth, clarity and colour to distinguish your brand.

"There are more and more ethical and sustainable brands springing up around the world and we are constantly bombarded as consumers by all of these brand messages."

Jen Gale - How To Create A Responsible Working Environment

Jen Gale and her family spent a whole year buying nothing new. This was a total game-changer, and for Jen, it changed not only how she shops, but how she sees her place in the world. Jen is passionate about the power and potential we all have to change the world through the choices we make every day and believes in progress, not perfection when it comes to sustainable living. She shares her sustainable(ish) ethos on her blog and podcast, as well as through writing and speaking about it to anyone who’ll listen.

“As one person, one family, we really can make a difference.”

Safia Minney - On Growing An Eco Empire

Safia Minney is a force of nature in the sustainable fashion industry. She is the founder of Fair trade clothing company People Tree, Managing Director of eco shoe company Po-Zu, author of several highly read ethical fashion books, and she's also contributed to the fair fashion documentary True Cost by Livia Firth, which is a must-see. But what inspires Safia to jump out of bed?

“Know that by working together as a team, you can change everything”.

Image one: Safia on Instagram @safiaminney / Image two: illustration by @constanza.illustrates

Liz Earle - Secrets To Global Success And Wellbeing

Liz Earle is an entrepreneur of multiple successful brands in the beauty, fashion and wellness industries, the bestselling author of over 35 books, presenter on ITV (a British TV channel), founder and ambassador for multiple charities and campaigns including The Soil Association, founder of the guild of health writers and the Food Labelling Agenda, a farmer and a mum of five.

“The trick is to make it look easy, but nothing good ever is. There’s always difficulties and challenges and hurdles to overcome. But it’s really gratifying to see the outcome in such a positive way”.


Franki Campbell - Eliminating Waste With Creative Pattern Cutting

Arming yourself with technical skill is what can make a huge impact in any sector. Not only does it set you up to have one foot in front of the other when perhaps you are feeling off balance and overwhelmed, you already have one of the keys to change: education. This is not to say that those who do not go down traditional routes are not knowledgeable, but in an industry where skill is generally generationally-passed on, or learned through classic academic routes, having that already in your armoury gives you the opportunity to break it apart. We cannot use what we do not have or know.

“When I think about zero waste fashion it comes down to jigsaw puzzles. I loved them as a kid, and I love the puzzle aspect of zero waste fashion today.”

While it may seem straightforward to make clothing out of existing materials, it takes technical know-how to best understand what can, should and should not be changed. With creative pattern cutting, you must engender the "rules" of pattern cutting, understand materiality, have awareness of the body, and yet be ready to throw that all aside to come up with a sustainable solution.

Image one: Lydia Higginson (Made My Wardobe) / Image two: Lydia and Eve Tokens - at our Offset Warehouse Zero Waste Dress workshop

Stephanie Steele - Design For X Methodologies

Knowledge can also come from outside of the industry. As we see more and more, in order to challenge the ethics and sustainability of any sector, we are required to step into new circles. For instance, regenerative practices now expect an understanding of agriculture and food. With sustainable design it helps to have the experience of systems that create and dispose of our materials and products, as you find with leaders like Braungart and McDonough and their Cradle To Cradle movement. You may just as much be challenged by the inefficiences you see in product design, like with adaptable design, poor sizing, allergy-inducing fabrics and non-user friendly components.

"People acquire and own things to give expression to who they are and to show what group of prople they feel they belong to." ~ E. van Hinte from Eternally Yours: Visions on Product Endurance

Joanna Blein - Normalising Chronic Skin Conditions Through Holistic Design

Joanna Blein, founder of Feel Good Couture™ and eczema skin warrior, had another hospitalisation, and so after 40 years of experience with severe eczema, she was led to finally take the plunge and launch a lifestyle brand that would assess the needs of other skin warriors alongside her own. Aiming to normalise skin conditions, while increasing confidence and wellbeing through stylish yet comfortable designs, Joanna's business is genuinely bringing something new to market - it was not being able to find it aged 15, that got her juices flowing in the first place.

"I genuinely want to help these people and myself, that's why I create piece by piece, as every piece addresses the gap in the market. Everything is timeless in the design, and seasonless. I know that it will be an investment for some people to buy these clothes so I want them to enjoy these clothes all day long."

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