Becky John, Founder of Ethical Underwear Brand Asks: Who Made Your Pants?

Becky John with one of her seamstressesThe NextWomen Food & Fashion Theme.

Hatty Richmond meets Becky John, whose ethical underwear brand, Who Made Your Pants? employs refugees from countries such as Sudan, Somalia and Afghanistan.

Last month, a well-known British department had a promotion/deal/short sale on its very well-known and much-loved underwear. Regardless of existing price or multi-buy discount, THIS WEEK ONLY they were offering a further tantalising 20% off.

Along with a sizeable sector of the knicker-buying nation, I hot-footed it into the nearest branch and made my way past the food section (and therefore also the chocolate mini-bites) up to Lingerie. Having bypassed some suspiciously inexpensive bras, I happened upon the perennial range of £5 each or 3-for-a-tenner stretch lace ‘boy shorts’. With the 20% discount applied, this was a wallet-soothing 3-for-£8 and therefore almost irresistible.

Note the ‘almost’. Something about it made me stop and think. This was three pairs of knickers for just over £2.60 each, RETAIL price, for sale in the UK. I think it unlikely that the shop in question was running a loss leader, so this being the case, how much did they cost to produce?

It didn’t take an awful lot of approximate maths to work out that someone, somewhere, was earning very little making very large numbers of knickers so that we, the pants-purchasing British public could have a full underwear drawer.

Of course, it’s not just knickers that are the problem. Think of the sheer quantity of clothing that’s available today and the relatively little they cost. Compare with twenty-five years ago and how there were just two sales a year, at the start of which a mad dash would ensue with practically everything gone within a week. Think of now with the endless racks of cheap, unpleasant, wear-once clothing lining the rails in the outlet or sale shops. Please don’t think I’m being snobbish. I’m not. This is not about only buying pricey garb. It’s about buying well-made, realistically priced, good stuff that lasts. You know: the kind of thing that still looks great in three or more years’ time and hasn’t exploited someone in the process. The same applies to food. If as a nation we really understood what to do with a chicken or a vegetable, we wouldn’t need to have mass-produced excesses of food, much of which gets consigned to the bin anyway.

Following my knickers near-miss, I found that a mere 40 miles due south, someone had already cottoned onto the issue quite some time previously. OK, so this is a bit of a white lie. I already knew about Becky John having met her some months earlier, so I looked her up and what I found both intrigued me and fired me enthusiasm. Determined to bring the story to The NextWomen readership, I sent a tweet and by return received Becky’s agreement for an interview.

Becky founded and continues to run a workers cooperative called Who Made Your Pants? The clue is in the name. Driven by a love of beautiful underwear and a loathing of sweat shops, she decided to launch a business in her current home town of Southampton with the clearly stated aim of empowering marginalised women through training, education and work.

Becky’s workforce is made up of refugees, typically from Sudan, Somalia and Afghanistan where prevailing conditions can be a daily threat to personal safety. 

Arriving here with little or no grounding in the UK language and culture, these women are at a high risk of becoming completely isolated with no chance of integration and socialisation.

Who Made Your Pants? aims to deliver something different. By understanding and acknowledging the social and cultural needs of their workforce, they create the opportunity for the women to fulfil the demands of family life whilst also coming to work. There, the women spend time with each other, learn valuable skills and make beautiful, first rate, designer knickers of which anyone would be rightly proud.

Becky and I agree that I will visit the office/factory to look round and we arrange a day and time where I will coincide with a visit from Katharina, who owns and runs Audrey und Fred, a designer underwear shop in Germany, and is here on a buying trip. When I arrive, it’s not a production day, so I don’t meet any of the seamstresses, but Becky introduces me to Della, the operations manager who arrived as a volunteer in 2009, made herself indispensable and is still there to this day.

Once through the door, I am immediately struck by the feel of the place. There’s a vibe about it, in no way diminished by the clothes lines of pants strung up in lieu of interior decorating.

 It’s a jolly sight and I am cheered by the prospect of pants in the boardroom, gaily draped like slightly saucy bunting.

I comment on this and Becky takes the opportunity to talk me through the evolution of their design. The early prototypes, she tells me, were ‘hard to love’ and to be honest I can see why. Though pretty, they are hardly practical and look like they might end up where they ought not to be. The problem was that they were designed by a clothing designer and the breakthrough came with the arrival of a bona fide lingerie designer. It is, I learn, a completely different art and the result is a dazzling array of gorgeous, stretch-lace short-type knickers that never ride up, refuse to roll down and even stay put when put through the wringer of a Zumba class.

One of the steepest learning curves for Becky was in discovering the practical needs of her workforce. The women arrive with a completely different attitude to work.

Compared to family and children, it’s often way down the list of priorities so in order to fulfil its purpose, the business has to have flexibility as a built-in concept. The women are all on zero-hours contracts – the contract is positioned as vitally important and is taken very seriously – so that they can then build their hours around what’s possible. Regular working is rewarded with a permanent contract and a share in the business. News of this is spreading fast and Becky now has a waiting list of 60 women wanting jobs. Another core concept that needed to be taught was that of accuracy. For many, ‘almost right’ was perfectly fine – which clearly caused problems when it came to the finer points of sizing!

As well as providing employment, Who Made Your Pants? is a business that serves other vital purposes.

Here, the women come to understand that they can have control over their lives, when all they may have previously known is having things done to, for and around them.

There is free access to the Internet for personal use and to information that might not be easily available elsewhere. The building is set up so that there are no issues around mixed-sex integration, meaning that male visitors can be on site without coming into contact with the workforce. For the job to be accessible to the women, this too can be essential.

Katharina arrives and we get talking. The knickers are really popular with her clients and she is looking for a range of colours and sizes to take away. This is not a problem. A handful of outlets notwithstanding, most sales currently come through the web meaning that the team have made up a good number of each size in each colour, all ready to go. We enter the stockroom and I am mesmerised. Katharina is admiring but business-like, musing on the likely popularity of Pirate Pink, whilst I just gaze, misty-eyed. Upon enquiring about the price variance across the range I am told that pricing is determined by how complex a particular fabric is to work with and hence how time-consuming. Here’s the other great thing: all the pants are made from up-cycled fabrics – that is, stretch lace acquired from the major lingerie firms when there is too little left to be worthwhile for them but a perfect quantity for a short run by Who Made Your Pants? It really is a win-win, with customers knowing that whatever they’re buying is truly a limited edition. What’s more, every pair is individually cut, stitched and hand-finished. One of the seamstresses has a brilliant eye for detail and makes sure every pair going into stock is perfect.

Becky’s focus now is on building the profile of the business and generating sales. Happily, she is a born saleswoman and could charm the socks off just about anyone with her particular mix of passion, energy and focus. Shortly before my visit, there had been a flurry of media interest resulting in a pleasing spike in turnover. Now, that just needs to build and maintain.

In the time it takes Katharina to select upwards of 75 pairs of knickers, I finally settle on my two favourites.

‘The 80’s’ is a wonderful aubergine lace with a gold shimmer, ‘Welsh Green’ is an almost teal-like shade with, delightfully, a bright scarlet gusset and - unlike with three-for-a-tenner - I know who made them. What’s not to love?

Hatty’ Richmond's professional background is in management consultancy, specialising in organisational development and design. She has a particular interest in the role of leadership in determining culture and the resulting impact on performance.

Alongside her consulting work, Hatty writes both fiction and non-fiction including articles, profiles and short stories – the latter mainly for fun. Her novel, On the Outside, is based on a true story and is due for completion in early 2013.

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