- Claire Kalikman
EVERYONE WANTS ONE OF BIRD + WOLF’S UPCYCLED OLD ARMY JACKETS
THIS LONDON LABEL IS SUBVERTING MILITARY SYMBOLISM - THINK, A CAMO JACKET EMBLAZONED WITH THE SLOGAN “BE KIND”. BUT FOUNDER EM ROBERTS ISN’T GETTING POLITICAL ABOUT IT. THE SECRET, SHE SAYS, LIES IN HOW COMFY THEY ARE - “AND THEY GO WITH EVERYTHING.”
Mind you, Roberts is on a mission to fight textile waste. The army surplus stores of yore might be dwindling - once there was one on every high street - but there are still mountains of old army gear gathering dust in warehouses the world over.
Roberts started off importing jackets from China then had an eco-epiphany. Today, she sources everything from the UK, and Bird + Wolf’s upcycled, embellished ex-army jackets, boiler suits and bags have won quite the following in Sustainable Fashion Land. Roberts is a former PR with a solid Instagram game and a Rolodex full of celebrities she knew from a previous life working in film. No wonder everyone’s talking about this label. Follow Bird + Wolf on IG here. Check out their store here.
WARDROBE CRISIS: Tell us about your brand. EM ROBERTS: “It all started about three years ago. I was in London with my son wearing a camo jacket that I’d pimped up with a load of badges. A lady approached me and asked me where I’d bought it. When I told her I had made it she asked me to make her one. She ended up buying the one I wore off my back! A few weeks later I made some more, sold them to friends and began to send some out to some stylists and celebrities I knew. It pretty much snowballed from there. We have designed jackets for Stormzy, Boy George, Tommy Lee, Dua Lipa, Ruby Rose, Taylor Schilling, Lena Headey and many more. We have customers from all over the world, USA, UK, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Europe.”
WARDROBE CRISIS: What does sustainability mean for you? EM ROBERTS: “In 1985 my mother opened a ‘designer resale’ shop selling secondhand designer clothes. It was sustainable fashion, but we just didn’t know it back then. I used to love finding some real gems in the shop, like a beautiful cashmere jumper or a pair of designer jeans for less than a quarter of the price. In a way, I feel like I’ve kind of come full circle. “I am strongly against fast fashion, and all the environmental and humanitarian damage it causes. Most recently, the Pay Up Campaign, as we know, highlighted the unbelievable mistreatment of the factories and workers during the pandemic by cancelling orders. This year has illuminated the crucial need to rethink the fashion industry and the need to have more compassion and kindness for both our planet and our fellow human beings.
“We have to rethink. But the ‘ship’ we need to turn is fuelled by profit, and as long as we continue to fuel the profit the ship will continue to steam ahead, blatantly ignoring the problems that it is causing. The production of fast fashion creates huge mountains of clothing, unrecyclable packaging, and misuse of valuable resources, such as water, to simply make one pair of jeans is just the tip of the iceberg. “There was a glimmer of hope during lockdown, when the media reported that people were turning their back on fast fashion in light of the news that [companies] like Arcadia [which owns Topshop] had cancelled orders, withholding millions of pounds from their factories. However, in the UK, on the first day out of [the first] lockdown the enormous queues for Primark stores showed a very disappointing and different picture. “As long as these brands continue to produce cheap clothes, people will buy them. There needs to be a complete rebalance. Whilst many understand this and are working hard to make fundamental improvements and changes, others continue to, at best selfishly ignore, at worst dismantle and diminish any positive progress. We need collective change. We need brands to refocus, to reset and put in place immediate plans to drastically alter the long- term damage they are causing, like now. “I also run a sustainable brand platform called KINDA, (@wearekinda_) celebrating and sharing sustainable brands and individuals supporting environmental and humanitarian causes.”
WARDROBE CRISIS: How do your designs implement sustainable practices? EM ROBERTS: “In the very beginning I imported the jackets from China, but I didn’t really feel happy about this. Then one day it all clicked: the answer was staring me in the face. From that moment on I switched to ex-army [deadstock]. We don’t import anything from abroad now and all our stock is vintage and ex-army [surplus]. Also, all our packaging is recycled and recyclable.”
WARDROBE CRISIS: What is your most popular design? Where do you think people will wear your clothes? “Our most popular designs are the green camo jacket and the Dutch army jacket. The majority are embellished but they are all available plain too. Our jackets are worn everywhere! That’s what’s so great about them. They are super durable, super comfy and pretty much go with everything.”
WARDROBE CRISIS: Where do you want your company to be in five years? EM ROBERTS: “Somebody offered to invest a large amount in Bird + Wolf a year or so ago, saying they would increase turnover by taking production offshore. I interrupted her mid-sentence and said ‘Umm, I’ll stop you there.’ When I told her this would never happen, she laughed and said ‘Yes, you will.’ “No, we absolutely won’t. We will always use vintage and ex-army. We will continue to uphold our strong sustainable ethics and continue to look into ways of sharing this important message.”
WARDROBE CRISIS: Why did you decide on army jackets and how do you think the military aesthetic fits in with fashion? EM ROBERTS: “I am a tomboy. I’ve never been one for flowery dresses or overly feminine attire. I’ve always been a fan of camo, denim, and a T-shirt and bought a lot of second hand – I love a good rummage through a charity shop. So, I have simply made the kind of jackets that I love. It’s really blown me away how well they have been received actually. I am extremely grateful for all the kindness and support people have given me.”
“I’ve never been one to really follow fashion. That’s the problem with fashion, once it goes out of style people don’t want to wear it and it goes to the back of the wardrobe. It just adds to the continuous consumption of clothes. It’s a sales technique - it’s that simple! Also, another problem with the fashion industry is seasons. All our clothes are non-seasonal. We sell the same jackets all year long, so we don’t have any deadstock. We never throw anything away. If we have a faulty zip or rip, we fix it. “For me, camo will never go out of style, and so what if it does? And who says? I’ll be wearing it anyway. Wear whatever you want, whenever you want. This is very much the essence of Bird + Wolf. Be a wolf, not a sheep! Do what you love, do what makes you happy. Be you. Don’t be led by other people. Forge your own way; make your own style. I have heard so many people say the jackets make them feel strong, confident and simply ‘themselves’. We don’t need to buy the latest item just because we’re told it’s the thing to buy this winter or summer - it’s unnecessary consumerism. Look out for the kind brands, the sustainable brands, the ones that are truly making a difference.”
WARDROBE CRISIS: What do you think is the value of a slow fashion company in an increasingly fast fashion world? EM ROBERTS: “We have to lead by example. We have to do our part. We have to, one by one, become a collective. We cannot expect others to make the change. We are the ‘others’! We can do this together. I feel a responsibility to steer people away from buying fast fashion and to buy vintage, sustainable, ethical, second hand clothes. We have to stop fuelling the fast fashion brands and all brands that are not taking the environment and the future of our planet and the human race into consideration. We cannot expect the consumer to make these decisions. And don’t get me started on greenwashing! We have to show people kinder ways of consuming and kinder ways of living.”