Representing the creative future

Catching up with Fashion Revolution

Tamsin Blanchard and Ruth MacGilp talk online activism, learning by doing, and the importance of regular disco parties

Who made your clothes? Though the answer for most of you might be an enthusiastic and proud “I did so myself!”, this seemingly simple question is one of those tiny revolutionary seeds that helped grow an entire branch of fashion activism. The campaign was launched by London-based Fashion Revolution in 2013 but has since reached a global audience, with over a hundred sister organisations in different countries participating each year. That success is in part due to social media, which has helped spread the message beyond geographic borders through fun behind-the-scenes visuals and colourful infographics. Fashion Revolution managed to make the topic of sustainability in fashion mainstream, without losing any of the creative innovation that makes it so fascinating. But how do you deal with such a heavy topic in an online space, and what information can only be spread through in-person events? We caught up with Tamsin Blanchard, curator of Fashion Open Studio, and communications manager Ruth MacGilp, to find out everything about fashion activism online and IRL.

Fashion Revolution is a global activist organization, with sister organisations all over the world – and you just spent a week organising live events and workshops. Yet most of our readers might know you from Instagram. How do you feel about that contrast between real-life and social media? 

Ruth: When the pandemic hit in 2020, a lot of the work that Fashion Revolution did had to pivot online. Ultimately, that was a positive thing, because so many more people were able to join us. We now have over half a million followers on Instagram, that’s half a million fashion revolutionaries from all around the world! That also means that more people outside of the U.K. can join. A lot of our international teams translate our content into their own languages too, which is really amazing to see, because I think a lot of fashion sustainability information is in English and it’s not accessible to everyone. Obviously, in-person activities are still really amazing opportunities to connect face to face, but ultimately our power is in our numbers.

We want to reach people that wouldn’t necessarily consider themselves interested in fashion. ” – Ruth MacGilp, Fashion Revolution

What kind of profiles do you attract online? Has that changed over the years?

Ruth: The majority of our followers are younger women, in their mid-twenties to mid-thirties. What we’re seeing is that more and more of the Gen Z generation moving towards us, so we’ve also been using Tik-Tok to reach that different audience, reach people right at the beginning of when they’re becoming fashion consumers or students. It is difficult to get out of the echo chamber of mostly younger women, though. We also want to reach people that wouldn’t necessarily consider themselves interested in fashion.

“One of the best ways to reach people is through their own clothes.” – Ruth MacGilp, Fashion Revolution

Have you noticed that there are certain modes of communication that work better if you want to reach those people?

Ruth: Obviously celebrities and influencers outside of the fashion space are really important, but I think one of the best ways to reach people who aren’t necessarily in the know about topics like the fashion supply chain is through their own clothes. We always try and remind people that everybody wears clothes. Therefore, everyone is a part of the fashion system. Things like community repair workshops and fashion love stories work well because you can get anybody talking about that. The older generation tends to have better repair skills and be more connected to quality garments, so we’ve had various events this year that make that intergenerational connection.

“Anything that happens online after 9 pm, just ignore it.” – Tamsin Blanchard, Fashion Revolution

This might be a more personal question, but I do find that working with these heavier political topics online can be really difficult to manage emotionally. You’re on a feed that shows you lots of images. It goes all very fast. How do you personally deal with the emotional difficulty of treating this topic online? And do you have any advice for followers going through the same thing? 

Ruth: I think everybody is experiencing a bit of burnout by Instagram at the moment, that includes the team at Fashion Revolution. What makes us different is that we always try to keep the messages solutions-focused. We’re never just telling people about the problem, we’re always giving them something they can do to take action, no matter how small that is. It can be just resharing a post on Instagram or signing something or holding a brand accountable.

We always try to keep it positive too, because Fashion Revolution was always set up to be pro fashion. We like fashion. We’re not trying to boycott fashion or stop people from enjoying clothes. We bring beauty and creativity to it as well. That is the goal of the Open Studio program, saying, clothing is really beautiful and it can tell a great story.

Tamsin: It’s also about being mindful. What kind of stories are we telling? I mean, on Sunday, April 24th, it was the Rana Plaza anniversary. We’re not showing images of the victims, you need to be respectful to them as well.

You need to always point out what can be done. Also, I just don’t get involved in arguments online. It’s very easy to see these conversations and be drawn in, but it’s just not good for your mental health. Anything that happens online after 9 pm, just ignore it.

Ruth: When it comes to sustainability, we’re all trying to do the same thing, so these types of online arguments can be really counterproductive. At Fashion Revolution, we’re trying to stay positive and get as many people involved in as possible, whether you’re a beginner or an old-timer.

“Holding an item of clothing that you made yourself; then you can really appreciate the skill that’s gone into that.” – Tamsin Blanchard, Fashion Revolution

I guess that’s just something particular about online discourse, it stimulates confrontation. In that case, I assume live events are generally a bit better for mental health. 

Tamsin: Yeah, I think so. Even if you say something controversial or something that’s a bit polarizing at a live event, you can always be questioned about it, because you’re inviting conversation about it. You miss a lot of that nuance online.

But then nothing tops an online event in terms of outreach. We hosted an online round table on living wages this week and that is such a universal topic. We had so many fascinating different perspectives. I know there have been a lot of online panels recently, but when you get the right people together, it actually is really worth spending an hour listening to them, it does expand your thinking.

Then the in-person events I’m most excited about are the Open Studios. There is so much you can learn from a workshop and from being in someone’s workspace: you meet their teams, you see how they put the clothes together, and understand the processes. It’s part of our whole conversation around transparency and actually being able to question those designers.

“Fundamentally, fashion is creative, it’s a form of expression. We really want people to engage with that and build a different relationship with their wardrobe. ” – Tamsin Blanchard, Fashion Revolution

So for most of the Open Studio events, it’s not just about showing what happens behind the scenes, but also about teaching a skill? 

Tamsin: Absolutely. Nothing beats being there and having that physical interaction. Those things also really stay with you. That really has such a fundamental effect, holding an item of clothing that you made yourself, then you can really appreciate the skill that’s gone into that. Then the conversation around cost and labour flows naturally because people see how much time and care goes into making even the simplest items.

Ruth: Just to add one more, one of my favourite Fashion Revolution events has been the DiscoMAKE, which is about music and dancing and mending all at the same time. I just think it’s such a good format, simply because it’s so much fun. So much about working on this topic can get you down, so it’s important to find moments where you can feel positive.

Tamsin: Fundamentally, fashion is creative, it’s a form of expression. We really want people to engage with that and build a different relationship with their wardrobe.

The examples you’ve given now mostly involve smaller, independent designers. Do you still work with bigger corporations or try to include them? How do you see this balance? 

Tamsin: From the perspective of Open Studio, we’ve worked with bigger brands for sponsorship. It’s an opportunity for them to give back and support the designers and emerging talents who are really working hard to take the business in a different direction. I know it’s easier to do that when you’re starting out than when you are a big brand caught up in your supply chain. So we really welcome bigger brands to learn from the smaller designers.

Ruth: We also try and incentivize the world’s biggest fashion brands and retailers towards being more transparent, both through the fashion transparency index, but also during Fashion Revolution week where we’re trying to get as many brands as possible to share their behind the scenes. It’s about showcasing the small ones and pushing the bigger ones to change.

This makes total sense. These smaller brands have more freedom to experiment and explore. 

Tamsin: But they really do need support because with the way that business runs right now, it’s the bigger brands that get the space in the shops, that have the social media reach and the audience, because they can just buy it. With fashion Open Studio, we also aim for people to actually invest in these designers and buy some of those products.

We’re also creating a network. This week, we had two events with designers looking at upcycling waste from the sports industry, one in Venezuela and the other in South Korea. Even just by connecting those two together, you’re giving them the strength and the realization that they’re not the only ones doing this and that there is a market out there. Otherwise, these brands do tend to get forgotten or they’re put in a niche corner. We give them a bigger platform and make them part of a cohort, give them strength in their numbers.

Talking about corporate versus independent, I think a lot of fashion students want to become part of the conversation, but they feel powerless. What can you do as an individual?

Tamsin: I understand that, but at the same time, we really want to encourage those students who do want to change things to go into the big corporations and to have an opportunity to question what’s going on from within. Increasingly, companies are adapting their practices to adapt to the demands of the younger generations. Today, young graduates want to feel proud that they’re working for a brand that is doing the right things. It’s important that students realise that they do have a voice. They really are quite powerful. They might feel as though they’re at the bottom of the hierarchy, at the beginnings of their career, but they have power because people will be asking them – what do you want?

“Legislation is the missing component, we have waited long enough for voluntary measures.” – Ruth MacGilp, Fashion Revolution

We’ve talked a lot about what our audiences can do, but ultimately, we’ll need structural change. What are some policy initiatives that have caught your eye recently? 

Ruth: We have a campaign coming up called Good Clothes, Fair Pay, which is fighting for EU legislation on living wages in the garment and textile supply chain. And even though this is EU, and the UK is not in the EU anymore, it will impact the whole global fashion supply chain because it applies to any brand that’s selling within the EU – which is basically every big brand. We’re going to be launching that very soon to collect a million signatures from EU citizens. We need as much help as possible from as many people as possible to spread the word. Legislation is the missing component, we have waited long enough for voluntary measures.

What would the demands be specifically? 

Ruth: It would ensure that any brand selling in the EU has to conduct due diligence on their whole supply chain and ensure living wages are being paid. In theory, it could lift millions of workers out of poverty.

And there’s good stuff happening elsewhere as well. California just passed the Garment Worker Protection Act and that’s hopefully going to get expanded at the federal level to cover the whole of the US Then, in the UK, we have new guidelines on greenwashing. There’s a lot of good stuff happening in the legislation space.

Tamsin: In France, the banning of brands incinerating deadstock has just been huge. We’re seeing a lot of knock-on effects of that because brands have to think creatively about what they’re doing with their stock. They have to find innovative solutions and also they have to start thinking – “Hey, hang on. Why are we producing in these volumes? And why are we wasting materials?” That has a really tangible effect on how brands are working.

To bring it back to the city of London. What are some initiatives the city could undertake to better support these brilliant independent designers who are researching sustainable solutions? 

Tamsin: A really great example is the lab E20 in Stratford, which was set up by a company called Future City and an amazing woman called Yasmin Jones-Henry. It was a community space paid for partly by the property developer. They created the lab as a space to really focus on fashion and sustainability. They had an amazing program with all sorts of organizations, including Fashion Revolution and Fashion Open Studio who could use the space for free. That really does make a big difference. It’s been such a successful initiative. I can’t see any reasons for other boroughs not to replicate it, to join forces with local authorities, property developers, cultural tastemakers, and team up with local waste recycling, schools, universities, retailers, etc. It’s just the perfect melting point for all of these organizations to come together on a local level.

Yeah. Affordable, accessible space. That’s what it’s about. So people can connect in real life. I know you have to run to your next event, but I do want to ask just one last question: do you have any tips for students who feel this need to be more politically engaged but don’t necessarily know where to start?

Ruth: We have tons of resources for students specifically and educators at universities. I’d say our website is the best place to go if you’re not sure where to start.

Tamsin: I think it’s also important for students to define where their priorities lie. Ask themselves what they want their world to look like and how they want to be treated at work. I think this can be very personal.


Okay ladies now let’s get information.