LONDON, United Kingdom — Bethany Williams is a wonder, a paragon of positive change in an industry wrestling with relevance. Her latest collection illuminated just how efficiently she has placed her design at the service of her social activism, elevating both in the process. Williams collaborated with the Magpie Project, a grass roots organisation for homeless women and children who have fallen through the cracks. Marginalised, undocumented, their prospects are chillingly defined by the label NRPF, No Recourse to Public Funds. That was also the label Williams gave her collection.
But if the situation of mothers in straitened circumstances desperately trying to look after their kids is a depressingly familiar indictment of the failing safety net, Williams’s show was anything but a downer. It offered hope, opportunity, community, plus an uplifting dollop of child’s play. Appropriate, given that the wellbeing of children is a major concern for Magpie. Each child they shelter has a blanket made for them by the Women’s Institute. Williams translated that commitment into comforting ideas like quilting and patchwork, and recycled bedding and felting. A checked blanket was transformed into an extravagant fringed coat. In fact, all materials were recycled or upcycled, like used Adidas Superstars, now reborn, and the upcycled waste ribbon from Italian fabric mills woven into multi-coloured sportswear (the effect was a little like kente cloth). More traditional crafts were celebrated in the sweater and leggings hand-knitted by Bethany’s mother. They reminded me of the chunky play clothes you’d once see little kids running around in. There was more of the same, sleeves dangling, trousers puddling, little yokes that allowed for clothes to be taken in or let out as bodies grow (those these adult torsos were more likely to be changed by health and fitness). Williams said she’d done her research in the V&A Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green. She mentioned “skeleton trousers,” an item from the 1700s that was surely the first-ever tracksuit.
The show opened with a short animated film by artist Melissa Kitty Jarram, all about the bond between mother and child. Jarram’s colourful Matisse-like graphics were splashed all over the collection, bright, energetic, massively appealing. But look hard and you’d see the NRPF initials, a reminder of the seriousness of purpose that underpins Williams’s work. It took another Williams (Jane, the founder of the Magpie Project) to point out just how unique this fusion of fashion and grass roots activism is. She said of Bethany, “She uses her immense talent to selflessly leverage her brand and partnerships in service to our community’s most vulnerable and marginalised members.” Bravo!