Becky John: Founder of Who Made Your Pants?
Who made your pants?
This is the question posed by a growing Southampton based social enterprise, challenging consumers to prioritise provenance. Madelin Sinclair interviewed the founder, Becky John, to find out who made her pants and why it’s time we know who made ours…
Becky’s interest in retail started with a stint selling sweets in the rugby team shop at the tender age of 8. Some time later, working at Dorothy Perkins for a number of years bolstered Becky’s retail acumen, and unpacking the underwear delivery quickly became her favourite time. Becky had multiple motivations for the enterprise, but the primary catalyst was simply that she “really, really likes pants”.
Involvement with human rights groups led Becky to discover the harsh realities of cheap labour and poor working conditions in many of the huge lingerie factories that supply UK high street stores. Later, work with Amnesty International made Becky aware of issues affecting asylum seekers and refugees in Southampton; the most striking of which was the marginalisation of women.
For many female refugees arriving in Southampton, their husbands have arrived months earlier and arranged employment. When the women eventually join them with the children, schooling and their husband’s employment means they are then left at home alone to dwell on their unfamiliar surroundings, often unable to speak English and without the professional experience required by many employers. Becky sought “an elegant solution to a complex problem” and devised a plan to combine her love of underwear with a quest to create an ethical manufacturing process and help to empower marginalised women in Southampton.
Reaching near obsession with business plans, Becky took the plunge in 2008 and left her full time job to dedicate her time exclusively to Who Made Your Pants. Who Made Your Pants is an industrial and provident society overseen by a committee similar to a board of directors. Once employees pass their probation period, they are eligible to become a member of the co-operative and therefore co-own the business. In true democratic style, each member gets to vote at meetings and influence the development of the business, regardless of their seniority.
After extensive sewing classes, English lessons and a variety of workshops for employees, the first Who Made Your Pants collection was a “designed by dressmakers not lingerie designers” range launched in 2009, closely following by the popular lace “Aimee” French knickers collection. Each pair of pants is designed by internationally experienced designers to be comfortable and beautiful. Fabrics of all colours and patterns are upcycled from the end of season remnants of larger lingerie retailers then transformed into limited edition hand finished products, lined with cotton and complete with a swing ticket containing the name of the talented woman that made your pants.
Employment at Who Made Your Pants is intended as a stepping stone to other work. Becky describes the most rewarding moment to date as when, during an appraisal, an employee expressed her career ambition and a desire for her children to be proud and inspired by her success at work.
I asked Becky what advice she would give to other women with a social enterprise idea. She emphasised the importance of recognising the difficult journey ahead, and acknowledging that there will be months or even years of frustration before you feel you’re making progress. You need to be confident with your strengths but, perhaps more importantly, you need to recognise your weaknesses and ask for help with unfamiliar areas.
“How to survive as a business owner? Drink gin and buy a really good printer!”
Who Made Your Pants now has six part time employees and an office manager. Staggeringly, there is currently a waiting list for work of over 70 people. Each prospective employee’s circumstances are considered on a case-by-case basis. The majority of employees are refugees from Afghanistan, Somalia and Sudan, but positions remain open to women from all countries marginalised in other ways.
The business is still in its early stages but Becky has grand plans for its growth in the future, as soon as sales can support expansion. Becky remains inspiringly enthusiastic and dedicated to her pants plans: “The future is as big as we want it to be, and I want it to be pretty damn big!”. Yes, this is about pants. But these are beautiful, hand finished, comfortable pants made by women for women, and it’s also about employability, ethics and empowerment. Empowerment not just for the women painstakingly sewing every lace seam, but also for each woman wearing them.
“We are amazing and deserve to feel amazing.”
So this Valentine’s Day, don’t let your existent or distinctly absent boyfriend or girlfriend insult you with some tasteless lingerie designed solely for seduction. Instead, visit Who Made Your Pants? and buy yourself some of Becky’s wonderful wares. Then you too can go to sleep safe in the knowledge that you know exactly who made your pants.
To make your Valentine’s Day extra special, we are giving one lucky the reader the chance to win a pair of Aimee French knickers, exclusively designed and handmade by Who Made Your Pants.
This competition has now closed.