Fashion / Interviews

Fashion with a conscience

By helen martin, Thursday Apr 23, 2015

Helen Brown runs a business upcycling preloved clothing, she also holds talks and workshops advising others on how they too can become involved in reuse. On Fashion Revolution Day, when we are asked to question where our clothes came from, we catch up with Helen and talk sustainable fashion. 

Why is Fashion Revolution Day important to you?
Fashion Revolution day is very important to companies like mine who believe there are sustainable alternatives to sweat shops, and wish to raise public awareness of how clothes are produced. We are rich because the people who produce fast fashion are poor – we live with a fashion choice at the cost of their quality of life. It’s our modern day slave trade, and history will judge us harshly if we don’t make the transition.

What’s your background and how did you come to run the project?
I’ve always worked in retail, and while working for high street store saw how much waste was involved in the fast fashion industry. While manager of a tattoo shop, I decided to transfer some of my designs to clothing and set about sourcing them cheaply – second hand seemed the best and I discovered a whole industry based around reuse and the recycling of textiles. Producing t-shirts for bands, I began playing around with various techniques and designs, and now hand draw and paint onto all sorts of clothing which I resize and shape into wearable, fashion forward styles.

What do you enjoy about up cycling clothing/items?
Every new item is a challenge, and no two are alike, so it keeps the work fresh. I also have a strong drive to show any I can that reuse is the future: there are enough pieces of clothing on the planet to sustain us all, so surely we should be focusing on using what we have instead of producing more? The fashion industry itself has some ethically abhorrent elements that independent traders have to try to abolish, by showing there are feasible alternatives.

How many people are involved in the project?
I’ve been a sole trader so far, but with my relocation to Emmaus, I’ve found a whole new group of colleagues that are really behind the project and the long term goals of Kecks Clothing. Emmaus is an incredible charity, enabling those at risk of or experiencing homelessness to break out of that trap. The shops are staffed by companions, who make every store unique with their personalities and talents. The Business Incubator here at the Stokes Croft branch is designed to help those with a great business idea to afford the space they need to grow, and mentorship. It’s been invaluable to Kecks Clothing. As a charity focused around reuse and helping people rebuild their lives in the community, Emmaus share similar ideals and we are collaborating to see how we can further our goals of sustainable, affordable goods for the people of Bristol. It’s a real family, and I’m proud to be part of their Enterprise Unit.

How has the response been to Kecks Clothing?
From the great responses when I was a trader at Market at the Moon, to the wonderful support shown by Bristol ReUse group, the support for Kecks has been consistent. I think Bristol has a really forward thinking approach to small business, and the benefits are clear. When I was awarded Earth Champion status, I saw that my role was to mentor other into upcyling too, and the response to the workshops has been wonderful.

Tell us about your workshops
The workshops run out of the incubation unit here at Emmaus – in the hub of their reuse warehouse! Each session we tackle a different technique of clothing upcycling, often with an item you can take away to wear that day. I am hoping to run day session soon for more advanced styles, and have been in talks with similar projects about larger spaces for group works. Its something that people really want to learn! People can book in with me via Facebook or email.

What’s it like upcycling in Bristol – aka the Green Capital?
Bristol 2015 is an amazing opportunity to showcase the talent in the city and the incredible potential for a cyclical economy. There’s a lot of linked-up thinking, and even in the last few months I’ve found so many new projects to work and grow with. I’ll be in the Bristol 2015 Lab this weekend running a t-shirt specific workshop so the public can get a feel for what’s going on in their city.

How can we all help to make fashion more sustainable?
The main thing you can do is buy less and buy well. If you can buy goods that are ethically and sustainably produced at source – even better. Brands such as Antiform are massively inspiring, and the Helpsy store with its innovative approach to online shopping gives consumers even more choice. The prices seem intimidating at first, but trust me, you waste less, look better, and your clothes retain value!

Do you have any tips for those considering starting their own business?
I’ve learned so much since I started, but the old clichés about sticking to your goals are true. Learn to work smart, be tenacious, be confident in your choices, and if you are not supported, walk away. There’s plenty of room in this world for lots of businesses, so just do your thing and don’t worry about everyone else. It really pays off, to have integrity, and people remember that.

What do you love about what you do? 
I love seeing that the small steps I take in terms of holding a lecture, or encouraging people to buy upcycled products can change how we consume – if we can bring humanity back into how we shop, we can end the culture that is compromising us all. It can be done, and to see it happening is inspiring.

For more information on Kecks Clothing, visit

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