a conversation with gay bennett

by Ella Jones / @elzyella

Sustainable fashion has become a hot topic in the media recently. With documentaries publicising the issues and the press pushing to illustrate the issues caused by the fashion industry, I was wondering what activists are doing to help change the industry for the better… Meet Gay Bennett, a supporter of the slow fashion movement and founder of Soul and Flare, an upcycling vintage/second-hand brand.

What does slow fashion mean to you?

Gay: Slow fashion means to me: clothing purposely produced with good intentions for the planet i.e. low carbon footprint, fair wage & good conditions for workers who manufacture the garments, quality made products that will last the test of time & also using garments and fabrics that are already in circulation to recreate i.e buying 2nd hand to upcycle.

What inspired you to pull away from mainstream fast-fashion brands and lead towards slow fashion as your main focus?

Gay: Over the years I have worked in vintage retail. In the last shop, I managed I was fortunate to go buying with the owner. We would head to a rag yard where tonnes of clothing would come in off lorries and be sorted mainly for rags. We would search and handpick all the stock that would go in the shop, over the years it wore me down, the thought of how much clothing we waste as a country. Buying our clothes, wearing them a few times, then taking them to the charity shops or charity bins and regarding them as old... Some items we came across were a high designer, high-street or vintage. It was madness how much we found.

That’s insane! I always wondered how vintage shops collected their stock - What is the most shocking fact you have heard about fast fashion?

Gay: Not all do, we were an independent who solely sourced in the UK! The most source from America. The most shocking fact for me was knowing that fast fashion is the 2nd largest polluter on the planet, I was astonished to hear that many women only wear on average a fast-fashion item 4 times before they deem it as ‘old’. Some wearing a dress for a particular night out, wearing once, then that’s it, the item cannot be worn again because it’s ‘old’. With this in mind I started to change my buying habits of clothes and now for almost 3 years, I have not bought any ‘new’ clothing off the high-street. In fact, I do not even look in the windows of high street shops.

It shocks me too that people would only wear something a few times, or something that only matches a few things in their wardrobe - at least make life easy for yourself and choose clothing that can be used for many occasions.

What steps would you suggest to people trying to transition into a more sustainable, second-hand, vintage, upcycled fashion lifestyle?

Gay: Many people are stuck in the cycle of ‘oooo, I’m going to buy something new for the weekend’ or ‘I have that event coming up I’ll go get a new dress’... I’m not going to lie it is a hard cycle to break. If this is the case I like to set people challenges. Rather than going out and popping to Topshop or Zara, why not just spend 10 mins looking around a charity shop you are passing on your lunch break or calling a friend to ask if you could borrow one of their dresses. It’s really not that hard. Once you find yourself doing this rather than hitting the shops you’ll not only see a healthier bank balance but also feel good for not fuelling the fast fashion industry. Then the rummaging in the charity shops turns into spending half a day, coming back with hauls of 2nd hand clothes with a story!

Do you have other aspects of your life that you try to make sustainable?

Gay: I’m not going to say I’m perfect. Being sustainable in all areas certainly is hard… there is a lot to work on with my brand to make it more sustainable however at home I am very mindful. I check packaging to see if it is recyclable, I jump on a bus or walk when I can, I use soap rather than shower gel that comes in plastic bottles, I now use washable face cloths rather than face wipes, I don’t wash my clothes after every wear, I carry tote bags for shopping. I’m taking small steps, my next is to stop buying fruit and veg that come in plastic. Next week I am going to head to the grocers and buy it all fresh!

What inspired you to create your own upcycling brand Soul & Flare?

Gay: The idea of Soul & Flare started some years ago selling 2nd hand and vintage clothing. From there it developed to manufacturing vintage-inspired pieces on a very small scale. (I’m a skilled seamstress and I have done sewing since I was young.) Only recently has Soul & Flare taken its real direction into upcycling and saving clothing from going to landfill. I love to take an item that someone has thrown out, then repair or change it to give it a new lease of life.

Where do you find inspiration for the upcycling of 2nd hand clothing?

Gay: I’ve more so been focusing on what trends women are buying. I like to think that the designs I produce are current but using old clothes. Take for example the Boyfriend Shirts on my website. I notice a lot of women like to wear denim with shirts as a smart casual style so that’s where I took inspiration from. Literally right off what women are wearing.

Why do you feel people are more attracted to buying upcycled clothing than just buying second hand from charity shops?

I love the buying and selling market but for me, there is a lot of people doing it. I feel like consumers want something different, not just something 2nd hand. So if it has been upcycled you truly are getting something that is unique!

What are your chosen platforms to sell your upcycled/ second-hand clothing on?

Gay: Over the years I have built a shop on Depop which is currently being rebranded and launched solely for 2nd hand clothes. I also sell second-hand menswear on eBay and am focusing my attention over the coming months to sell my upcycled clothes on my website and thinking of launching an Etsy.

What advice would you give to people wanting to use these selling platforms?

Gay: The advice I would give to people wanting to sell on these platforms, especially Depop is to be different, have good photography, style the items, have interactions with both other sellers and buyers, but mainly just enjoy it! Depop has a great community feel to it, I’ve made some friends via selling on the app and it has a great support network.

Do you think Depop has the potential to change the way we consume clothing? Why?

Gay: I think any selling app can. With more people becoming aware and educating themselves on the fast fashion industry it will push people to want to use more apps to buy online 2nd hand clothing, not only in charity/vintage shops. Depop’s already getting a great name for itself with regards to people buying from there.

What do you think about Depop being accessible and having easy search tools to make second-hand shopping easier, as charity shopping can be difficult to find what you would want sometimes? Would this be a good incentive for people to use Depop over buying fast fashion online?

Gay: Most definitely. I really do think the selling sites for 2nd hand will become an even bigger market. I do think it takes a type of person to hunt around the charity shops, it’s not for everyone especially if you are looking for that LBD or particular colour blouse.

What are your personal favourite places to buy second hand and vintage clothing? Are you critical with the pricing of items and willingness to spend?

Gay: I find that most smaller towns are the treasure troves for sourcing 2nd hand and vintage. The independents that have the £1 sale rails are my fave! I can honestly say that I’m not critical for personal buying in charity shops, If I really want an item I’ll pay for it!

What do you think is the best way to promote buying second hand?

Gay: There are plenty of second-hand gurus out on social media and I follow a lot of them. I think more blogging and sharing with friends about 2nd hand /vintage needs to be done. I’ve recently created my own hashtag #throwonnotthrowaway. I’m wanting to challenge people to tag me in their charity shop finds!

How can stigmas around second-hand buying be eliminated?

Gay: So many people say to me ‘oooo I love this,’ pointing at an item I’m wearing, my reply is ALWAYS ‘it’s from a charity shop.’ The look on their faces is always astonishing and I have changed people’s views on buying from them. Style the items you buy and let the stares and comments roll in!

Do you think social media influencers (particularly fashion bloggers) need to take action and promote vintage/second-hand more frequently?

Gay: HELL YES! I’ve unfollowed all influencers that fuel the fast fashion world or wearing an outfit and promoting the brands I’m against. I think a lot more could be done. They all need to be educated on what they are actually promoting. I want my legacy to be that I made a difference, had an impact, helped towards our planet and the people who make our clothes. Fast fashion influencers aren’t doing that. They are just building their reputations on looking good through wearing an outfit once and being paid for it.

Agreed! So, tell me about Charity Fashion Live and the Instagram takeover you will be doing on the week of Oct 22nd? What is Charity Fashion Live, how is it helping the sustainable industry?

Gay: Yes! I’ve been asked to take over their Instagram for a week. I will be documenting my life based on the slow fashion industry. I’ll be doing mini blogs for them on my daily goings-on, whether I’m hunting around charity shops or upcycling clothes! I cannot wait to be a part of it. It is a great account to follow, ran by Emma Slade Edmondson. Their aim is to build awareness of sustainable fashion, taking inspiration from outfits seen on the catwalks and using items found in charity shops to recreate the looks. It’s an amazing movement they are doing over there. I would highly recommend anyone wanting to make the move from fast fashion to slow fashion to go follow them for inspiration.

Do you feel that sharing the process of buying sustainably will help to normalize it or prove how easy the transition is for people? Or that publicising the issues of fast fashion through social media will help more people to transition to sustainability?

Gay: The more we do, the more of an impact we have. I love sharing my hauls on Instagram of what I’ve bought and how much it’s cost. I get positive responses from many people when I decide to share what I’ve found, it’s exciting. I’ve changed friend’s attitudes of late by influencing them to go out and rummage. It makes me so happy to know there are people listening, watching and paying attention then for them to act upon it too - I do a little happy dance! That’s what I can’t wait to share with the followers of CFL. My Daily ins and outs of what I do, so they can see how easy it really is!