ALICAS: Empowering Survivors Through Fashion
ALICAS is a company based in Edinburgh founded by the wonderful Rachael Bews, an ethical fashion activist who aims to empower survivors of domestic violence and abuse by providing them with a capsule wardrobe sourced via surplus stock from fast fashion retailers. Yesterday afternoon, I was delighted to be welcomed into the ALICAS HQ at the RBS accelerator in Gogarburn, where I interviewed Rachael about her inspirations and aspirations for this for-profit, for-good initiative.
What would be your elevator pitch about what ALICAS is and what it does?
More than 1 billion women globally experience domestic abuse. When I was 19, I worked with one survivor called Ali, and she maintained that having a good coat and pair of shoes were the key to rebuilding her life. Five years later, I found myself fleeing an abusive relationship, and I discovered that thousands of women rely on poor quality, ill-fitting second-hand clothing donations handed to them in bin bags, which does nothing to help them retain their sense of self-worth.
At the same time, we are landfilling and incinerating over half of new clothing in this country, purely because its reached its 12 week shelf life. So ALICAS (Ali's coats and shoes) aims to change this by gifting bespoke clothing parcels to survivors of domestic abuse using surplus retail stock that would otherwise be destroyed. Each parcel contains 30 items that are tailored to a woman's size, style, religious and cultural needs, with the aim to help women retain their dignity, their identity and their self-confidence.
How do you source clothing for the organisation?
At the moment, I'm in talks with a few high-end high street retailers, appealing to their CSR (corporate social responsibilty), but also reduction of waste, cost reduction, and the opportunity to help empower women; retailers are constantly looking for ways to help a social cause in their business. I'm also looking to run clothing drives for tags-on (brand new) clothing, which people can donate to us for our pilot starting in May,
Why is surplus stock such a problem in the fashion industry?
A big problem comes from fast fashion having a very short sales period, so if stock doesn't sell after 12 weeks, it will go through clearance, then be moved onto a warehouse for 2 years, after which it will be incinerated or sent to landfill. This is a really financially and environmentally costly problem for retailers, storing and destroying the clothing costs UK retailers in excess of £60bn every year.
How does the pay-it-forward model work?
We're looking to create our own sustainable merchandise; t-shirts and tote bags. Essentially, you can buy a t-shirt, and you'll be gifting a wardrobe; this is our pay-it-forward model. We're woking with a manufacturer in Glasgow called Clydebuilt to create sustainable, organic, vegan ink printed t-shirts, and we've taken great lengths to ensure that everything in our supply chain is as ethical as possible. It costs us about £20 to create a capsule wardrobe package, so the profits from our own products will cover the costs for packaging, stock and distribution.
Why is clothing important for survivors of domestic abuse?
Having been supported by Scottish Women's Aid myself, I asked my support worker about the (aforementioned) rooms full bin bags of second-hand clothes, and she said that while the donations are very well-meaning, most of them have sat in a loft for 20 years and smell really bad. If you can imagine that you have left you home, your friends, your family, your job, all of your belongings, and then you're handed a bin bag of somebody else's cast-offs to rebuild your life, this will not help women who are already going through a difficult time to hold onto a sense of their identity.
4000+ of women in Scotland alone go through this, and a fifth of Police Scotland time is spent working on domestic abuse cases, so for women worrying about leaving everything behind, knowing that they can have a parcel of clothes that exactly meet their style, their size, their religious and cultural needs, waiting for them, that just removes one extra barrier to helping that women make the safest decision for her, and potentially her children.
How is the support you offer communicated to the women in need?
At the moment we're working with two services for our pilot, which are Shakti Women's Aid for Glasgow, Edinburgh and Dundee, and WASLER (Women's Aid for South Lanarkshire and East Renfrewshire). It works on a referral basis through support workers as opposed to through the woman herself, because we are very conscious of keeping women's identity and location completely anonymous and untraceable in our records. Each parcel comes with a handwritten note of support. Going forward we would be looking to work with any other agencies women might come into contact with, so things like the NHS, Police Scotland, housing associations and social workers.
How does ALICAS slot in to the ethical fashion movement?
Being able to use ALICAS as a vehicle to help promote ethical fashion is a big driver for me in doing this. We weill be creating our own ethical and sustainable t-shirts and tote bags, and going forward I'd like our retail range to expand more and produce more goods that have transparency through the supply chain as well as a social message. We're also helping retailers to repurpose their surplus clothes in a good way; in a way that helps to protect the environment, and showing people that a capsule wardobe of just 30 high quality pieces is completely liveable for all women.
Can fashion really be feminist?
I think it comes down to the supply chain and making sure that women are empowered and given opportunities at different points in the supply chain, but in its essence, clothing bought from us has a message of female empowerment as it has this ability to help women completely rebuild their lives. For Ali, the coat and shoes was her armour; no matter what was happening on the inside, she could feel confident in how she presented herself.
What do you see for the future of ALICAS?
21st May will see the launch of our 3 month pilot, which will see us distributing 288 parcels with over 9000 units of clothing. We'll also be starting to retail our t-shirts and tote bags in the coming months, and afte rour pilot, we'll be looking to scale throughout the UK.
How can people support you on this journey?
You can volunteer at our 'picking and packing' days to get the clothing parcels ready for the launch. Email firstname.lastname@example.org if you can volunteer your time, that would be really helpful! Also, if anyone has any tags-on clothing that they don't want, considering donating it to us for the pilot, as retailers have long project lead times so we have to rely on clothing drives too.
Throughout this inspiring conversation with Rachael in the sunny 'Silicone Valley of Scotland' at the Royal Bank of Scotland's Europe HQ, where startups are injected into a purpose-built business and banking environment, what struck me most was how underestimated fashion can often be in the wider world. Fashion may seem somewhat frivolous, but as commented by Lululemon's Tom Weller in the latest Business of Fashion podcast (listen here), the only two behaviours that seperate humans from any other living things are: making fire, and clothing ourselves. Clothing is quite literally part of the essence of who we are as a species. We all make decisions every single day about what we put on our bodies, and as we know, that has no small impact our planet, but also for our own identity. The importance of a great coat, and a great pair of shoes, should never be underestimated as a tool for expression, esteem and empowerment.
Find out more about everything Rachael does at www.alicas.co.uk