Bethany Williams: Good Design

Young V&A
September 29, 2021

Fashion designer, humanitarian and artist, Bethany Williams marries cutting-edge fashion design with a gold-standard ethical manufacturing process. Her materials are refashioned from abandoned festival tents and her bags are made from book waste. Her knitwear items are woven by women in San Partigiano, a substance abuse rehabilitation community, using waste materials generated there and the non-knitwear pieces are assembled as part of a rehabilitation scheme at HMP Downview, a women-only prison in Sutton. In addition to these processes, Bethany also donates 20 percent of her profits to charity.

Bethany Williams, All Our Children Spring/Summer 2021 Collection. Photograph: Ruth Ossai

I first met Bethany Williams a few years ago when she approached the Young V&A Museum to come in and research its children’s clothing collection. Bethany was interested in seeing local and refashioned children’s clothing. She was about to embark on her first children’s clothing collection in support of The Magpie Project. The Magpie Project is local charity for homeless young families in Newham, and Bethany hoped that our collection would offer a launchpad for her designs.

Bethany Williams All Our Children Spring/Summer 2021 collection. Photograph: J. Stocker

The reason she came to us is because the Young V&A Museum holds the nation’s children’s clothing collection which consists of around 9000 pieces from binders to deeley-boppers and spans over 400 years. As the person responsible for the children’s clothing collection, it is the highlight of my role to give people a close-up look at this impressive collection. Each piece holds a story, either about its time, design, maker or wearer. I love to see the interaction between modern makers and designers and how they study and appreciate historic clothing and all the skills and processes which went into their creation. Today’s designers inspect the stitching, the weave and the ingenuity with which these items were cut and assembled. And Bethany was no exception, as we looked at everything from 18th-century bodices with leading strings made of Spitalfields silk, a boy’s skeleton suit and wrapping gowns to 1940’s party dresses and mourning coats, her enthusiasm was contagious.

Child’s skeleton suit, ca. 1800. Museum no. T.165&A-1915. Photograph: J.Socker

Fast forward a year and Bethany Williams’s ‘All Our Children’ Spring/Summer 2021 collection has launched to huge acclaim at London Fashion Week (LFW). Williams is the literal flagbearer for the show with her ‘All Our Children’ collection inspired flag flying high about the LFW venue.

Bethany Williams Instagram, Skeleton Suit, 2021

In her collection there are clear parallels between her designs and those items she studied at the museum, such as the fall-front of the skeleton suit, the boned bodices, the flounced dresses and pantalettes which she credits as her inspiration:

The silhouettes of the collection are inspired by the Young V&A Museum garment archive. This collection sees Bethany’s first detailed exploration into tailoring with a suit inspired by a historical children’s skeleton suit from the 1800’s. The skeleton suit was the first children’s garment designed for play. 

Jane Williams, The Magpie Project
Bethany Williams ‘All Our Children’ child’s outfit with a Boy’s first suit, ca.1820. Museum No. B.1-2019. Photograph: K. Canales

For me, the central aspect which sets Bethany’s work apart, is the co-creation process of her fabrics’ patterns. These designs are the successful result of a creative collaboration between artist Melissa Kitty Jaram and the mothers and children supported by The Magpie Project. As part of the charity’s Mothers and Minis creative play sessions the families created portraits of each other and these were the spearhead for Melissa’s designs that make up the bold and dynamic patterns of Bethany’s 2021 to 2022 collections. Play and co-creation between children and adults has been the launchpad for these vibrant designs and are pivotal to their enduring appeal.

Bethany Williams, ‘All Our Children’, Spring/Summer 2021 Collection. Photograph: Ruth Ossai

Williams’s designs are indicative of successful co-design, ethical fashion, and power of our collections to inspire. This year the museum acquired two sets of Williams’s mother and child outfits and lunchbox inspired handbag, which are captured in Ruth Ossai’s photographs in this blog. Bethany’s designs will be part of a stunning showcase in the Young V&A Museum’s new Design Galleries, which will be celebrating co-design and sustainable fashion design.

Bethany Williams ‘All Our Children’ Spring/Summer 2021 collection, Photograph: J. Stocker

Click here to discover more about the transformation of the Young V&A Museum, which will be opening to the public in Summer 2023.

About the author

Young V&A
September 29, 2021

Young V&A Curator. A collection specialist in children's clothing and childhood material culture and creativity. Exhibition Curator for the Young V&A's inaugural exhibition Japan: Myths to Manga. Online Exhibition Producer...

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