Bella Wigley sits down with Ibukun Baldwin, the founder and director of Bukky Baldwin: a brand which not only has a beautiful, environmentally sustainable range of products but also uses creative practice to help marginalised groups, putting people first in an industry where this is often not the case.
What is Bukky Baldwin?
Bukky Baldwin is a fashion and textile company, but we do a whole host of random stuff as well. Basically, the whole aim of the business is to provide opportunities for marginalised groups. From the beginning the whole aim was that everything – both in the production process and the workshops we give – provides opportunities either training, or employment for those groups.
You have such a great range of products available on your site, from clothing to cards to ceramics. How do you decide what to make next?
The thing that drives me is practicality, which is something I think is really cool. For example, the mugs and ceramics on my site are all made from left over stock from workshops because we had to stop running them early due to COVID. Our stock was very much governed by the training that the refugees I worked with wanted or needed at the time. We went through sewing, making bags, jewellery making, ceramics, all to give them skills that they were interested in. We made the move back to fashion when we had to shut our shop due to COVID. I had to really think about the way I was going to get my business going again. I decided to close everything down and began thinking about a fashion company that is good to people, where everything is made of sustainable fabrics, and that is super comfy to wear.
Can you tell me a bit more about the workshops you did at the Whitworth Art Gallery?
We collaborated with a charity called Manchester City of Sanctuary, who connect refugees with different services around Manchester. The reason I decided to work with them was to offer a service helping with employment, and by acting as a job reference for people looking for further work. I really wanted to collaborate with a charity to make sure that we were accountable as well – by actually providing a service alongside a charity, instead of just claiming to help people. So that’s what lead us to begin the workshops, which looked at things like workplace English, for example, and provided refugees with on paper work experience in the UK (most of them already had work experience outside of the UK, by the way). The aim was to help take them onto their next steps and connect them with services.
So, the workshops helped refugees in a practical sense, by developing skills and work experience. How important were they in terms of access to creativity and community?
Yeah, really important because quite a lot of them weren’t permitted to work yet. So, for a lot of them, it was really about the community and just having a leisurely activity to do. It is quite a luxury to just do something just for the fun of it.
How has lockdown affected the groups of people you work with in terms of not being able to access services like yours?
A lot of people have been saying that lockdown has been hard on the arts, but even more so it’s been hard the people that the arts were serving. The gallery, and loads of different organisations I was working with, were the first to close when we heard the news of the pandemic. For the marginalised groups of people I work with, the workshop was their only time leaving the house to do something. They can’t afford to take a bus somewhere just for the fun of it, because they have a very limited allowance each week. From speaking to a few of them, I know it has been very difficult and very isolating to have to stay home and not know where things are going for them. It has been very sad to hear, and not being able to run the workshops for them has been quite painful.
How has COVID affected you as a small business?
It’s been hard. I had to close my shop and at the time I wasn’t online at all, so it all just stopped for months. But I was lucky in that I didn’t have staff at the time, it was just me running everything, so I didn’t have the pressure of overhead costs which I know a lot of other businesses had. I had months of just deciding what I was going to do, and eventually decided on an e-commerce fashion business. I took the time to figure out how I was going to do that and do loads of research. Lockdown was hard in terms of having to stop, but it did give me space to adapt and get a team together to work with me on the business, which I hadn’t had a chance to do before. So it was kind of a blessing in disguise.
What was the process of starting your business like? Did you always plan to do a fusion of community work and fashion, or did one come before the other?
After graduating I took a year out to work within the community, so I’d totally given up my practice at that point to do what I thought was important. After that year I really wanted to get back into my creative practice, but I only wanted to do that in a way that would help people. My first idea was to make and sell stuff on Etsy and give the money I made to people, but I wanted to make a more longstanding plan. The business came from the idea of using creative practice to help people. I decided the best way to do that would be to have a business where I’d be able to employ people, so it all kind of developed from there.
On the other side of ethical practices, I know Bukky Baldwin is a lot about being sustainable and good to the environment as well as people. Can you tell me a bit more about that?
That’s another result of having a lot of time over lockdown to research, to really try and track down manufacturers who would take small orders and find out where materials were coming from and where they were made. That was a whole process of calling loads of people. Finally, I was able to find a manufacturer who made the fabric in Manchester, out of recycled materials and get all the printing and everything done in Manchester, which I’m really happy about. Because, even though my main priority is to help people, I feel like as a fashion business today you really have to think about the impact of what you are doing. I think it would be a contradiction to have a goal of helping people while damaging the planet.
I noticed that you make all your clothes to measure, is that another way of reducing waste?
Yeah, I wanted to make sure that we catered to every size and that our clothing fits people well. That way they are more likely to wear and love their pieces. I’m trying to re-do fashion business properly, by thinking about people first.
What’s your vision of the future for Bukky Baldwin?
The first dream is to make it out of this pandemic! And then, to be sustainable economically because it is a challenge to make enough money to cover costs. I just want to make enough so that we can keep hiring people who really struggle with employment and then, as we grow, help more and more people get jobs and help better their opportunities. My dream to have a Manchester mill somewhere, filled with people who come from difficult circumstances or face challenges and just give them a new chance to have a job that they enjoy, in a place that they feel valid and feel safe. That’s the whole ethos of the business. And also, to be an affordable and good option to other high street fashion options out there. That would be the dream.
Check out Bukky Baldwin’s Christmas shop for some unique gifts this year!