Thread Ahead are a London-based charity who strive to tackle waste in the fashion industry by offering brand new clothes to refugees & asylum seekers. Founded by Millie Webb and Saskia Borchardt-Hume in 2020, the charity partners of Far Afield have helped innumerable people start their new lives in style, and they continue to do excellent work within their community. We went to the pub with Millie to discuss the charities growth, and their plans for the future.
Tell us about what you’re doing at Thread Ahead?
We take overstock and stock that can’t be sold, brand new stock – so whether that’s got minor faults or production errors, or their samples, or if it just hasn’t sold for whatever reason. We take all of that and we donate it to refugees and asylum seekers at pop-up events. We set up a showroom, which is kindly donated to us, like a shop – so that it feels like a real, tactile, shopping experience –without the costs involved.
Is that shopping experience central to what you do?
One of the main reasons for what we do is that the accessibility to high quality clothing for refugees and asylum seekers just isn’t there. There are some refugee centers that have a clothing bank, but it’s usually second hand, bottom of the barrel stuff that’s very worn out – and there’s really not very much of it. We think people deserve more than the bare minimum, especially when it comes to clothing and things that are so closely tied to identity. If you can come into a space and be able to choose something that’s the correct size, something that you’re excited about, something that you want to wear. Things that feel very luxurious.
Is this why you focused on pre-consumer waste, contacting brands directly?
There are two reasons we went for that – the first is that we really liked the concept of the clothes being brand new. The clothes look new in the space – which makes merchandising a lot easier, which is great. But just from being on the periphery, working with brands and seeing how that works, you can see how much waste is produced. There is all of this stuff sitting around, stuff going to landfill, and there’s somewhere it can go and make a difference – I think something like 25% of clothing is never sold. Saskia who I run Thread Ahead with used to work at a Refugee Center with a clothing bank, and it was always empty – so we had this conversation at the pub about surplus stock and came up with the idea of Thread Ahead to try and solve both issues.
Has the, often provocative, discourse about refugees and the refugee crisis affected your work at all?
We are working to be a little bit more vocal about the hostile environment. When we first started, we were a bit worried that brands might be a bit nervous or might see it as being too political. But that hasn’t been a problem at all. Nobody can see this community and doubt they need support. I think in the last year, with the war in Ukraine, that discourse seems to be shifting. In London, we have a diverse demographic, with many asylum seekers from many places. People come for a variety of human rights reasons – to escape poverty, to escape persecution for their sexuality, their politics – they don’t choose this, they come because they’re in need – and that isn’t political.
Have you formed close bonds with the people you’re helping? Do you see the same faces at your events?
Yeah, we feel like there’s a real integration into the community here. Many of our volunteers are from the refugee community too and know us through past events, which gives us more languages on the day, which is helpful. We have people who we've got to know, who come to our events every time. We also have people who have had their asylum claim accepted, who can then go on and work and no longer need to access these thing, they can go into a shop and buy things which is something they couldn’t do before – which is really nice. The hostile environment means that asylum seekers aren’t allowed to work, there’s no access to any money, they have a very small subsistence fund which doesn’t allow anything other than the bare minimum. You can survive but that’s not necessarily starting a new life, moving on from whatever situation you were in before.
How do you go about finding brand partners?
When we started, we started with brands who are quite sustainably minded, brands who would be looking to reduce waste and help out. We’re also quite aware of the clothing that our clients want to see, so as we’ve progressed, we’ve started targeting certain types of things that are most useful, or stuff that’s missing. And, we quite like a challenge – we want everyone to be involved, and we’ve started pushing ourselves a bit more. We’ve started getting brands coming to us, which is perfect for us as it’s a lot less work – which is great! We still feel new, but we’re always adapting.
Tell us about the events, how many have you done thus far?
We’ve probably done about 10, we tend to do it every quarter to align with clothing seasons – because that’s when things become available. We’ve slightly changed tactics after our last event, and now the events are ticketed, just so we can maintain that nice shopping experience that’s the basis of this. We put the tickets out on a Monday or Tuesday, and they were sold out within 24 hours, that’s about 130, not including children. Whilst we’re trying to push the numbers up, we also try and push how many items each person can take – so we need to look at what we have available and try and offer people more than just 1 or 2 items, we want them to have a bag full of stuff they get to go home with, to leaving feeling like they’ve had a luxurious day out.
Are you looking to continue to grow? Any plans for expanding beyond London?
London is big enough for us now! There’s plenty of people to support here, so it’s really our focus right now – there's so much more we can do. That’s about where we are, at the moment. It’s all happening, and it works, and its growing. I like the growth, we’re very committed to the long term so I think we’re now at a point where I think we’re big enough to be stable. It’s not just boxes arriving to our houses, we’ve gone beyond that and it feels a lot more stable. We know what we’re doing. We’re pacing ourselves, but yeah, we’re keen to grow, and there’e definitely space to grow. There more people who can be helped, there are more brands who we can get involved. We’re always adapting, and yeah we’re definitely keen to keep growing.
What can people do to help?
We can always do with donations, we supply travel money to everyone who comes to the event. Everybody receives £5 of travel money, which is our main outgoing. But mostly just talking about what we’re doing, and spreading the word – yeah, talking about us is the thing that’s most important right now.
You can find out more about Thread Ahead, their upcoming events, and how to help, through their website
and their Instagram