Over recent years, the Made in the UK label has benefited from an increased rarity value. But, as the cost of labour abroad continues to soar, we talk to a few of the remaining intimate apparel manufacturers in the country to discover whether UK industry could be set to stage a comeback.
“I’ve been into women’s underwear all my working career,” says AJM Sewing founder and owner James Mellor. “I started in Gossard at 16 and worked my way up through the ranks to be in charge of the production floor. When they closed that ten years ago to ship it all abroad, I bought some machines with my redundancy and started from there.”
Over the past decade, the business has gone from strength to strength, a development that may have seemed unlikely when the intimate apparel manufacturers of the South Wales valleys all closed or moved abroad ten years ago.
“The South Wales valleys were predominantly lingerie producing valleys,” Morris elaborates. “You had all the big brands here – Gossard, Berlei and Morris Cohen. Going back ten years ago, I would guess there was something in the region of 20,000 people employed in the industry, all producing lingerie. We are the last.
“It has all been a bloody challenge. The one thing we have been really in luck with is the labour. Because of the closure of the businesses, we have always had a skill base that we could take from.”
AJM Sewing manufactures for around ten to 15 customers. Clients include the likes of Agent Provocateur, Fleur of England, Lascivious, Bordelle, Dirty Pretty Things, Made By Niki, Ayten Gasson and Fred & Ginger. In addition to lingerie, the company also produces swimwear, furniture and upholstery.
For many of the small to medium sized brands, producing in the UK makes a lot of sense. With minimum orders, rising transportation rates and the continuously increasing cost of labour abroad, the appeal of UK manufacture is growing year on year.
“The outlay for them is a lot less,” Mellor says. “Obviously, the margins are not very good in the UK, but we are surviving. The labour costs are going up all around now, so we are becoming more competitive.
“It is never going to come around to what it was, but I certainly think the likes of companies that are our size have got a good, strong foothold in the market now. Because, by the time you put the shipping costs on and your flights over to Morocco, you might as well make it here in the first instance. And, we are only two hours away from London. It is a train ride which costs £50 and, in two hours, if you have a problem, we can sort it.”
Mellor is currently seeking to grow the business, which employs 42 members of staff. The goal is to double the size of the business in the next five years. The factory’s cutters currently hand mark everything in, but Mellor aims to see that the system is all made electronic within the next five to ten years.
“The machinery we have is all very modern and all the attachments for the machines,” he explains, “so that allows us to give a good quality garment. But, the cutting area is a massive outlay for us.”
AJ Sewing has already made a significant investment in machinery. The initial 25 machines, with which the factory started in 2001, have since grown to 125 and Mellor’s commitment has definitely paid off. Despite the prohibitive costs of new machines (around £5000 each), the company started to turn a significant profit a year and a half ago. In March 2010, Mellor was even invited to Buckingham Palace for a champagne reception, celebrating the fashion industry.
“For a little boy from the valleys, it was a very daunting experience,” he says, “but, once I was there, it was an honour. There were a hell of a lot of big brand designers and very famous people there all for the same reasons.”
AJ Mellor may be the biggest remaining intimate apparel manufacturer in Britain, but it is not the only one. Kelly Isaac, owner of Modern Courtesan and MC Lounge, and founder of The Lingerie Collective, started Orbit Apparel four years ago. She has since also seen a steady demand for her manufacturing services and is continually contacted by up and coming designers interested in learning more about what her company can offer.
Orbit Apparel operates 20 machines, which can handle orders of anything between 100 to 5000 units. It works primarily with designers who have at least two or three seasons behind them.
“I would love to expand, but there is also that comfort level of it is really nice where it is,” Isaac says.
Isaac works with a number of high profile names, including Figleaves, Harrods, Elle & Cee, Dirty Pretty Things and Ayten Gasson.
When she went into the lingerie industry, Isaac never intended to open her own manufacturing unit, but when she recognised the gap in the market, she was quick to take advantage of the opportunity.
“Oh my God, how can I have a factory?” Isaac exclaims. “That was never intended. That was never in the plan. I never meant for that to happen. It happened and it’s amazing, and I love it.”
Part of Isaac’s passion stems from her belief in the importance of UK design and manufacture. The entrepreneur, who through her various hats has a unique insight into the luxury intimate apparel industry, believes that the UK has the skills to compete in the global market.
“We have had clients that have taken their production overseas and it has been really quite a tragic experience, and they have kind of done an about turn and come back,” she reveals.
“I think there are some amazing manufacturing companies in Europe who do specialise in lingerie. But, we could stand out, like we do with our design, as the development country for some of the more directional products. I think that could be a case, because there are companies out there who would look at some of the stuff that we do and say no, because they are too complex.”
Though Orbit Apparel is a competitor of AJM, it operates on a slightly different basis. It has less of a technical focus and helps more in the product development of its clients, though Isaac is hoping to become more technology driven in the future as the company moves forward.
“We are also a little bit more flexible with our minimums,” Isaac says. “AJM, because they are a bit more established, they tend to be a bit more for when you get a little bit further down the road.”
The Garment Studio is a manufacturer that works even more closely with its brands. The company only works with up to a maximum of 50 units, but while the quantities that it produces are limited, the number of brands seeking its services is not.
“We are just getting to the point now where we are getting a little bit too busy,” founder Claire Harris says, “so we are looking at more staff, but we are waiting for January. The order book is almost full up until January now.”
Harris has been in the business for 14 years and wants to use her experience to help give something back to the industry. The Garment Studio does samples, sizing grades and costings, as well as small run/no minimums manufacture. It offers an essential service for many designers who are either just starting out or looking to expand their business without high levels of capital.
“An awful lot of our clients were finding that there were small orders that they were receiving that they were not able to fulfil,” Harris says.
“Then, all of a sudden, I came into the market and they are finding that they can send me an order for ten knickers, and they are now fulfilling that order, whereas before they were having to say ‘no, I’m really sorry, but I can’t do this’.”
Not all designers choose to look to others to manufacture their products. There are some who seek to undertake their own production. Brands such as Bordelle, Eternal Spirits and Nichole de Carle own their own machines and develop a large percentage of their pieces on their own premises.
Nichole de Carle owns six machines and employs four machinists in Chelsea, London, who manufacture fifty percent of the brand’s overall products. The pieces were originally made entirely in the UK, but as the business has grown, half of production has moved to a factory in Romania.
Brand founder and creative director Nichole de Carle says: “The reason we manufacture in-house is that my background was initially in technical design, so I have a lot of experience of how to put a garment together. Secondly, quality is a really important part of our business and our brand. We’re providing employment in the UK and offering opportunities in the UK. I want to support that.”
There are others, such as hosiery brands Aristoc and Gio Stockings, who follow this ethos on an even grander scale. Gio Stockings makes all its hosiery in a factory in Derbyshire and is one of the last remaining UK manufacturers of authentic fully fashioned stockings. It uses Reading machines from the 1940s and 1950s to make the product and operates four of the nine remaining engines in the world.
Samuel Wilkinson currently runs the company, which was founded when his father bought the factory from Aristoc at the tender age of 20. The biggest challenge for Wilkinson is that of maintenance.
“Because they have been running for fifty or sixty years now, it is literally maintainance of the machines and getting hold of the parts to replace the broken ones,” he says. “Everything is limited, even down to the seaming machines we use. You just can’t get hold of one for love or money.”
To achieve the best efficiency on the Reading knitting machines, they have to be kept at a temperature of around 30 degrees and be kept running non-stop. It is no easy task, particularly when failure could result in collapse of the business.
“These machines are almost immovable,” Wilkinson adds. “There was a company once who moved their machines and it took them two years to bring them back up to efficiency. They are extremely temperamental. And, because of the limited number of units, they really can’t be replicated on the cheap in the modern world.”
Wilkinson has one more machine that he hopes to bring online within the year and, with the increased capacity, he plans to bring in new stockists, either in the UK or abroad. Like many others, he believes that UK manufacturing will eventually see a resurgence.
“Everything is cyclical,” Wilkinson says. “British manufacturing back in the 19th century was the strongest in the world… It will come round again. We are a cheap country to manufacture in, because the world will raise its level of living costs and equality of estate. So, one day, British manufacturing will be back in Britain on the same scale as it was.
“I don’t think I will be alive, unfortunately, but I very much hope that my company is.”