FEATURE: Make it British

Ahead of an industry conference to be held London next month, where Mary Portas will explain how a Made in Britain label could give fashion businesses of all sizes a competitive edge, Make it British founder and organiser of the event Kate Hills assesses the feasibility of sourcing genuine UK-made intimates. 

ASOS, John Lewis and H&M are among the long list of retailers planning to attend a new event focused on bringing fashion manufacturing back to the UK.

Kate Hills, founder of the Make it British website, a source of information on British-made brands and UK manufacturing, will host Meet the Manufacturer from June 11-12 at the Old Truman Brewery, East London.

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Her goal is to create a network where manufacturers, brands and retailers can come together in one place, after being inundated with callers looking to find factories in the UK capable of making their products over the past few years.

“A lot of the big retailers are also looking to work with UK manufacturers again, which is really why I’m setting up the event,” says Hills.

“We usually find that a lot of the manufacturers don’t know where each other are, and no one really knows how many fashion manufacturers we have got left in this country,” she adds.

Confirmed speakers at the event include Mary Portas, an advocate for British manufacturing and founder of Kinky Knickers, which was launched after Portas reopened a clothing factory in Manchester as part of her Channel 4 programme, Mary’s Bottom Line.

Portas said in a statement: “The lazy shorthand that ‘British Manufacturing is dead’ is simply wrong. Everybody selling anything – particularly clothing and homewares – should ask themselves ‘could we have made that in the UK?’ and ask the question seriously because there’s a good chance the answer is yes.”

Joining her on the speakers panel will be Ian Maclean, managing director at John Smedley, the oldest continuously-operating factory in the world; and Jenny Holloway, CEO at Fashion Enter, a 7,500ft2 factory in North London, which manufacturers garments for leading retailers such as Marks & Spencer.

Meanwhile, key exhibitors, including Scottish lace manufacturer MYB Textiles and Sudbury-based silk maker Stephen Walters and Sons will showcase their work to visitors – from start-up companies and established retailers looking to produce and sell British-made products, to brands hoping to bring their production back from overseas.

Demand for Made in Britain

Hills established Make it British in 2011 after becoming frustrated by the number of fashion brands taking their production overseas and predicting a demand for British-made products.

“I’d been a fashion buyer for 20 years and when I started my career everything was made in the UK – I worked for Burberry when the head office and all the designers worked in and around the factory – and I gradually saw everything moving offshore. In my last role at a big retailer, nothing was sourced locally at all,” she reminisces.

“At that point, about four or five years ago, I thought that it was really quite short-sighted that we were losing all the skills that we had over here and with prices rising in the Far East I thought that at some point we are going to want production closer to home again for various reasons, so I founded the website to support those manufacturers and brands that were still making in the UK.”

In recent years, UK-based fashion production has become more economically viable due the rising costs of overseas manufacturing, brought on by an increase in factory workers’ wages in countries like China. Also, fast fashion has meant that companies are demanding shorter lead times so that they can get products to store quicker. This is made easier if products are produced locally.

But, do consumers really care where their garments are made? Hills believes the Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh, in which 1100 garment workers were killed, has spurred on many shoppers to question who’s making their clothes.

Fashion Revolution Day marked the first-year anniversary of the disaster on April 23, 2014, with campaigners calling on the UK fashion industry to showcase locally-produced, British-made fashion as one of the best ways for consumers to know who made their clothes.

“If something is made in the UK it’s much more likely to have passed various standards that are required,” says Hills. “Also, it means that you are supporting local jobs.”

Another reason for an increased demand for British-made fashion, particularly from tourists visiting the UK, is the popularity of British cultural icons like David Beckham and the
Royal family.

A recent survey of Chinese consumers in Shanghai, Beijing and those that travel thousands of miles to the UK to shop at places like Harrods, Harvey Nichols and House of Fraser found that ‘Britishness’ was an important reason why they chose to buy British brands.

The study by Professor Qing Wang of Warwick Business School supports recent findings published by the British Retail Consortium that overseas consumers searching for apparel retailers climbed 13% in the first quarter of 2014 compared to last year.

In fact, there is such a trend for British heritage looks that brands are even willing to “fake it British”, says Hills.

“There are a lot of companies who are selling on their British heritage and ‘Britishness’ and not actually manufacturing in the UK and that has back-fired on them to some extent, so they are now actually looking around for British manufacturers,” she explains.

Indeed, Burberry’s AW12 campaign, which revolved around Britishness, was heavily criticised by Carole Cadwalladr, a features writer for the Observer, after the brand moved around 600 jobs from its factories in Rotherham and Yorkshire to China over a period of five years.

She said in a column at the time: “There are many different kinds of hypocrisy, but the hypocrisy of a multinational brand whose global marketing campaign revolves around ‘Britishness’ and being a ‘luxury brand’ with a ‘distinctive British’ appeal, which makes a profit of £366m on a turnover of £1.86bn a year, all the while shedding British jobs and closing British factories has a stomach-churning quality all its own.”

But there are some brands and retailers like Marks & Spencer and John Lewis who are sourcing genuine British-made products to great success.

“Sometimes I’ll go to a factory, find out they are making for a certain brand in the UK and you think, ‘gosh, I never even knew they made anything in the UK’, but they don’t shout about it and that amazes me,” says Hills.

“And why wouldn’t they? I’m not saying customers would buy something just because it’s made in the UK – I’ve found from my own research that customers buy off design, and price is also an important factor – but I know that if something has a Made in Britain label on it, then that can often be a final deciding factor in making a purchase,” she explains.

Made in Britain lingerie

So, the demand for British-made fashion is on the increase, but how easy is it for retailers to source lingerie that is produced in the UK, using British-woven fabrics and components?

“There aren’t that many lingerie factories here. I think there’s half a dozen, max,” Hills admits. “I think UK-made lingerie has suffered because it’s price sensitive and also because of all the components.”

“So when you can’t get all the components here anymore, then it makes it logistically more difficult. The competitive advantage you get with the short lead times is lost, because it’s all very well if you can make the lingerie in a couple of weeks, but if you’ve got to wait months for the components to turn up it defeats the point.”

Kiss Me Deadly is one British brand who has had difficulty getting components and fabrics made in the UK. The brand said in a 2012 blog post: “There are factories to make lingerie, but almost no factories to make the things that you make the lingerie out of.”

And the same situation remains two years on, although there are many British lingerie brands like Gilda & Pearl (see page 28) and Ayten Gasson that make high-end wireless bras, kaftans and robes using silk and lace sourced from the UK’s last remaining fabric manufacturers, while keeping components to a minimum.

“There’s a lot of labour that goes into lingerie – it’s delicate, fiddly work – so quite often what we do here is high value but less labour-intensive,” says Hills.

“But, the factories that are still here making lingerie are very, very busy. So it shows that there is definitely demand and there are some great British-made lingerie brands as well.”
So can the mass-manufacturing of lingerie ever return to the UK?

“I would hope so, yes, definitely. You’ve got the component issue, but I don’t see why not,” says Hills.

“What I would hope to see happen first would be the growth of manufacturers that are already here. But I know they are so busy – they are full to capacity – and lead times can actually be really long just because they are so busy. I was recently speaking to a lady from O4 Bras, which is a lingerie manufacturer in Hertfordshire, and she was saying that the problem is finding people who have the skills to make lingerie because it’s not as simple finding people who have the skills to make a T-shirt.”

“We’re really at a tipping point at the moment because I think if we leave it any longer then these people who do have the skills are not going to be around anymore to train up the younger ones,” insists Hills.

But all is not lost; the London College of Fashion and De Montfort University, which offers the oldest contour fashion course in the world, are churning out graduates with technical and creative skills every year. Then there’s the UK Fashion and Textiles Industry and Make it British keeping searchable directories of UK factories.

Changing attitudes

But helping brands and retailers find UK fashion manufacturers isn’t the sole aim of Make it British; through Meet the Manufacturer, the company also wants to help build healthy relationships in the industry that have turned sour over the years.

“[For retailers], it’s about finding a way to work well with these British manufacturers and planning production with them. You might have a short lead time with a supplier, but it doesn’t mean you can place an order out of the blue, two weeks before you need it; you’ve got to plan that production space with them because they have all got staff to keep on,” advices Hills.

“I think the perception is that it’s really difficult to work with British suppliers because they are going to be expensive or they have an attitude problem, which is what I heard from one person the other day.

“Yes, [suppliers] have an attitude in a sense that they have had their fingers burned really badly by fashion brands because when the mass exodus happened, a decade or so ago, it was all pretty fast and a lot of factories found themselves with huge teams of staff and no orders coming in,” she explains.

A lot of those factories that survived did so by turning to other industries other than fashion, so making apparel for the military or for medical use. But now, thanks to Meet the Manufacturer, manufacturers are going back to their routes.

“I have a fabric supplier who’s coming to the event who’s hardly done any work with fashion retailers for the last five to ten years, but he thinks maybe it’s the time to come out and meet them all again,” says Hills.

It seems there are a lot of hurdles to get over before the UK returns to the fashion and textile hub it once was. But there are brands out there that are doing their best to source UK-made fabrics wherever possible, and consumers that are more than willing to buy their finished products.

So, the next time you make an order for your boutique or department store, consider this, can you make it British?

UK MANUFACTURERS TO KNOW

UK lingerie manufacturers
O4 Bras
AJM sewing
Headen & Quarmby
Fashfac
Halcyon Blue
Nylon Dreams
Vixen Lingerie

UK lace manufacturers
MYB Textiles
Cluny Lace
Trimlace

UK silk manufacturers
Stephen Walters and Sons
Vanners Silk

 

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