As Portas struggles to turn the lights back on, Kat Slowe investigates if it is truly feasible to return to the manufacture of textiles in this country and questions whether we are simply better off keeping in the dark?
“We are turning the lights back on for British manufacturing,” Mary Portas controversially said on the launch of her Kinky Knickers label earlier this year. The statement caused many existing Made in the UK brands to gnash their teeth – after all, they had been making in the UK for years. How was Portas’ project any improvement on the worthy endeavours they had made to put British manufacturing back on the map?
According to Portas, the difference lies in her venture’s scale and her use of UK made materials. In order to create her knickers, the retail guru re-opened an old nightwear factory in Middleton, Manchester, and sought out one of Nottingham’s last stretch lace makers, Jim Stacey.
But is the limelight stealing endeavour sustainable and does it work as a long term model for manufacturing in the country? According to a series of industry experts, who have worked in intimate apparel sector for decades, it does not.
In order to be perfectly clear, there are numerous brands already manufacturing in the UK. Ayten Gasson, Frantic About Frances, Who Made Your Pants? and Kiss Me Deadly are just a few of the many names who proudly display Made in the UK labels on their products.
There is also no dearth of factories, with AJM Sewing, Orbit Apparel and Vixen Lingerie proudly carrying the flag for high quality British manufacture.
What there is a lack of is UK made materials. The last known Nottingham lace factory for intimate apparel, Douglas Gill, heavily downsized towards the end of last year. The step was irreversible.
“We used to employ about 10 to 12 people and unfortunately everyone finished at Christmas,” Douglas Gill managing director Rod Gill says.
The company is now a one man operation. It is not alone in its slow demise, but merely the latest victim of a long process that has led to the theft of several generations of livelihoods.
“We weren’t making any money and we have lost all the big contracts for the M & S suppliers,” Gill says. “We are sort of a casualty… I didn’t really see it getting better. That is why I took the drastic decision to make everyone redundant… We have been going 50 years, which was another reason why it wasn’t taken lightly.
“All we are left with are small contracts that perhaps the Far East doesn’t want to do. It has pretty much reverted to a cottage industry.”
Not all is lost. Douglas Gill recently started manufacturing the lace trim for Mary Portas’ new lingerie brand Kinky Knickers. The second round of production is set to begin this month.
“I am looking at producing again,” Gill says, “but not in the same way I was. We have just two machines left.”
Jim Stacey, the stretch lace manufacturer for Kinky Knickers, was contacted by Mary Portas around Christmas time.
“They contacted me just before Christmas,” he says, “and they asked if they could see a lace machine and I said ‘yes, not problem’. I happened to be developing a stretch lace at the time and they liked the look of it, and they ask for samples and it went from there.”
Jim Stacey owns a wide width lace machine, which can produce two rolls of fabric simultaneously. He operates the machine himself, alternating shifts with his one member of staff. Doing this, he can produce up to 100m of finished fabric a week.
“I do have another customer who takes this product,” he says, “so, unless we get another machine, there is a limit to what I can produce… I’ll be working probably until 10 or 11 o’clock tonight keeping production going.”
The finished lace gets delivered to former nightwear factory Headen & Quarmby. The company stopped manufacturing in the UK eight years ago – until Mary Portas knocked on the proverbial door late last year.
The machines were dusted off and the factory resumed operations, churning out the Queen of Shop’s knickers. Exclusive to Liberty for the first month, the products went online at other retailers, including ASOS, John Lewis, Marks & Spencer, Boots, Selfridges and Houser of Fraser, in March.
“With the other retailers coming online Monday,” says Headen & Quarmby owner David Moore, “it is all hands to the pump trying to get the stock out… We didn’t expect it to have such a great take up. And, we have been contacted by a lot of retailers interested in taking on products.
“The raw materials have all come from the UK and that has caused the biggest issue. The capacity is just not there anymore.”
The biggest problem in terms of materials, explains Moore, is the limited supply of lace. Mary Portas has touted 100,000 units as the amount needed to make her business sustainable, but it is unlikely that sufficient amounts of lace can be produced.
“Jim Stacey, the guy who is producing the stretch lace, has just one machine,” Moore says. “A lace machine costs between £125,000 for a second hand one through to a quarter of a million pounds for one that is new. Then you have to get it shipped, installed and set up, and this all takes quite a long time. You could be looking at three to six months until it comes online.”
One option may be to switch to a knitted jersey of which there are still a number of UK suppliers, such as Rainbow Jersey, Jerseytex and Prime Associates.
“There is also a big weaving plant called Toray Textiles,” Moore reveals, “who weave a number of lightweight types of lingerie fabric.”
Eventually, Moore would like to be producing 200,000 to 250,000 units at his Nottingham factory, some of which may be nightwear products. The factory owner has received significant interest in this segment over the past few months and is looking to re-produce some of his former styles using UK fabrics.
“It features in our long term plans,” he says. “We need that diversity, because we are in it for the long haul.
“Mary, if nothing else, has proved that it can be done… She has created a garment that people want to wear at a price they want to buy at.”
This is by no means an easy prospect in today’s retail environment, as Simon Butler knows well. The owner of S H Butler, Butler has been working in the intimate apparel industry for around 40 years. He manufactured lingerie up until 12 years ago, employing 100 people and producing over 2,500 bra’s a week. Even then, this amount constituted only about one percent of Britain’s intimate apparel manufacturing business.
“Twelve years ago, I had to re-invent myself,” he says, “mainly because it all went offshore. I was making for Dorothy Perkins, Topshop, Next and Knickerbox. In those days, bra’s were retailing at around £16 to £18 and we were given around £5 or £6 for a garment.
“Then they went ‘right, we are still going to give you the business but instead of paying you £5 or £6 for a bra and retailing it for £18, we are going to give you about £2.50 for a bra.’ So, I tried for a few years to compete against the Chinese, but I couldn’t. And, they gradually went off to China, as did all the companies.”
Today, Simon Butler operates a business selling fabrics to a series of UK luxury brands and domestic manufacturers. The majority of his stock consists of leftover lace and fabrics from UK factories that have closed down and from the surplus requirements of some of Europe’s top textile companies.
“Twelve years ago, there were probably a dozen lace companies,” he says, “and, as these lace companies have gone bust – I am sorry to say – I bought the remnants of them… I bought thousands and thousands of metres.”
This month, Butler will be changing his company’s name from SH Butler & Co to Contour Fabrics Ltd. The business will be offering a lot more regular fabrics, which it will be importing from Italy and elsewhere in Europe. Another director will also be coming onboard.
The development of the business comes after many years of successful trading for the company, which numbers amongst its customers a series of the luxury intimate apparel sector’s biggest names. A former supplier of Headen & Quarmby, Butler is fully aware of the new Mary Portas initiative.
“I really respect what she is trying to do, but it ain’t gonna work,” he says. “It’s not so much training the employees to work the machine. When there were lace machines, you had the back-up… You have to then dye it and then you have to finish it, which takes a multi-million pound machine. Then you have got to reel the lace and you have to scallop the lace. This infrastructure has disappeared.”
According to Butler, there are people still making cotton jersey, bra strap elastic and basic elastics in the UK, but sources of many intimate apparel components – particularly for products such as bra’s – are extremely limited.
“Mary Portas is about two years too late,” he says. “There is no way you are going to find someone who makes bra wires in this country, makes hooks and eyes in this country, makes shoulder strap elastic in this country, rings and slides, and all the various different materials. And, even 20 years ago, I was importing embroidery from Austria. We haven’t made embroidery in this country for many years.
“To make knickers, you don’t need much, you need elastic and you need to buy a bit of lace. But, if Mary wants to go a step further and make the sort of things that Made by Niki, Nichole de Carle or Fleur of England are doing, there is a lot more to it.”
One example is powermesh, used for making the wings of bra’s and swimwear. UK warp and weft knitter Nylatex, which supplied the fabric for England’s football team for the 2006 World Cup, was a big manufacturer of powermesh. The former Courtaulds company went into administration 18 months ago with a loss of 80 jobs.
At the time, administrators RSM Tenon claimed the closure was due to a significant downturn in demand during the recession, with the company’s key customers cutting back orders. This was despite an injection of more than £9 million into the business over a two year period.
“I went in with a 40 foot lorry and took rolls and rolls out of there,” Butler says. “I still have some in stock, but it is nearly all gone. There are no new fabric manufacturers, that’s the problem.
The next best solution, according to Butler, is to buy from Europe. A number of luxury brands, such as Agent Provocateur, are still willing to payer higher prices to source their materials from across the channel.
Agent Provocateur chief executive Garry Hogarth says: “Most of our lace comes from France, but every year there are fewer people.
“We can afford to order it from France and so can brands like La Perla, but the big department stores and majority of people in the high street get it from China.”
A series of UK and European textile suppliers, and manufacturers, exhibited at last month’s Textile Forum in London. Among the attendees were Carrington-Fleet Textiles, Maison Henry Bertrand, James Hare and Solstiss Lace.
Matthew Bradshaw is the UK agent for French company Solstiss Lace, which supplied part of the lace for the Duchess of Cambridge’s wedding dress, last year. Since the grand occasion, he claims business has boomed.
Bradshaw says: “It’s been brilliant, I have never been so busy. On the laces, it is amazing. Lingerie is my main trade. Some of my biggest customers are lingerie customers…”
Kate Middleton’s bridal gown was made up of six different types of lace, only one of which, Cluny Lace, was English.
“All the mills in the UK are pretty much gone,” Bradshaw says. “The Nottingham lace, we sold the machinery for to France 50 to 80 years ago because the labour was cheaper back then. You can’t get real levers Nottingham lace in England anymore. It is all in France.
“To try and bring it back now would be impossible. If you had enough money to invest it would be easier to buy a football team.”
Mary Portas’ fuchsia and teal army anyone?