Thursday night’s Channel 4 catch-up with Mary Portas, high-street guru and saviour of northern knicker-making, was a reminder that however glossy your TV production values, manufacturing lingerie in the UK remains rife with obstacles. Yet hope for the brand remains.
The programme picked up the story some months after the launch of Kinky Knickers, the brand of stretchy lace knickers created by Mary Portas in an attempt to recover momentum for some of Britain’s waning textile industry.
Unused sewing machines were dusted off in the family firm Headen & Quarmby, in MIddleton, young apprentices were employed under the expert guidance of the redoubtable veterans Jackie and Myra, lace-maker Jim Stacy got his one remaining stretch-lace-making machine chugging away and stockists such as Liberty of London, Selfridges and ASOS were secured. Everything was coming up roses.
Except that four months after launch, the retailers weren’t getting their orders. Just over half of the 40,000 pairs of knickers on order had been completed, with Stacy simply unable to provide enough of his Nottingham-made lace using just one machine.
The retailers were kind: the knickers were selling out, and no doubt the cachet of Portas’s name softened the blow as well. But with Christmas coming up and the next season’s product to think about (new colours, plus anti-cellulite knickers mooted by factory owner Lynn Birbeck and tested, somewhat unscientifically, on biscuit-factory workers in Burnley), Portas parachuted herself back in, all energy, motivation and business nous.
Even more significantly, though, the project’s funding was coming to an end, nine months after it began, and the question inevitably arose: could this really be a profit-making, stable company? It could, was the conclusion, but with one caveat: a retail price hike of £5, taking the product from Portas’s £10 ideal to £15.
And here is the nub: will a mass-market customer really pay £15 for a pair of knickers just because they’re made in Britain?
The apprentices at the factory may have been doubtful but the answer, in a straw poll of Liberty customers, was yes – the upmarket department store was seeing lots of repeat custom too, even at the higher price. But then Liberty customers are not exactly your average mass-market consumers. Portas admitted that she feared she might lose some of the original customers.
Things were looking positive enough, though, for Jim Stacy to invest in a second lacemaking machine. The apprentices were all thrilled to be working and receiving their NVQs. Myra was over the moon that the industry had a hope of a return, even if on a very small scale. Surely, then, this would be a great example for Portas to take with her when she went to see the Minister for Business and Enterprise, Michael Fallon, following up after her meeting with David Cameron in the first series.
Mr Fallon smiled energetically, showed willing, patted his red ringbinder reassuringly and, in response to Portas’s suggestion for a government-backed "Make it British" campaign, mumbled that he’d think about it again. He scuttled away and Portas was back to square one.
"That’s where I finished off last time," she said.
Luckily, Portas is like the Terminator of British retail and manufacturing, uncrushed and unbowed. "I’ll be back," she said. We look forward to it, Mary.