Retailers and suppliers at last month’s ASBCI conference in Hinckley were hopeful of a revival in UK manufacturing.
Optimism of a renaissance in British textile manufacturing at this year’s Association of Suppliers to the British Clothing Industry (ASBCI) conference was in stark contrast to the pessimism that hung over the event just two years ago. But while the climate is ripe for revival, it won’t happen without a joined-up approach by government, retailers and manufacturers themselves, warned speakers.
Alek Adamski, partner in UK supply chain practice at management consultancy Kurt Salmon, explained that changes in the macroeconomic environment are encouraging the ‘reshoring’ of the industry from the once low-cost economies of the Far East. Not only are higher labour costs and freight charges eroding the Far East’s cost position, but Chinese production is also prioritising domestic consumption, while environmental and ethical concerns over sweatshops are growing. More positively, the heritage revival is seeing Made in Britain become an important strategy for major UK retailers from Asda to John Lewis.
A Kurt Salmon study shows that local supply considerably improves retailers’ margins, yet a lack of skills, investment, innovation and large-scale capacity in the industry, coupled with retailers’ ignorance of their true costs, conspire against a revival of UK mass-market manufacturing, warned Adamski.
He called on industry, government and trade bodies such as the British Fashion Council to help ensure the green shoots of revival don’t die, adding that “genuine leadership is key, particularly from retailers”.
However, Kate Hills, founder of the Make It British campaign, said the ball is in manufacturers’ court. Her research shows that 43% of customers would pay more for a product made in Britain, 60% feel more confident buying these products, and that demand for UK-made goods is rising - the number of requests to the Make it British website were 246% higher in January 2014 than in January 2013. Yet 72% of UK manufacturers say business is ‘about the same’ or ‘a bit worse’ this year, and less than one quarter are proactively looking for new business.
Loyalty must be earnt, British brands told
British brands must have a strong identity to generate demand and fend off Far East competitors, Christopher Nieper (pictured), managing director of Leicester-based womenswear brand David Nieper, told ASBCI delegates.
But he warned that you can’t buy loyalty you have to earn it. “So, for example, we pay all our suppliers on 10 days,” he said.
An uncompromising approach to quality and value is also needed, Neiper said. “I think, given a choice, more people would prefer to buy once and buy well rather than buy cheap and throw away,” he said. This approach has paid dividends. The company, which sells via its own website and catalogue, has 700,000 customers, and sells most of what it produces (98.8% last year) at full price.
But it hasn’t always been plain sailing, and the 50-year-old womenswear firm has had to keep adapting and innovating to survive.
When its traditional customer base of small boutiques started disappearing, it responded by starting to sell to consumers direct, becoming a mail-order company, and also expanded its range from nightwear and underwear into separates, knitwear, dresses and coats.
It also cut lead times to just three weeks and turns over stock 15 to 16 times a year.
It is increasingly bringing its supply chain back in-house, and now has its own knitting machines.
Nieper said the most important ‘magic ingredient’ in its success is its people. The business started to regenerate skills locally by forging links with schools, colleges and universities. It is sponsoring a £5,000 scholarship at Nottingham Trent University this year, and Nieper would like to set up a school for 14 to 19-year-olds, with a focus on work experience.
BFC urged to help promote manufacturing
John Smedley managing director Ian Maclean called on the British Fashion Council to promote UK manufacturing in conjunction with British design, rather than simply focusing on the latter.
“We need to change our language,” he said, and mooted an annual Dress Britain Week to promote UK-manufactured clothing, footwear and
accessories. His idea would be to have seven Made in Britain outfits for men and women, created by designers and manufacturers and curated by a top stylist.
He said that because British manufacturers can’t compete on price - pointing out that “wool is expensive” - consumers need to be educated about quality and craftsmanship.
The Japanese already appreciate these British hallmarks, he explained, and advised any would-be exporterto start in Japan, where “there is a ready market for high-value British garments.”
He believes the Made in Britain Campaign’s ‘Made in Britain’ logo, which increasing numbers of manufacturers are using since it was introduced in 2011, is valuable in the sense of being “the sum of perceptions” that consumers hold about Britain, from the Beatles to London 2012.
Collaborations ‘can boost profits’
Jenny Holloway, founder and managing director of not-for-profit organisation Fashion Enter, and Marks & Spencer head of design Tony O’Connor told delegates that manufacturers and retailers could boost their bottom lines through collaboration.
Fashion Enter produces 10,000 jersey and woven garments every week, and has forged close relationships with retailers including Asos. The etail giant gave it a six-figure loan in 2010 - and wrote it off three years later - to help it expand into manufacturing. Fashion Enter also works with M&S, and supplied it with seven garments (300 units of each) for last year’s Best of British campaign.
O’Connor, the man behind the M&S campaign, described it as “a truly collaborative venture” and said it was a pleasure to work with British manufacturers.
“We buy more British fabric than any other clothing retailer in the UK,” he said. “All the pieces sold out - we even got a suit on Gary Barlow, which got tweeted everywhere. Best of British represented a real point of view, a point of style, and the press really got behind it.”
Cash available for textile skills
Lorna Fitzsimons, director of The Alliance Project, called on retailers and manufacturers to help the initiative spend £12.8m of Regional Growth Fund cash awarded by the Government last July to develop skills and innovation in textiles manufacturing.
“We have 18 months to spend this money and need your help,” said Fitzsimons (pictured), who asked companies to help worthy candidates develop credible business plans to qualify for funding. Initially the investment will go into the manufacturing-heavy areas of Lancashire, West Yorkshire and Greater Manchester.
The Alliance Project was established by former Coats Viyella boss Sir David Alliance to examine the potential for repatriating textiles manufacturing to the UK, especially in the Northwest. The organisation conducted research in 2012 suggesting the UK textiles market could be worth £9bn - a sum, said Fitzsimons, a former Labour MP for Rochdale, that had “the Government falling off its chair”.
But for that to be realised, a number of challenges need to be overcome, not least the lack of skills and innovation and the fact that 90% of the UK market is made up of micro-businesses. The project has already compiled the biggest register of manufacturing capacity in the UK in order to reconnect supply and demand.
Basic Thinking brings production back to UK
Clothing manufacturer Basic Thinking of Leicester is switching production from Egypt to the UK as it aims to reduce lead times and create greater flexibility.
Basic Thinking used to make just 20% of its garments in the UK and 80% in Egypt, but in the past three years the figures have reversed, with UK production at 80% and rising. In making the change it has cut lead times from eight weeks to two and four weeks.
However, the hurdles to setting up UK manufacturing were significant, said commercial and operations director Chris Taylor. “You need three months’ records to be audited in order to supply the retailer,” he said. Recruitment was another issue and as a result Basic Thinking will open an academy in March for the unemployed to grow its skills base.
Taylor added: “A renaissance will only be possible with real partnership between manufacturers and retailers, and with government help to overcome obstacles.”