UK denim manufacturing is making a tentative comeback
Around the turn of the millennium, a wave of UK denim factories shut their doors for the last time. Wrangler closed its jeans factory in the Scottish town of Falkirk in 1999; US denim giant Levi’s shuttered its plant in nearly Whitburn the same year, and closed a further two in Dundee and Bellshill three years later in 2002; and clothing manufacturer Dewhirst also wound up its denim factory in Cardigan, Wales, in 2002, resulting in the loss of more than 300 jobs. All blamed rising production costs in the UK.
Today, denim manufacturing is largely concentrated in hubs such as Turkey, China, India and Bangladesh. But some denim manufacturing is starting to trickle back to UK shores. Often specialising in smaller batches of high-end denim, British brands are hoping to tap in to consumer demand for better denim and a growing interest in how – and where – clothing is made.
Hiut Denim, for example, makes its own jeans in its own factory in Cardigan. The brand was founded in 2012 by David and Clare Hieatt, who sold their eco-friendly sports brand Howies to Timberland in 2006. The couple wanted to bring both denim and manufacturing back to Cardigan, following the closure of the Dewhirst factory 10 years before.
“Cardigan used to make 35,000 pairs of jeans a week for 40 years. Then the factory closed, and 400 workers had nothing to make any more,” David Hieatt tells Drapers. “It was world class at one thing and after the factory closed, the town lost its mojo. We’re fighting to right that, to give people something to make and pass skills on to the next generation.”
Hiut Denim employed four people when it first started and now has a team of 18, including six “grand masters”, who have more than 200 years’ experience in making jeans between them. Retail prices range from £100 to £195.
Hieatt argues that the rise of the internet, coupled with a growing number of consumers who want to buy less, but better, has proved a valuable tool for denim brands who choose to manufacture in the UK.
“People ridicule ‘hipsters’, but the essence of that movement is about great quality and the importance of craft. We’ve seen it happen with beer and with coffee. Before, everything was throwaway and now people are saying: ’I want to buy less, but I want what I do buy to be better.’ That’s something we’re definitely also experiencing in denim. The internet has given us some incredible tools to tell our story, and if we can make a great pair of jeans and then tell a story about that great pair of jeans, then we’re on to something.”
Denim is also an increasingly important part of social enterprise Community Clothing. Stocked in Selfridges and spearheaded by designer Patrick Grant, the project makes use of factories’ spare capacity during seasonal lulls and provides extra work to fill gaps. Community Clothing’s denim is sourced from Thai sustainable supplier Atlantic Mills, and the jeans are made in Blackburn.
“We’ve seen what I call the ‘demonisation’ of denim,” argues chief executive Lucy Clayton. “Consumers are waking up to the fact that a material that is very familiar and [seems] harmless has a significant impact on the environment. That feeling has been ticking away in the background for some time now, but is starting to come to the fore.
“Part of the problem is that most people just own too much of it. That’s where we come in – we’re premium denim, sewn in a UK factory with a set of skills that have been handed down. We want people to buy a pair of our £65 jeans and frankly, not buy any more. They should be made to last and an investment.”
Using UK-based manufacturers for its denim allows premium men’s and womenswear brand King & Tuckfield to keep a close eye on production.
“We work with [east London factory] Blackhorse Lane Ateliers because we want to use traditional British manufacturing, and having a factory in the UK means we can keep up to date with what’s happening. It’s so important to make clothes that last. We don’t want to be a brand that makes items customers just wear a few times,” says founder Stacey Wood.
Heritage denim brand Lee Cooper also chose to produce an autumn 17 capsule collection at Blackhorse Lane Ateliers. The brand was born in London’s East End in in 1908, so returning to the East End was both a nod to its long history and recognition of growing consumer interest in UK production, explains product director Mark Strachan.
“There’s been a wide range of organisations publishing market research suggesting consumers would like to buy product made in the UK rather than off-shore, and that they would even pay more for it. This depends on the demographic and the complexities of consumers’ preferences and buying habits, but there’s enough research out there that shows there’s some level of consumer demand.”
Strachan argues there are good growth opportunities ahead for UK denim: “We’ve worked with a number of excellent UK denim manufacturers and there’s no reason why this can’t continue to grow. The quality is high, the speed to market is quick and there’s a strong design talent pool. The area we need to work on is to make this happen is highlighting the benefits of UK-made product to the general consumer market – which is a difficult task.”
Darren Millward is the director of Empire Jeans, a British denim brand that manufactures in the west Midlands. As well as making its own range of men’s jeans, it produces for other denim brands, including Wizard Jeans and 1950s-inspired Freddies of Pinewood. The factory has its own industrial laundry, as well as hand-sanding and blast-washing facilities.
“I’ve been manufacturing denim for 35 years, more recently in Egypt, but decided to bring manufacturing back to the UK and supply a niche market, targeting smaller and high-end brands in order to get better margins,” he explains.
“In 2014, we thought, ‘why not start our own brand?’ That was the birth of Empire. We make 1,000 pairs of jeans a week, so we’re one of the largest denim manufacturers in the UK, but there are challenges. It’s difficult to maintain a workforce. Our team is very skilled and many have been with us for a long time, but when this workforce decides to retire filling theirs shoes could be a difficult prospect.”
For Martin Wedderburn, one of the founders of Brighton-based denim brand Fallow Denim, price-conscious consumers are a bigger challenge to UK denim. The brand first started producing in the UK because of small order quantities and now manufactures in Leicester, focusing on small batches, using Japanese and US selvedge denim.
“Although it is a nice thing to be able to say that we’re made in the UK, if it makes the product [as little as] £2 more expensive, many consumers just aren’t interested,” says Wedderburn. ”If you’ve got money and a big marketing budget, you can really push the message about being made in the UK out there, but otherwise it is difficult.”
However, co-founder Bronagh Wedderburn takes a more optimistic approach: “British denim doesn’t rank up there yet as some of the best denim in the world, but British culture does. Some cultures, like Japan, are interested in anything that comes out of this small island and there are opportunities. We get a lot of high praise for our product and a lot of thought goes into making it.”
British denim remains a small niche and faces some significant challenges, not least persuading customers to move away from cheaper high street alternatives and pay more for jeans. However, passionate brands and manufacturers can tap into customer’s growing desire for fewer, but better products, and emphasise the importance of ethical, transparent production.
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