Compliance and cash flow are some of the issues that challenge the growth of UK garment manufacturers but retailers and suppliers are making strides in the right direction by working together.
The Stitching Academy
The ethical reputation of UK garment manufacturers came under pressure in 2015 following a damning report that shed light on some shady workforce practices. This year, suppliers are pinning their hopes on a new retailer-led audit system to tackle non-compliance issues head on – and in the process, help revive industry growth.
Many had worried that last February’s report, commissioned by the Ethical Trading Initiative, which exposed the problem of low pay, health and safety breaches and contract issues in Leicester’s garment and textile sector, could hamper the renaissance of UK garment manufacturing. Instead, it has led to a group of retailers, including River Island, Debenhams and Asos.com, creating and implementing a new audit system, which some commentators believe could breathe new life into the industry.
The exact size of the UK garment trade is difficult to calculate but in 2015 the Alliance Project, which was formed in 2011 to promote textile manufacturing in northwest England, valued the combined textiles and fashion industry at £9bn with about 100,000 people employed.
Adam Mansell, chief executive of UK Fashion and Textile Association (UKFT), agrees with these estimates, adding that the main clusters are in Lancashire, Yorkshire, the east Midlands and London.
As part of the new audit initiative, called Fast Forward, UK suppliers were invited to workshops to discover more about the process from April last year and unscheduled factory visits started from June. The process, which according to River Island aims to build an honest and open partnership between retailers and their UK supply base, is ongoing but some suppliers reported at the start of this year that they had been fully audited.
It means that retailers won’t engage with manufacturers who can’t meet the standards
Mick Cheema, general manager of Leicester-based leisurewear supplier Basic Premier
“Fast Forward doesn’t just do the normal health and safety and risk assessments, it also questions employees and checks things like the amount of wages and tax a supplier pays,” explains Mick Cheema, general manager of Leicester-based leisurewear supplier Basic Premier. Established in 2012, the company produces about 35,000 units per week for major high street retailers including River Island, Debenhams, George at Asda, Sainsbury’s Tu, Matalan and Tesco’s F&F.
“It’s a tough audit and it probably exposed more issues than anyone expected, but at least now everything has been brought to people’s attention. It means that retailers won’t engage with people who can’t meet the standards and hopefully good manufacturers will last the test of time.”
Jenny Holloway, director of the 80,700 sq ft factory Fashion Enter in Haringey, north London, which produces up to 7,500 units per week for the likes of Asos and M&S, says: “[The audit] is very thorough but it’s what the industry needs. It is intrusive because it follows financial audits, as well as everything else, but if you have nothing to hide then it is okay.”
None of the retailers involved would comment on the Fast Forward programme but in documents seen by Drapers, River Island said it was embarking on the initiative in order to build a sustainable supply base in the UK.
One of the major advantages for retailers working with UK manufacturers is the ability of many to react quickly to market trends, thanks to fast turnarounds of about four weeks from concept to delivery. But for suppliers, such flexibility can make planning difficult and lead to drastic peaks and troughs in production, as well as problems with cash flow, regardless of how healthy demand may be.
Cash flow was one of the issues cited by Lee Ann Fashions, a Leicestershire-based supplier to high street retailers, which went into administration in November last year. The company was sold to Lee Ann Fashions Group, a company run by former director Harvi Johal, the same month, saving 34 out of 79 jobs.
Drapers understands the company hit problems when one of its customers pulled a lucrative contract, although this has not been confirmed.
Similarly, in July last year, Crewe-based bespoke tailoring business Cheshire Bespoke fell into insolvency after one of its largest customers “significantly reduced” its orders. It was rescued by founder Tony Lutwyche and a consortium of investors days later, saving all 81 jobs.
In any industry it is dangerous for a manufacturer to have too much business with one retailer
Kate Hills, founder of the Make it British website and textiles trade show Meet the Manufacturer
“There needs to be a considerable amount of thought that goes into how retailers and brands work with manufacturers because they can’t just turn it on and off,” says UKFT’s Mansell. “There need to be long-term relationships in place, so manufacturers can plan properly and invest.”
The Alliance Project is set to launch an education guide to procuring in the UK next month. This is expected to include ways that retailers can work more effectively with suppliers to provide more financial security and security of supply. One example could be placing orders for 6,000 pieces rather than 3,000, but in batches of 500 in slightly different designs or colours. This would allow an injection of newness for retailers but also gives suppliers a longer-term view on orders.
Spread your bets
But however tempting it may be, suppliers should take care not to put all their eggs into one basket, says Kate Hills, founder of the Make it British website and textiles trade show Meet the Manufacturer.
“In any industry it is dangerous for a manufacturer to have too much business with one retailer,” she says. “One way to counter it is for suppliers to launch their own brands, which we’re starting to see more of now following [factory] Cooper & Stollbrand in Manchester with [contemporary menswear brand] Private White VC. It’s a way to balance it out.”
Holloway launched a new womenswear brand through Fashion Enter called Belles of London in July last year, which is gaining interest from the US, while Savile Row tailor Patrick Grant is set to launch an own brand through Cookson & Clegg – the Blackburn-based outerwear specialist he acquired last April – later this year.
Barry Laden, chief executive of East End Manufacturing in London’s Mile End, which opened in 2012 and specialises in jerseywear, sells a portfolio of its own womenswear brands, including Renee London, through The Laden Showroom in Brick Lane and Asos. It also produces for a range of retailers and brands including Raey, the own-label brand of Matchesfashion.com, and mother and baby brand Woven Wings.
Laden, who was awarded an MBE for services to the fashion industry in the 2011 New Year honours, is also taking another tack to balance his portfolio by looking to acquire other suppliers or facilities.
“There are some fantastic factories around the country that have a core business but struggle to get new customers. We’re looking for strategic acquisitions to build up our capabilities,” he says.
“There are lots of factories that have been run by the same family for 30 to 40 years, who want to retire, for example. We’re looking for complementary factories to extend our skillset. We specialise in jersey and if we could get someone else who specialises in wovens or shirts, that would be great.”
Over the last few years, Laden says he has won some business back from the Far East, “sometimes about price but often about timing”, but has also guided new brands through the production process.
“We do a lot of handholding, which is really important to build lasting relationships,” he says. “We’re working with a cycling brand that has taken about a year to get going, talking through what we’re going to do and looking at fabrics. But then the orders started coming in.”
Rachael Hobbs, founder of UK sourcing firm Bridge and Stitch, which supports brands in working with UK manufacturers, also says “handholding” is a major part of her business. Hobbs launched her firm in 2012, which has three full-time employees – she is looking for a fourth – to offer support services for the entire manufacturing process from concept to fabric sourcing and production. The business has since developed a network of about 120 UK factories.
She said enquiries have grown from three to four per month in 2012, up to between 80 and 100 now, from small fashion start-ups through to established businesses wanting to move some of their production back to the UK.
“A lot of factories don’t even have websites and it can seem like a bit of a closed club where people don’t know where to start,” she says. Thankfully the likes of Hills’ Meet the Manufacturer event has recognised the problem – it will dedicate more space to workshops and seminars to answer these types of questions at the next edition, which takes place at the Old Truman Brewery in east London, May 25-26.
picture 27 pressing area
While suppliers are now realising the potential benefits of fostering a healthy UK garment manufacturing base, the Fast Forward initiative shows it is becoming increasingly clear to retailers too. But the ultimate test will be the consumer, says UKFT’s Mansell.
“There are some fantastic manufacturers in the UK, from suppliers of great heritage products down in Lancashire, Yorkshire and the East Midlands to London-based firms working with the likes of Roland Mouret or Mary Katrantzou, who purposely go under the radar, plus those supplying the fast fashion retailers like Primark and Boohoo,” he notes.
“And yes, they need sustainable relationships with retailers and brands. But one thing that often gets overlooked is that we are all consumers. There needs to be the demand for UK manufacturing to succeed and grow. There is a large degree of responsibility with us as consumers, because if there isn’t the demand from Joe Public, then retailers aren’t going to increase their production with UK suppliers.”