Demand for British heritage products continues to grow, but their niche positioning means a return to mass manufacturing is still a distant dream
Since the recession, interest in brands and products with a UK provenance and heritage has increased, both at home and overseas. As a result, more brands have embraced their roots and traded on the ‘authenticity’ of their Made in Britain story.
The story continued to appeal to global buyers at the 88th edition of Pitti Immagine Uomo in Florence on June 16-19. The 93 UK exhibitors, including contemporary casualwear brand Universal Works, outerwear specialist Grenfell and heritage knitter Jamieson’s of Shetland, enjoyed strong interest from US, Japanese and Canadian buyers.
Back on these shores, British-only sourcing events have emerged over the past two years to satisfy demand for Made in the UK products. The most recent, Best of Britannia (June 26-28), welcomed more than 300 businesses including shoemaker Joseph Cheaney & Sons, lifestyle clothing label Born British and sock manufacturer Pantherella.
Earlier in the month, Meet the Manufacturer on June 3-4 doubled in size for 2015 to accommodate 100 exhibitors from across the fashion and textile industries, such as men’s ties and tailoring firm Drake’s and wax fabric producer British Millerain. More than 3,000 brands, retailers, buyers and manufacturers attended the two-day show, and its founder Kate Hills said there was a growing realisation among visitors and exhibitors of the need to invest in British manufacturing.
This view was shared by the conference’s keynote speaker Patrick Grant, director of Savile Row tailor Norton & Sons and menswear label E Tautz. Grant argued big that retailers need to make British manufacturing a fundamental part of their business in order to help grow the sector from a “cottage industry”.
“Large retailers need to stop thinking of British manufacturing as a romantic add-on to their sourcing and start thinking of it as a fundamental part of their business,” said Grant. “We need to turn small manufacturers into big players and fill towns with jobs. This will come from developing long-term partnerships between the retailer and manufacturer.”
The dream of a return to large-scale UK clothing manufacturing, however, took a hit on June 25, when it was announced that the nation’s last large-scale tailoring manufacturer Cheshire Bespoke had filed for insolvency after Marks & Spencer “significantly reduced” orders for its Best of British collection. First launched for autumn 13, suits in the BoB range retail for £699. It is understood that Marks & Spencer does not intend to move the manufacture of the range elsewhere.
Cheshire Bespoke managing director Robin Philpott confirmed it was exploring external investment in an effort to minimise job losses among the 85 staff at its factory in Crewe.
Only three weeks earlier M&S head of innovation and quality Simon Colbeck spoke out in support of UK manufacturing at the Meet the Manufacturer conference: “The UK is the seventh biggest supplier to M&S and we use a number of significant UK manufacturers in our supply chain, particularly in hosiery. Essentially it’s all about customer choice, so we need to offer UK products to our customers. UK manufacturing offers speed to market, as well as unique or bespoke products with a heritage story,” he said.
Fellow speaker Simon Berwin, managing director of suit manufacturer Berwin & Berwin, based in Leeds, was more sceptical about the relationship between UK manufacturers and high street retailers. “Multiple retailers don’t want to talk about ethical prices, they just chase margins all the time. We need to accept that the UK is good at niche manufacturing, but mass manufacturing won’t work.”
Lorna Fitzsimons, director of the Alliance Project, which was set up in 2011 to promote textile manufacturing in northwest England, agreed at the conference that a future based on volume manufacturing would be “questionable”, arguing that the UK’s strength in niche production should not be overlooked.
This opinion is shared by Oliver Spencer, founder of the eponymous menswear brand, who when speaking at a recent Drapers breakfast event agreed that niche is beautiful: “I only manufacture in the UK if this means I can create the best product available. Most of the factories in the UK are underinvested, but the niche mills that are left have never been busier.”
The issues at Cheshire Bespoke have thrown into sharp relief British producers’ difficulty in competing with the harsh margins and ferocious overseas competition in mass manufacturing. In contrast, niche manufacturers such as weavers Harris Tweed in the Hebrides and Linton Tweeds in Carlisle or leather specialist Joseph Clayton & Sons of Chesterfield have capitalised on their unique skills, especially in the export market, and continue to ride the crest of the Made in Britain wave.