UK manufacturing champions argue that our decision to leave the European Union could lead to a boom in demand for Made in Britain product. But is this depleted industry up to it?
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UK manufacturing is on the cusp of a revival. The industry suffered a near-fatal blow after high street retailers started to move production offshore in the 1980s, but a report from the UK Fashion & Textile Association (UKFT) this summer revealed a 7.6% increase in the number of UK companies manufacturing textiles and clothing over the past year.
This budding renaissance has been driven by the rising cost of overseas production, particularly in China, and an increased need for flexibility in supply chains. And now that the UK has voted to leave the European Union, optimists believe demand for local manufacturing will grow.
N Brown Group and young fashion chain Glamorous are among those that have already expressed an interest in sourcing more from the UK. They will join Jigsaw, which already sources part of its collections from the UK.
“We’re budgeting to use UK suppliers for the first time, so we can get to market even faster and help manage currency fluctuations,” says Aneira Wood, senior buyer at Glamorous.
“Since the Brexit vote, the number of enquiries we’ve had from some really big players has gone through the roof,” confirms Jenny Holloway, director of Fashion Enter, a factory in north London that produces up to 7,500 garments, mostly ladieswear, a week for retailers such as Asos and Marks & Spencer.
If we’re talking high street retailers, there isn’t the capacity to take on that kind of level
UKFT chief executive Adam Mansell
However, the manufacturing industry has been decimated since the 1970s and 1980s. Around 100,000 people are now employed by the UK’s clothing and textile industry. This is the highest number since 2007, but is still dramatically less than the early 1970s, when it provided jobs for more than 1 million people.
Factories no longer have the capacity for volume manufacturing, so meeting any boom in demand will be far from easy. UKFT chief executive Adam Mansell warns that, whatever the impact of Brexit, a return to home-grown manufacturing’s heyday is unlikely.
“The UK might be able to meet demand from mid-sized brands who aren’t going to want tens of thousands of garments, but if we’re talking high street retailers, then no, there isn’t the capacity to take on that kind of level,” he explains. “There are definitely things we can grow, but there needs to be an element of reality around the idea that we can do everything.”
Retailers’ good intentions are often lost among the day-to-day pressures of running businesses in a challenging environment, adds Holloway. She says those looking to manufacture in the UK need to shake-up their approach to sourcing.
“The problem is converting enquires [about UK manufacturing] into a commitment. Retailers are just so busy and have their heads down engaging with existing suppliers.”
She adds: “Retailers also need a new mentality. If the whole ethos is about quickly turning around garments in three weeks, and there are fabric guys in Leicester who can do you any print in five days, you can’t have buyers having to go through layers and layers of management before a decision gets made.”
The problem is converting enquires [about UK manufacturing] into a commitment
Jenny Holloway, director of Fashion Enter
Wood adds that although Glamorous is still in the early stages of sourcing from the UK, the young fashion brand plans to be as open as possible with suppliers to help manage concerns around capacity: ”We’ll be working with a few key partners closely, being up front with them about how much business we’re looking to do and having as open a relationship as possible.”
There is more the government could do to help UK manufacturing meet demand, Mansell argues, such as reforming the tax and rates regime, introducing rent discounts to help counteract the rising costs of running factories, and offering more help with exporting.
Both Mansell and Kate Hills, founder of Make it British, an organisation that promotes home-grown suppliers and hosts annual sourcing event Meet the Manufacturer, agree that making manufacturing an attractive career is at the heart of increasing the UK’s capacity.
“We need to go into schools and universities to tell them about the opportunities and stress it’s a well-paid, long-term sustainable job,” says Mansell.
Some manufacturers are leading the charge. Hills points to London-based factory Albion Knitting, whose high-profile client list, which includes Alexander McQueen, See by Chloé and Givenchy, has attracted a young and enthusiastic workforce.
Womenswear etailer David Nieper, which manufactures and dispatches orders from its Derbyshire headquarters, launched a sewing school last year to pass on specialist skills on to a younger generation. Managing director Christopher Nieper tells Drapers the company has had around 1,200 applicants for jobs over the past year.
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For retailers who do manufacture in the UK, a “made in Britain” label has become a valuable point of difference in a crowded market. Premium menswear label Private White VC uses a “made in Manchester” message to help promote the brand, inviting customers to tour its 100-year-old factory.
Private White VC managing director Mike Stoll argues that tighter labelling laws would help to boost UK manufacturing: “Often, brands who don’t manufacture in the UK use phrases like ‘London’ or ‘Savile Row-inspired’ in their marketing, and consumers think they’re buying a British brand,” he says. “That defeats businesses like ours, which are paying higher costs to manufacture here.”
Cost is one of the biggest hurdles standing in the way of UK manufacturing. Nieper admits that manufacturing in the UK is more expensive – but he adds that producing at home allows retailers to be more nimble and keep tighter control over stock, saving costs in the long run.
“It might cost £15 to make something in China but £40 to make it here,” he explains. “But if you have even one [of the garments made abroad] left on the shelf, you’ve wasted that money. If you make it here and have none left, you’re more than compensated for the higher production costs. When retailers look at margins, they have to take into account the amount they discount to move excess stock.”
Encouraging more UK retailers to bring production home and ensuring that the industry can meet demand if they do is not an easy task. Innovative manufacturers are taking steps to encourage a new wave of workers to step in to the skills gap but UK manufacturing still has a long way to go before it could meet increased demand.
- To read Drapers Interview with Christopher Nieper, click here.
- To read Drapers survey on what the fashion industry wants from Brexit, click here
- Read The Drapers Interview with Private White VC’s James Eden