Mary Portas insists the time is right for retailers, the Government and consumers to work together and create a new fashion manufacturing base in the UK.
Myra Parnell was stacking shelves in Tesco in December last year when she got a call from her ex-boss at a local factory in Manchester’s industrial suburb of Middleton, saying she could have her old job back.
The skilled machinist was one of thousands of highly trained UK clothing workers laid off by factory bosses in the late 1980s, when orders from high street retailers began to move to cheaper factories in the Far East. Factory boss Lynn Birkbeck recalls as “heartbreaking” the day she had to call in her workers and tell them.
“It was absolutely soul destroying having to make people redundant,” she says. “We’d worked with these people for 40 years and had to tell them we were stopping production at the factory, because every time we went to see a customer they wanted the prices cheaper and cheaper and it wasn’t viable any more.”
Now, more than 20 years later, Birkbeck’s factory has become the focus for a new chapter in UK manufacturing, thanks in part to retail guru Mary Portas, who has turned her attention to underwear, launching to market a new ‘Made in Britain’ brand called Kinky Knickers that is being produced at the Middleton factory.
But while Portas’s critics will dismiss the move as a publicity stunt, the outspoken former visual merchandiser, who started out creating window displays for Harvey Nichols, sees it as a way of highlighting the wider potential for the UK. She tells Drapers: “Much more than producing clothes, we lost people’s jobs, we lost families, we lost a sense of purpose and we lost a generation who could create in this country – in fact we probably lost a couple of generations.”
So what’s changed? Portas believes that a combination of global economic change, people’s new-found love of heritage brands and consumer patriotism means the UK has the potential to bring back manufacturing. “I believe there is a window of opportunity. But I think we have got only about 10 years to do this in,” she says, referring to the decade or so before many of the former skilled manufacturing workers reach retirement age and are too old to teach the new generation. “I think it’s a good time to do this because of the recession. In the boom years we bought anything and everything and we bought lots of cheap stuff that ended up in landfill and we thought cheap was value. Now I think we have a consumer that is thinking about the new value – they want something that has greater meaning to their lives at a reasonable price. And when I think of those qualities I genuinely think of Britain.”
So what began as a project for her TV show, Mary’s Bottom Line, has highlighted a broader issue that is critical to the UK fashion industry and seems to be gaining support. “This is using the power of the media to do something for this country,” says Portas. “I hope we will see factory after factory coming back to the UK and I think we can do this. I just happen to be in the public eye and probably do things a bit louder than others. And bloody good if that gets attention.”
There certainly seems to be some momentum building behind the issue. At the launch of London Fashion Week, Sir Philip Green called for government and industry support for the green shoots of the re-emerging UK manufacturing trade, though he caveated his own commitment to the venture by saying the UK had to be realistic about the scale it could achieve.
Green said: “We already manufacture in the UK but what has happened is that, with pricing and speed to market, people want to see if we can make it work in the UK if we have more capacity. It’s still small in context, and you can’t build a factory in 10 minutes, so we have to look at areas that are sustainable.” He also committed to extending his own Fashion Retail Academy’s remit to include the skills needed to plug the gap on the manufacturing side.
And with the pound now at one of its all-time lows against foreign currencies such as the yuan (Chinese currency), the financial model that supported the relocation of our manufacturing to China no longer holds true. So, while we are unlikely to have the space for the economies of scale that allow China to produce millions of tons of fabric and clothing at rock-bottom prices, the global recession has certainly unbalanced the import/export equation and significantly narrowed the gap between UK and Chinese manufacturing costs. In short, it is now economically viable to produce clothing here in the UK provided the British public is willing to pay a premium to buy it.
But can any real capacity be provided here? Portas thinks so. “In terms of consumer spend you’ve had the very cheap at one end and the very luxury at the other. We’ve lost that solid middle market that is Britain,” she says.
“I don’t think it’s any coincidence that great brands such as John Lewis are doing well because they stand for something that is about trust, good service, good value and nice people.”
So are those who say the UK will only ever play a small part in the manufacturing sector wrong? “A small part of what, though?” says Portas, throwing up her hands in exasperation. “What the hell are they on about? I’ve got a middle-market brand and I reckon we can easily do this. Who said it would be a small part? Imagine all the talent that comes out of this country. Why can’t we create brands and sell them globally? All that cheap value clothing? Keep it offshore! Let China have it! Let them have the sweatshops! We don’t want that. We want to launch good, sustainable businesses.”
At first she thought it wasn’t possible to have that volume manufactured in the UK, she says. “But now I think we will. We will never be value but we can certainly do luxury here. And I know some of the designers already do – Erdem [Moralioglu] was telling me he does – but I also think we can do mid-market too. Really good mid-market, brilliant, branded British products.”
There are brands already doing just that. While researching the show, Portas looked at other UK companies building similar brands and is confident there is a precedent. “Yesterday I went to the Cambridge Satchel Company – a wonderful business started on a kitchen table with £600 by a mother and daughter, and five years down the line they are selling globally and I thought, ‘I’m not mad. Someone else has done this,’” she says. But as well as consumers embracing UK brands, Portas believes the major retailers need to pledge to buy a certain proportion of their stock from British factories.
“I started off going to the retailers,” she says. “I rang them up and said, ‘Listen guys, you make all these millions of items offshore, give us a bit of that business.’ And they said ‘No’. So I looked at it a different way and said if we could create a brand that people wanted then the manufacturing would come on the back of it.
“I’d love the big retailers to say they are going to put a percentage in here – to take a percentage of their manufacture and bring it back to the UK. They can do that, tomorrow, at the drop of a hat. Do it while we still have an opportunity and put us back in the race.” She is also advocating a return to the days when royal warrants were extremely valuable within our export markets and believes that, with the spotlight on the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, the newly fledged fashion icon Princess Kate can do just that.
“I was going through my house the other day thinking about what I had that is British and looking at all the royal warrants that say ‘By Appointment…’. When I was at Harvey Nichols those were really important symbols, where the Queen Mother had backed a brand that globally everybody recognised. We need someone like Kate to back the modern version of that.” The post-recession consumer is the perfect person to support that type of heritage product, she adds.
“We have to learn something from the crash. We had all that greed, so tomorrow has to be about giving and putting people at the centre of what we do. The tactics of profit over people are why some big brands are not doing the money they thought they would do. We can develop brands that have power and meaning and that people want worldwide.
“The Kinky Knickers brand, for example – Liberty didn’t put them in the store out of charity. Those are unique, they are sexy, they have a story to go with them, they are great quality and people bought into that.”
The Government has its part to play, says Portas, whose controversial role in the ongoing high street review has raised eyebrows in the retail sector. “Its about developing the future – when I look at the high street review the thing I’d say to the Government is you must give an opportunity for the new to grow, and stop harping on about the big businesses that give us security now. We need to develop tomorrow.
It’s like being in a capitalist society without any capitalists – we need new businesses.
“The message is that we can. And to those people who have an idea and a dream I say we can set up an infrastructure to make that happen. You wouldn’t believe what talent comes out of the woodwork. It’s mind-blowing.”