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Fashion’s golden triangle

Home to a cluster of the UK’s largest fashion businesses, the Midlands and East Anglia offer some of the country’s best career opportunities.

Essentials

12.2m Population of Midlands and East Anglia area

£563 Total cost of living per household per week*

£196,000 Average house price**

* Includes mortgage/ rent. Source: Office for National Statistics Family Spending Report 2010

** Rightmove House Price Index, May 2011

With the head offices of Next, George at Asda and Sainsbury’s Tu all within 30 minutes of each other in the Midlands, it is no surprise fashion insiders call this area the ‘golden triangle’. Between them, these three fashion businesses employ more than 3,000 people. Many people will move from one to the other throughout their careers, making it one of the most promising areas outside London in terms of job prospects. Other employers in the region include outdoor retailer Blacks Leisure in Northampton and accessories chain Claire’s in Birmingham.

Northampton was traditionally a major manufacturing base for footwear and other leather industries, and the birthplace of quality shoemaker Church’s. Next chose to base its head office in Enderby, near Leicester, in the early 1980s to tap into the existing footwear, garment and knitwear expertise in the region. And when Asda poached George Davies from Next in 1990 to create fashion brand George, he went into business in the same area.

Liam Humphreys, director of recruitment specialist Michael Page Design, says the region is a great place to be, not only because of the businesses there but also because job opportunities further afield are within easy reach. He explains: “With great train links you can easily commute to central London or to more northern-based roles in most cases - so it means much of the UK is available to you.”

Vicki Morisetti, director of recruitment consultancy Talisman, agrees: “There are some substantial companies based in the Midlands. There is definitely scope to develop your career in the area.”

“It’s misguided to think you have to stay in London to progress your career”

Stefan Drexler, senior buyer, Blacks Leisure

Hub of opportunities

Central England, with its road, rail and air links to the rest of the UK and the world, is an obvious location for big-volume fashion brands. Having one central distribution hub is more cost-effective than having warehouses dotted all over the place; it is also useful for staff who have to travel to stores. George, Next and Sainsbury’s Tu, for instance, are close to the shopping havens of Leicester, Nottingham and Birmingham. The M6 and M1 are within easy reach, making London accessible in less than two hours.

Another factor that has boosted the industry in this part of the country is the well-respected fashion, clothing and textile courses at local universities De Montfort in Leicester and Nottingham Trent. Students are attracted to the area because of these, creating a natural talent pool for local fashion businesses.

Stefan Drexler, senior buyer at Blacks Leisure, has worked in fashion for 14 years, including six at Next as a menswear buyer. He says: “It’s misguided to think you have to stay in London to progress your career. The reality is that fashion is fashion. It doesn’t matter where you are based.”

Clearly, living in the capital makes life easier for buyers and designers who want to be close to the competition, but some argue that inspiration can come from a myriad of different sources. For instance, a major trend for Claire’s at the moment is teen pop sensation Justin Bieber, says its European merchandiser Roy Fielding. He explains: “We are very much a high street brand and we do innovative products. The high street is the high street across the UK.”

For merchandisers in particular, location is even less of an issue than for buyers and designers. “As long as you have decent computer systems you can be based anywhere,” says Fielding.

People who work in this region tend to have experience in more product areas than in the capital. Humphreys explains: “Given the large supplierbase in the Midlands, combined with several large-volume retail businesses, we find that clients are more flexible about designers, especially those covering multiple product areas or moving from, say, womenswear to kidswear, provided they are strong designers with knowledge of the relevant consumer groups.”

For Drexler, this has proved to be a bonus. Although he has spent most of his career as a menswear buyer, he is currently heading up buying of camping and outdoor equipment at Blacks. He wanted to try something new and become more of a rounded individual. “If you are a good buyer, these skills are really transferrable. Blacks took that view with me. It is like picking up a new range. You just have to get to grips with the customer profile,” he says.

George at Asda is another example of a business that encourages people to move around. Staff will typically spend time in other parts of the group, either at Asda or overseas, working for parent company Walmart. One senior buyer at George says: “There is huge potential to learn new things and to progress your career. It is also good for business because people learn from other parts of the company.”

Training and development takes precedence at George. Brand director Fiona Lambert says: “Nurturing creative talent and investing in the skills of our colleagues is one of our biggest priorities. All our colleagues have access to seven different accredited academy training programmes and various skills sessions.” This year the company also launched a degree programme, allowing students to study towards a fully funded Retail degree at Manchester Metropolitan University while taking up salaried positions at George headquarters.

Fresh fields

A number of manufacturers and smaller brands are also located in the region. Hosiery manufacturer Courtaulds, which supplies Marks & Spencer, is based in Belper, Derbyshire, while quilted jackets brand Lavenham is in East Anglia, in the heart of the Suffolk countryside.

Lavenham managing director Nicky Santomauro says production roles are the hardest to recruit for. “Youngsters don’t want to work in factories any more,” she says. She admits that being more than an hour and a half away from London can be tricky, as it makes some meetings and market research a “bit of a trek”. But she says this is outweighed by the positives of being in the countryside. The factory is set on the edge of an industrial estate with views of fields as far as the eye can see. There is also an office labrador - meetings are often held while walking the dog.

Relocating to the Midlands or East Anglia from London is often seen as easier than moving to the Southwest or the North. Its central location, while good for business, can be just as good for people’s personal lives. It’s easy to visit friends and family wherever they are in the country and there is plenty to enjoy outside of work: pretty towns include Leamington Spa in Warwickshire and Shrewsbury in Shropshire; Leicestershire has Watermead Country Park, a tranquil nature reserve set around 12 different lakes that is perfect for cycling, picnics and sailing; and there is buzzing nightlife in Birmingham, Leicester and Nottingham. And because the commute to London is so easy, there is nothing stopping people going back if things don’t work out.

At the centre of the industry and the country

George at Asda

Value retailer

Location Lutterworth, Leicestershire

Number of head office staff 500

Departments at head office Buying, merchandising, marketing, logistics. Design is based in London

Perks Flexible working hours, private medical cover

Next

High street retailer

Location Enderby, Leicestershire

Number of head office staff 2,000

Departments at head office Marketing, finance, IT, buying, design, merchandising, property

Perks Free bus service, staff bonus depending on company performance

Sainsbury’s Tu

Value retailer

Location Coventry

Number of head office staff 460 staff at Sainsbury’s non-food headquarters (of whom 180 are from Tu).

Departments at head office Buying, merchandising, design, support teams

Perks Bonus scheme, flexible working hours

Claire’s

High street accessories retailer

Location Coventry

Number of head office staff 200

Departments at head office Merchandising, visual merchandising, buying, store operations, legal, accounts, human resources. Design is based in the US

Perks Free summer barbecue and afternoon off for staff. Christmas party for employees’ children

Lavenham

Outerwear brand

Location Lavenham, Suffolk

Number of head office staff 125

Departments at head office Sales, finance, design, merchandising, human resources, manufacturing

Perks The office labrador

Blacks Leisure

Outdoor retailer

Location Northampton

Number of head office staff 300

Departments at head office Buying, merchandising, finance, IT, human resourcs, ecommerce, marketing, logistics

Perks 30% discount in all stores

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