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Bennett: UK skills are key to growth

Industry veterans Maurice Bennett and Simon Berwin have thrown their support behind Drapers’ SOS [Save Our Skills] campaign, claiming education in grassroots skills is essential if the UK fashion industry is to grow overseas.

Bennett, who with his brother Michael rose to retail fame with the Oasis, Warehouse, Coast and Phase Eight chains, some of which they set up, others they bought and sold, and who now controls Kookaï UK and specialist retailer Long Tall Sally through private equity vehicle Amery Capital, said: “We [the UK] are one of the biggest exporters of fashion worldwide. We don’t export product all the time, but we are exporting [retail fascias] like Topshop. Even if we manufacture overseas, we still need to retain technical skills in this country if we are to manage that [overseas growth].

“Everyone is talking the right language now, saying how important it is that we as a country create jobs, but it wasn’t that long ago

that textiles was the fifth largest [UK] export in the world. We let it go but [we are also in a situation] where, with the proper strategy, we could win a lot of that [export industry] back.”

Meanwhile, Simon Berwin, managing director of menswear supplier Berwin & Berwin, has called on retailers to invest more in the technical fabrication of product rather than relentlessly pursuing margin. “If we don’t, then there won’t be any new British designers like Paul Smith and Paul Costelloe coming through,” he said.

Their comments came as London Fashion Week got into full swing, with the overarching aim of showcasing UK fashion to a global audience, and as more brands, manufacturers and retailers indicated plans to strengthen their UK talent pools.

In particular:

  • Graduate Fashion Week (GFW) has broadened its remit to include skills such as garment technology, pattern cutting and product development, in addition to its mainstay of fashion design. GFW and its sponsor George at Asda said government ministers were “enthusiastic that more emphasis … should be on the whole business of fashion,” and to show graduates there are many careers within the fashion industry other than straightforward fashion design.
  • Luxury handbag and accessories brand Mulberry has increased production capacity at its Somerset factory by 30% over the past year, and is considering opening a new UK factory. Chief executive Godfrey Davis said: “We’re just starting to talk about that. We produce 30% of our handbags in the UK. With the growth, it’s been very difficult to keep up with the pace.”
  • Manchester manufacturer Cooper & Stollbrand said it planned to increase its staff by at least 30% and open a new production line in order to meet growing demand. It has also launched a Cooper & Stollbrand for Selfridges outerwear brand in the premium department store.
  • Long Tall Sally, the specialist womenswear chain of which Bennett is chairman, has increased UK production and claims it is its UK design base that is fuelling overseas demand, particularly in the US. “It’s small numbers at the moment - maybe 1% or 2% [of our total production base] - but that’s from a zero base so it’s a huge increase in percentage terms, and this sort of thing could snowball,” Bennett said.
  • On Tuesday, Berwin & Berwin launched the Berwin & Berwin Suit Academy at the John Lewis internal menswear conference, with the aim of training sales staff at John Lewis in how men’s suiting is made. The scheme will be made available to other major retailers of Berwin & Berwin product in the autumn.

Tens of UK manufacturers and staff working at high street giants such as Marks & Spencer have contacted Drapers to express their support for the SOS campaign to preserve education of grassroots garment production skills (Your Say, p8), and to highlight emerging British-made brands (see box, right).

Manufacturers also shared their individual experiences of staff shortages and many have also requested to participate in the open day and debate Drapers is holding with the UK Fashion & Textile Association on March 10.

“How pleased am I at finally reading what I feel is so accurate about what is happening in this country with regards to skill shortages and the awareness of it,” was a typical manufacturer response.

Bennett told Drapers he was particularly “upset and angered” by the news that De Montfort University had axed its Fashion Technology BSc, and he has requested to join third-year student representative Kerry Richmond, an employee of Long Tall Sally, at a meeting with vice-chancellor Dominic Shellard. The joint meeting proposal has so far been declined by Shellard.

To share your thoughts or join in the open day, email Katherine.rushton@emap.comwith SOS in the subject line

New businesses aiming to be best of British

By Ruth Faulkner

Why three new fashion businesses chose to manufacture in the UK:

La Mack London

La Mack London, which launched about eight months ago, is a British brand producing trend-led high-end waterproof outerwear. All pieces

are designed in the UK and manufactured in a factory in London. “There is a misconception that UK manufacturing is much more expensive than going abroad, but for a high-end product, once you factor in travel costs and everything else there really isn’t that much in it,” said founder Fiona Scott.


New premium womenswear brand Gallery4 is fronted by UK fashion graduates Louise Rhodes and Amy Moreton, and backed by an undisclosed UK supplier. It will soon be available to buy via Asos Boutique. Rhodes and Moreton do all the design and pattern cutting and are working with a factory in Kentish Town, north London. Rhodes said: “We had a lot of interest at [trade show] Pure because people liked that we were manufactured in the UK.”

Jane & Marilyn

Premium womenswear etailer Jane & Marilyn launched this month with the support of British textiles as part of its market positioning. It manufactures all product and sources 80% of fabric - usually pure wool, silk or cotton - in the UK. Jane & Marilyn founder Jane Foddy said: “I think when people are investing in a piece they will wear for a long time, provenance becomes all the more important to them.”

Industry must pull together to put UK manufacturing on the map

The response to Drapers’ SOS campaign has been overwhelming. Companies, ranging from the fashion giants to one-man bands, have contacted Drapers to tell us how a lack of grassroots skills in garment production is affecting their businesses. Factories have

the orders but are unable to find the staff to meet them. Brands and retailers that want to relocate more production to the UK don’t know how to find reliable manufacturers.

The picture is very fragmented, but a number of manufacturers have surfaced in central London, and we have heard whispers of new factories opening around the country - we will keep chasing the details. There is also talk of opportunities in UK cities with large Asian populations, where there are high levels of unemployment but the population is highly skilled.

We hope that a meeting of UK manufacturers, to be held by Drapers and the UK Fashion & Textiles Association on March 10, will help to create a fuller picture by introducing brands and retailers to manufacturers, and establish the next steps in lobbying the Government for support in education. We want De Montfort University to backtrack on its decision to axe its Fashion Technology BSc and there is also potential to beef up apprenticeships and postgraduate apprenticeships.

Katherine Rushton Deputy editor, Drapers

Drapers intends to take a dossier of evidence to its meeting with Ed Vaizey about how a skills shortage is impending manufacturing growth. Comment on this article with your experiences or email them to with SOS in the subject line.

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