In the first of a series profiling UK factories, Drapers visits outerwear brand Lavenham to discover how it is capitalising on the heritage trend
Ah, Mrs Elliot, I would love to have met her,” beams Lavenham managing director Nicky Santomauro. “From what I understand she was one of those great factory matriarchs - she used to walk around the factory floor with a gin and tonic in one hand and a fag in the other.”
Santomauro is walking Drapers around Lavenham’s UK factory. In fact, Drapers is getting the “Princess Anne tour”, the tour given to Her Royal Highness after the company landed a Queen’s Award for International Trade in January 2007.
Lavenham is named after the Suffolk village in which it was founded in 1969 by Mrs Mary Elliot, a keen horse rider who manufactured horse coats. A few years later, Elliot added quilted jackets for people to her offer, to match the quilted horse coats (it seems horse riders like to dress like mini-me versions of their horse). Most of the jackets still feature the traditional two back vents originally designed for the jacket to fit over the back of the saddle. Today sales of outerwear outstrip horse coats by almost 100%.
After various different owners, the Santomauro family bought the business out of receivership in 1995, which had been caused by the brand overselling to the Italian market and failing to meet deliveries and demand, says Santomauro. In the early 1990s, Lavenham had begun exporting to Japan, with the help of its agent Watanabe & Company, and since taking over as managing director Santomauro has been building up the overseas business with 40 accounts in Italy, 18 around the rest of Europe and 200 in Japan. It has 65 in the UK.
“The Japanese market has been very good for us,” she says. “We always had that relationship with Italy and we’d like to get back in favour there. We’ve proved ourselves - we’d never accept an order we couldn’t fulfil.”
Much of the label’s success hinges on Lavenham’s British heritage as overseas customers buy into a bit of Cool Britannia. About 80% of sales are from overseas and Lavenham supports this heritage-led sales story by sourcing as much fabric from the UK as possible.
“We source from some great UK suppliers like Abraham Moon and the Chapman Group for corduroy,” says Santomauro. “It’s important to support the UK industry.”
A series of ultra-cool collaborations, with the likes of Paul Smith and Liberty along with appearances on the London Fashion Week catwalk of Cassette Playa for autumn 11, have found the brand favour with of-the-moment bloggers.
A handy revival of the heritage look in menswear over recent seasons - of which the quilted jacket is a crucial look - has been a bonus and has attracted a new, smart male customer, while, like fellow heritage brands Barbour and Hunter, Lavenham also appeals to Sloane Ranger types, who wear Lavenham jackets for both their sartorial appeal and functionality.
Indie Diffusion, which has four stores in the West Midlands, is a stockist. Its co-owner Carl Peddie says: It’s a great British brand and a nice alternative to Barbour. It’s a nice price and it’s a heritage look that’s very now.” Wholesale prices range from £55 to £80.
Made in the UK
The Lavenham factory feels a long way from London. It’s not exactly surrounded by rolling countryside - in fact, it’s on an industrial estate - but it is only a 10-minute drive from the pretty village of Lavenham. And the factory itself can’t fail to give visitors that warm, fuzzy, patriotic feeling. There are Union Jack flags flying inside and Santomauro herself is committed to flying the flag for British manufacturing.
However, she fears her efforts are going unnoticed. “I’d happily open a training school rather than paying a head hunter to find new machinists, but none of the youngsters are coming in,” she says. “We run a permanent ad on careers website Connexions Direct with poor response. The Government needs to do some crowbarring. We are supporting the economy, yet we have to rely on women from Eastern Europe rather than home-grown skills.”
Like many British brands manufactured in the UK, Lavenham has many long-serving employees. One worker retired in April after working for the company for 34 years, and even though she has left, three generations of her family remain at the factory.
The staff are passionate and committed to producing a quality product by hand, with more than 12 steps going into making a Lavenham quilted jacket. Some 125 staff produce about 2,200 jackets a week, with each jacket taking an average of 46 minutes to make, and every part of the Lavenham jacket is cut and sewn on site; one worker named Polly sews on the pockets, Chris does the over-locking - and has done for 10 years - while Sue binds the hems.
Quality control is done by eye on every garment, rather than during sporadic batch checks, and if any loose hems are flagged the bundle goes back to a machinist. An extensive product archive provides design inspiration, while endless sampling keeps standards high.
It’s clear that running a factory such as this is a huge task. Overheads are sizeable and working with quilting is a challenge. “Because you lose 5% of fabric by making it 3D, it’s a different ball game,” says Santomauro. “When you run it through the quilt machine you lose 5% in length and width.”
Lavenham needs more skilled workers as it is steadily outgrowing its purpose-built premises following a 10% rise in sales last year. Sales over the next couple of years are expected to come from a boost in UK stockists and new product categories. The brand sells in Selfridges and Harvey Nichols, in men’s and women’s departments respectively, but Santomauro would like both stores to take on both categories. Santomauro is also targeting department store Liberty and designer indie Browns in London as potential new stockists.
Due to the nature of its product - outerwear - the bulk of revenue comes during the autumn season, so Lavenham is developing lighter-weight jackets for earlier drops in the spring season. The same attention to detail that is applied to binding a seam at Lavenham will go into launching new products, says Santomauro, and she insists they must be in perfect synergy with the brand. And of course it all must be made in Lavenham. l