Drapers and the UKFT invited UK manufacturers to debate the challenges they face and potential solutions that could be offered.
There is a subtle sense of irony when a group of UK fashion manufacturers discussing one of the industry’s biggest challenges - a skills shortage due to an ageing workforce - has been brought together by none other than a young, enthusiastic fashion student.
Leicester’s De Montfort University fashion technology student Kerry Richmond’s plea to Drapers to help her fight the closure of her course next year - one of the most respected of its kind in the industry - led Drapers to launch its SOS campaign and hold a meeting of leading UK manufacturers at the UK Fashion & Textile Association (UKFT) in London last week.
Some 35 representatives from UK manufacturing attended the event to discuss the challenges facing the sector. Despite an urgent need to address some key problems, attendees were united by a passion to nurture an industry in a country that was once one of the world’s largest exporters of fashion.
“It fills me with sadness that we have lost the skills base we used to have that made us the fifth-largest exporter [of fashion in the world] for many years. If we don’t support it, we’re going to give away the last little bit we have left,” said retail entrepreneur Maurice Bennett, who with his brother Michael rose to retail fame with the Oasis, Warehouse, Coast and Phase Eight chains, and who now controls Kookaï UK and specialist retailer Long Tall Sally through private equity vehicle Amery Capital.
“I haven’t employed an English seamstress in 10 years,” said Carl Bromley, co-director of womenswear manufacturer Sienna Couture. Lee Dawson, managing director of military uniform specialist Samuel Brothers, echoed his sentiments, adding: “We have a huge recruitment problem and our workforce is at the wrong end of their working life. I’m not convinced that colleges are steering their students in the right direction.”
So dire is the situation that Simon Cook, sales director at premium manufacturer Vertical Garments, said: “Selfishly, I’m glad [the older workforce] can’t afford to retire. We need to force universities to demonstrate the employability of the [technical] courses [they offer].”
Certainly, shutting down a degree course that equips students with exactly those technical skills supports Dawson and Cook’s opinions, as does Richmond’s own views of her university. “[De Montford] feels that there isn’t a need for technical training, which is ridiculous,” she said.
According to UKFT chief executive Adam Mansell, the trade body’s online directory of UK fashion manufacturers, Let’s Make it Here, receives 40 hits a day. “They’re looking for high-end CMTs, for manufacturers of men’s shirts, of men’s T-shirts - they’re looking for the services the people in this room are providing,” he said.
Lack of technical support
So, the demand is there, but Richmond is in a minority as a young person interested in the technical side of the industry. The allure of international catwalk shows and the fame of big-name designers like Alexander McQueen, Matthew Williamson, Vivienne Westwood and Stella McCartney means that many of today’s young fashion students want to be in the limelight - but only as designers.
“We have an over-supply of design graduates without the technical, operations and manufacturing skills,” said Jamie Petrie, manager of the fashion and textiles sector at skills agency Skillset. To be precise, the UK has 5,000 design graduates a year, a “scary” statistic, according to Mansell, when the supply will not come close to meeting such demand.
As a result, Terry Mansfield, chairman of Graduate Fashion Week, which represents 63 universities in the UK, is concerned that they are “not harnessing” what the industry needs. “The amount of talent we have, the focus that these students have, it doesn’t make sense that they can’t get jobs, that they can’t even get interviews,” he said. “One in five 18- to 25-year-olds can’t get a job, but you [the manufacturers in attendance] are all saying that you can’t get tomorrow’s talent. There may need to be some readjustment in higher education.”
He’s right, because UK manufacturers are looking for multi-talented staff. “Staff need to be multi-skilled,” said Priscilla Liu, director of The English Belt & Leather Goods Company. “There is no room for people who say, ‘I don’t cut leather, I paint leather’.”
Money, too, is a problem. Starting salaries in UK fashion factories are low and, while those manufacturers present at last week’s meeting reported buoyant trading, it’s still a long way from UK fashion manufacturing’s heyday.
“When we started [in 1956] we had 200 staff; now we have 18,” said David King, managing director of premium soft tailoring manufacturer Gloria Fashions. “We’re seeing a return to UK manufacturing, but when 90% of our customers deserted us [to source abroad], they left us with a huge gap. They’re now coming back, but to a depleted market. We can only afford to pay [workers] £6 to £7 per hour, whereas you can earn £9 per hour stacking shelves at Tesco. We need the big boys to come back.”
What the industry also needs, according to the delegates, is more apprenticeships, so that young people receive hands-on training and an accurate picture of what it’s like to work in this part of the fashion industry.
“We worked with Newham College to create a course that was just right for us,” said Anda Rowland, vice-chairman of Savile Row tailor Anderson & Sheppard. “[The students] go on a rotation with different Savile Row tailors, and now we have a really good supply [of apprentices]. We’ve had to invest £120k [collectively] for seven apprenticeships, but we know that they [the apprentices] want to do this.” Rowland adds that starting salaries are low - from £13k - but senior cutters can earn as much as £120k.
“Graduates expect to walk out on a starting salary of £25k,” said Dawson. “They need to get their hands dirty first. It’s a huge investment for a small company to invest in training. We need more joined-up thinking.”
Premium manufacturer Fox Brothers’ PR manager Cass Stainton added: “Graduates have so much debt that they don’t want to take up apprenticeships. Jack Wills is going to work with us to help find [and finance] these graduates, because we can only cover their costs.”
But, with an alumnus that includes Alexander McQueen and salaries that can scale the heights of £120k, technical jobs in fashion could still be an attractive proposition, if only the industry knew how to PR itself better.
Petrie said UK manufacturing needs to address its image, that it’s “not sexy enough”, while consultancy The Scaphan Network founding partner Russell Hammond believes we need to do a “PR job” on getting talent into the industry, and argued factory floor skills and gaps in university courses were two separate issues. “A graduate is not going to want to be a machinist for the next 30 years. The people here need staff with practical skills,” he says, adding that the camaraderie within these factories is one of their selling points.
But it was Jack Gordon, founder of Silver Hammer Public Affairs - which campaigns for UK manufacturing and represents sports footwear brand New Balance - who arguably came up with the most influential way of attracting talent to the sector - television.
“People want to be chefs now because of television,” he said, alluding to the numerous cooking programmes by celebrity chefs like Jamie Oliver, Nigella Lawson and Gordon Ramsay. “It’s the most influential medium. We need a headline programme that will promote and project what’s best about British manufacturing.”
Gordon added that one effect of a recession is a sense of national pride, of wanting to help preserve as many domestic jobs as possible. “This is the positive side of nationalism. Now is the time to be beating the drum for British manufacturing, to be part of our Great British heritage,” he said, to applause from attendees.
Constraints on growth
But attracting talent by promoting the industry is one thing; growing it sustainably is another.
“What happens when we get them [the UK retailers] back [as customers]?” asked Sital Punja, commercial director of menswear and womenswear manufacturer for the premium and value markets Toumazi & Co. “We use very traditional methods; we still cut by hand. We want to digitalise and upscale our business. But we need capital investment support from the Government [to do this]. The banks say to us, ‘You have your overdraft - that’s it’.”
Outerwear specialist London Tradition managing director Rob Huson agreed. “Business is good at the moment, but controlled expansion is an issue,” he said. “As the pound gets stronger again, how do you grow your business without [retailers] going abroad again?” asked Cook.
Overseas expansion is also another route for growth, for which UK manufacturers need financial assistance. Liu said there is a huge demand from Asia for ‘made in Britain’ products, but she is struggling to grow her business to be able to supply the demand. “We’re trying to become a modern company, to train people to be multi-skilled, to update machinery, but the local councils will do nothing for you,” she said.
Many of the attendees believed that retailers have a huge role to play in facilitating the growth of UK manufacturing. Cook said that “it’s all about the retailers giving you the margins”, while knitwear manufacturer Jack Masters director Snahal Patel said that the likes of New Look and Primark are “ruining the market”.
“How can they sell T-shirts for £6? The yarn costs £2.70, then you have the labour costs,” Patel added. “There needs to be greater understanding between the retailer and the manufacturer. If you negotiate [for a garment] at £12, [the retailer] then asks you if they can have it for £10. They’re still squeezing you.”
And this squeeze on payment terms only exacerbates the squeeze on costs and cash flow issues.
Unsurprisingly, Punja said that this attitude is “encouraging sweatshops to grow in the UK”.
More transparency needed
Last November, a Channel 4 Dispatches documentary exposed retailers including New Look and Peacocks as using manufacturers that sub-contracted work to UK sweatshops, aggravating the squeeze on prices for responsible UK manufacturers, which have called for a scheme to guarantee the quality of the supply chain. As Patel put it: “[The advent of social media means] you can see what your best friend’s girlfriend is doing, so why can’t I see what’s going on in these factories?”
As a result, Bromley said one of his biggest challenges is convincing clients he “won’t stitch them up because of bad service they have received elsewhere”.
It was left to menswear supplier Berwin & Berwin’s late-arriving managing director Simon Berwin to sum up the situation. “The only way for [a return to UK manufacturing] to work is to get retail behind it,” he said, adding that he bought German menswear brand Bäumler specifically for the expertise of its six German suit technicians. Another attendee said that Vivienne Westwood almost exclusively hires German staff for their technical knowhow.
What’s certain is that UK manufacturers have the passion and drive to try - and to try their damned hardest - to get the rest of the industry behind them. They need your voice too.
Voices from the industry
“We have a huge recruitment problem. I’m not convinced that colleges are steering students in the right direction”
Lee Dawson, managing director, Samuel Brothers
“I’m glad [older staff] can’t afford to retire. Universities need to demonstrate employability of the [technical] courses”
Simon Cook, sales director, Vertical Garments
“We want to digitalise and upscale our business. But we need support from Government. The banks say, ‘You have your overdraft - that’s it’”
Sital Punja, commercial director, Toumazi & Co
“When we started [in 1956] we had 200 staff; now we have 18”
David King, managing director, Gloria Fashions