Eight years after halting UK manufacturing, it’s all systems go again for Headen & Quarmby - with a little help from Mary Portas.
The phone has been ringing off the hook, it’s gone absolutely mad,” says a weary David Moore, managing director of Headen & Quarmby, the manufacturer behind Mary Portas’s Kinky Knickers brand.
It’s the morning after the Channel 4 premiere of Mary’s Bottom Line when Drapers visits the Middleton, Greater Manchester-based textiles manufacturer, which produces sleepwear and unstructured underwear for customers such as Marks & Spencer, Bhs, John Lewis and House of Fraser. “We’ve already taken orders for 30,000 knickers, and this morning Liberty committed to another 10,000 pairs off the back of the programme,” says Moore, rubbing his eyes.
Headen & Quarmby has been thrust into the limelight by the programme, which sees Portas work alongside the manufacturer to produce a range of British-made knickers in an attempt to claw back some of the manufacturing lost to cheaper producers in China.
Milling about are the 14 apprentices hired to produce the knickers - six of them newly recruited due to demand - while the clatter of the machines from the sewing room floor fills the factory. “We’re just so proud of them, they’ve been fantastic and the atmosphere is completely different,” says Moore’s aunt and factory production manager Lynn Birkbeck, as she passes by. Indeed, the buzz at the factory is palpable.
This renewed sense of life on the sewing room floor is in stark contrast to just under a year ago when Channel 4 approached the manufacturer. At the time, the sewing machines were idle, covered in dust sheets.
Established in 1935, Headen & Quarmby had been one of 11 textiles manufacturers in Middleton and employed a staff of 65, but the late 1980s and early 1990s saw a swathe of businesses close as retailers began sourcing offshore in search of cheaper prices. The factory found itself with little option but to reduce its staff to 28 and begin dual-sourcing first from Poland, and then via a joint-venture factory in Morocco, before ending the remainder of its UK production - which was focused on quickly-spun lines - in 2004. “We took a conscious decision to end production because we just didn’t have the support,” says Moore.
“Retailers wanted better prices and weren’t bothered about placing [orders for] larger quantities. So China, India, Sri Lanka and Indonesia became the viable prospect,” he says.
In a bid to remain competitive, Headen & Quarmby gradually relocated its manufacturing to China and Bangladesh, while its UK business continued as a design, warehousing and distribution operation. The business saw its year-on-year turnover increase 6% to £3.2m for 2011, but Moore is convinced that manufacturing in the UK can further bolster this.
And he’s quite right. The tide is now turning back in favour of home-grown manufacturers.
Rising transportation and labour costs are leading to inflated supply chains, particularly for those manufacturing in China, and as a result producing in Europe and the UK is becoming more attractive to retailers due to the speed to market and flexibility it offers. “The UK is more expensive to manufacture in [than China], but the difference isn’t what it was 10 years ago. You don’t have transportation costs, currency fluctuations and [import] duties to cover, and when you factor in being able to repeat-buy into popular items and discontinue unpopular ones, which leads to less markdowns, the UK can beat China,” says Moore.
Despite the recent comments made by Next chief executive Lord Wolfson at the relaunch event for the UK Fashion and Textile Association (UKFT) in February, stating that UK manufacturing can never compete with China, there is evidence to the contrary.
Speaking at Drapers’ Next Generation Academy in February, Helen Connolly, head of buying womenswear and lingerie at George at Asda, said the supermarket chain has moved much of its manufacturing to the UK precisely because of the flexibility it offers, while the director of one lingerie brand told Drapers that Portas’s efforts should be applauded and that we could very well see some of the larger lingerie brands bringing some of their production back to these shores. “It’s definitely a possibility. Prices are going up in the Far East and producing in the UK offers flexibility, speed to market and greater control, which can really help boost a retailer’s bottom line,” he says.
Initial sales results from Kinky Knickers suggest the demand is there. In fact the lingerie range is in such high demand that the factory has been struggling to keep up, and stockists Asos, Boots, Liberty and Marks & Spencer are out of stock, while John Lewis, Selfridges and the Mary & House of Fraser department have a limited supply. “One of our biggest headaches is getting enough raw material lace to satisfy the demand for the product. So it’s been a bit stop-start,” says Moore. He also admits that due to Portas’s numerous work commitments, progress on the range, particularly in relation to ordering all of the various UK-made components which take time to source, was at times “frustratingly slow”, but that when it came to it “she came up with the goods”.
Moore realises that the UK manufacturing side of the business has to remain viable, and initially wanted the knickers to be retailed at £14, in the hope that a £10 margin would incentivise retailers to keep stocking the range once the media furore dies down. He may have lost that particular battle with Portas - the knickers retail for £10 - but Moore now hopes to build production capacity to between 7,500 and 10,000 pairs of knickers a week. “We’re hoping to hit the 100,000 orders mark [by August]. If we can achieve that then we’ll know whether this is something that is sustainable in the longer term,” he says.
Demand hasn’t been confined to the Kinky Knickers range, with Moore revealing that BHS is now looking at producing three styles of night dresses in the UK, while a number of other retailers have approached the factory about producing their underwear here. He says: “We’ve got to keep an eye on our production capacity but it just goes to show that the interest is there.”
Moore says that over the next six months the proportion of Headen & Quarmby’s goods made in the UK will rise from 3% to 20% once orders for the Kinky Knickers range are converted into sales, a figure he’s confident can rise to 30% as demand increases. He says: “Wages are going up in China and the UK is becoming more competitive. Hopefully that will continue.”
2012 UK production starts again for the Kinky Knickers range
2011 Approached by Channel 4 for Mary’s Bottom Line
2004 UK production ceases and manufacturing moves offshore to China and Bangladesh
2001 Opens a joint-venture factory in Morocco
2000 Begins dual-sourcing from Poland
1935 Company established by Mary Headen and Eric Quarmby