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'Big brands wanting to resume UK volume manufacturing should open their own factories'

Kate Hills, founder and CEO of directory and website Make it British, and trade show Meet the Manufacturer

Kate Hills Make it British

Kate Hills Make it British

Kate Hills Make it British

Since I first had the idea for Make it British in 2008, it was apparent to me that brands and high street retailers would not be able to continue relying so heavily on the Far East to source clothing and textiles. A return of some manufacturing to the UK was inevitable – it was only a matter of time.

Many may consider the news that Clarks plans to open a brand new factory to bring its shoe production back to the UK as a brave move, but to me it seems like a logical step that will pave the way for others to follow suit.

Any buyer who has worked in the industry for a considerable length of time will have seen cost prices rise significantly during their career, and the impact of the exchange rate since the Brexit vote has compounded the situation. Once all undue overheads have been stripped out of the supply chain, the only way for prices to go now is up.

Also take into account the fact that the growing Chinese middle class do not want to buy product made in China any more, and that customers are getting more savvy about “British brands” that don’t actually make in Britain. That, together with an increasing interest in sustainable and transparent supply chains, and a demand for faster turnaround of product, makes UK manufacturing once more a very viable prospect.

Over the last few years, I’ve had many conversations – from big retailers right through to small start-ups – about UK sourcing strategies. Everyone is looking for local factories so they are no longer entirely reliant on overseas sourcing, especially since the Brexit vote. Not only does making in the UK protect against the unpredictability of foreign currency rates, but orders placed closer to the season help to ensure that a business is not holding unwanted stock.

Fashion Enter factory

Fashion Enter factory

Fashion Enter factory

Fashion retailers such as Asos and Boohoo are in the ascendent because they react quickly to trends and customer demands, and they do that in part by manufacturing more of their product closer to home – Boohoo sources 50% of its product from UK factories.

However, the big issue is that large sewing factories with rows and rows of machinists, like those in China, just do not exist in the UK. The largest sewing factory here has probably no more than 150 machinists, and they make furniture covers, not clothes! Finding skilled machinists is one of the biggest barriers to growth, and the training of skilled staff is not going to happen overnight.

When it comes to clothing factories, those with the most machinists are generally making exclusively for their own brand, such as David Nieper and Barbour. Even those that once made exclusively for others, are now creating their own in-house brands – think Private White VC in Manchester.

Clarks desert boot

Clarks Desert Boot

So the solution for brands such as Clarks that want to resume any volume manufacturing in the UK is to open their own factory. This cuts out the costs of intermediaries and allows them to put what they want on the production line, when they (and their customer) want it. It does, of course mean a larger investment at the beginning, but will reap rewards in the long run.

Clarks has announced that it will be concentrating on making its Desert Boot in its new UK factory, which makes sense. Not only is it an iconic product worthy of a “made in Britain” stamp, but manufacturing just one style of product simplifies the production line and improves factory efficiency.

The new Clarks factory will apparently be using robot-assisted technology. This lessens the need for skilled labour, which in the UK is in such short supply. Automation has worked wonders for the UK car industry, where companies such as Toyota and Nissan use robots on the production line. The use of state-of-the-art technology to make production efficient is something that is already working for some of the UK knitwear factories, as well as enabling cotton spinning to return to the UK at English Fine Cottons.

Let’s not pretend that there is going to be a sudden influx of brands and retailers opening factories in the UK. Clarks has no doubt been planning this for a long time, and a factory on this scale is not opened  overnight. However, what I hope it will do, is give any of those businesses that are wondering how they are going to increase their UK manufacturing, the courage to think that investing in their own factory could now be a truly viable option.

Readers' comments (4)

  • It would be fantastic to see a return to Uk manufacturing, albeit on a small scale. Those of us long enough in the tooth to remember, enjoyed the flexibility and control that onshore manufacturing brings. The skill and mindset required to make this work may be absent throughout those businesses that have worked for many years with the long lead/high margin equation. Times are tough and this sort of risk may be too much for some.

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  • David Reay

    I totally agree with you Kate. It's been a long time coming. I've been involved in Clothing Manufacture all my life, stretching back to the days of UK M&S , then like many others forced to take my skills to offshore companies. I am highly active in the UK sector and I can see what's needed. The financial model has shifted in favour of UK output to some degree but retailers must be struggling find UK capacity now, and driving those guys who survived from the 1990s to do more is one way of doing it. I do however believe the time has come to look at sufficient investment in modern technology to build modern capacities and create a critical mass for economic purposes.
    You are 100% right, this needs to be driven by the major brand and retail players. Historically few ever owned their own production sites because there was a full range of opportunities available so why risk it?
    The situation I believe has shifted to the point that strategically the only way to ensure capacity in the UK is to have some of ownership, part or full.
    Tight ,close in management control supported by disruptive technology will separate the winners and losers now.

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  • Fundamentally, there needs to be major investment in our technical skills; primarily in Pattern-cutting, machining and technology. Having many years experience in the fashion industry, there is a skills-shortage in these areas.Therefore, it is crucial that these skills are passed on to the next generation, to prevent reliance on off-shore factories.

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  • This is not a long term strategy -as soon as the pound gets to a reasonable level they will all look offshore again.

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