UK clothing manufacturing has had a turbulent history over the last 50 or so years, but more recently it has shown a hint of a renaissance. This was solidified further by the announcement this week that Clarks is to create a manufacturing arm in Somerset.
It will have the capacity to produce up to 300,000 pairs of its Desert Boots per year, so this is a bold statement by the retailer and a welcome boost for UK manufacturing.
With a retailer the size of Clarks (it has 514 UK stores and 3,279 wholesale accounts) reinvesting in its UK manufacturing roots, could this be the encouragement needed for others – in footwear and fashion – to follow suit, further bolstering the sector’s fledgling resurgence?
The immediate question that comes to mind is whether Clarks’ decision is a reaction to Brexit. However, the company has highlighted that the project was under development for two years, and so began before the referendum. Despite this, CEO Mike Shearwood has said that it will help the business mitigate against fluctuations in currency – a challenge many retailers are grappling with – and any post-Brexit new tariffs.
UK clothing manufacturing was thriving back in the 1970s but hit a low point in the early 2000s as the numbers of retailers offshoring manufacturing to China and the Far East peaked. However, around 2007 sourcing began to swing back towards UK manufacturing because of both consumer demand and operational requirements.
At the latest edition of made-in-the-UK trade show Meet the Manufacturer in London in May, founder Kate Hills said that overall demand for British-sourced products had noticeably soared. Satisfying a desire that has erupted for UK-produced goods, all Clarks boots manufactured in Somerset will be stamped with “Made in the UK”.
The other benefit of manufacturing in the UK of course is that it will allow Clarks to work on shorter lead times – a pressure that is shared by many retailers as consumers become ever-more demanding. The retailer can cut lead times from 55 weeks to an incredible 13 to 19 weeks, allowing it to be much more responsive to the market.
Although there have been previous concerns about a skills gap in this sector, Clarks has also said the new division will create 80 jobs in the UK. At a time where there is so much uncertainty in retail, this is no doubt a good thing.
Clarks has clearly balanced these benefits to its business with the potential increased costs of producing domestically, and UK manufacturing has come out on top. The footwear giant’s bold signal of intention to support British manufacturing, to communicate this to its shoppers, and its confidence in the benefits this strategy could have for the business as it negotiates retail’s uncertain future, should now provide food for thought for other British retailers who are looking for new ways to future-proof their businesses. It’s time for a revival in UK manufacturing.