New skills and collaboration are vital for fashion SMEs, writes Judith Tolley, head of creative business incubator the Centre for Fashion Enterprise, as it opens its new business hub
Collaboration and the exchange of expert knowledge and skills are crucial to the survival of small and medium-sized enterprises. Supporting and developing this way of working needs to be encouraged and embedded across the fashion sector.
Innovation and new ways of working come through collaboration. Emergent businesses can develop faster and smarter by seeing beyond the confines of their own structures and through the culture of experiential skill sharing and knowledge exchange.
In November, the Centre for Fashion Enterprise (CFE) will trial a new way of developing and supporting SMEs. Working in partnership with Poplar HARCA (Housing and Regeneration Community Association), London College of Fashion and University of the Arts London, CFE will support eight yet-to-be-revealed fashion and fashion technology businesses of different sizes in a new workspace development, Poplar Works in east London. The new space will encourage a culture of peer support and give back to the local community.
Each business will occupy the space for up to two years, engaging closely with each other and the local community by running a series of public events and workshops during their residence.
Poplar Works has been created by converting disused garages on a residential housing estate, and it’s really important that we don’t just land there. Engagement with the local community is crucial to its success.
CFE practises “holistic incubation”: all the businesses entering Poplar Works will be required to commit to helping and supporting each other as businesses and individuals.
The topic of isolation comes up a lot when speaking with SME business owners. At the outset, they don’t have all the skills and knowledge to solve problems and grow, and navigating the business world can be slow and complex. Collaborating peer to peer in a community-focused way will help to accelerate learning by bringing knowledge together, faster.
There are so many new pressures on businesses today that they didn’t necessarily have to address three or four years ago. For example, you can’t run a business now without thinking about and embedding sustainability. If businesses don’t consider sustainability, it will eventually have an impact on sales. This change is being driven by consumers – both wholesale buyers and shoppers.
At a basic level, they want to know the story of where the fabrics are coming from, what things are made of, and if they are sustainable. Businesses need to have the answers. At CFE, we focus on helping businesses think about what’s out there, what things they should be considering and what they can do. Our in-house production manager connects businesses with sustainable suppliers and manufacturers, and gives them the skills to manufacture effectively and efficiently.
Another huge change, across every single area of business over the past five years, is the growth of digital. Consumers are exerting more power and influence via social channels: demanding sustainable practices, transparency and authenticity as well as expecting businesses to innovate digitally. The bar is set high for emerging SMEs. Skills in tech, digital, and sustainable practices are required in a business today from the start – not as a later hire or bolt-on.
It’s a very challenging time for the fashion industry, but it also feels incredibly exciting: real changes are starting to emerge, across the spectrum from SMEs to the high street players and the luxury groups.
Influence is erupting from the ground up, rather than cascading from the top down, and that makes it one of most interesting times to be supporting SMEs that I’ve experienced in my last 30 years in the business.
Looking ahead, Brexit has already had a direct impact around funding for incubators, intellectual property rights for businesses, employment and manufacturing. In all truth, however, it’s impossible to know how Brexit will really impact SMEs at this stage.
But despite all the gloom of Brexit, we feel the future looks bright for CFE and for the brave-hearted, the experimental and those prepared to ride wave of change that’s coming at us.