Christopher Nieper, managing director of Derbyshire manufacturer David Nieper explains how the next generation hold the keys to Britain’s manufacturing future
Last year at David Nieper, we celebrated 55 years in business. In 1961 my mother and father started a family business cutting patterns on our living room floor. Then my father set up a handful of seamstresses and a few machines in a Nissen hut in Alfreton, Derbyshire, which they rented from the council for £1 a month.
A lot has changed. We are now a modern international business, employing 275 people and exporting a third of our products to France, Germany and the Netherlands. But the one thing that has not changed is that our people make this business a success. People are the magic ingredient that provide the expertise, knowledge, creativity and the skills to create quality collections our customers crave season after season.
However, it is becoming more and more difficult to find people with the right skills. Over the last 25 years, Britain has lost nearly all of its manufacturing, and that has left a gaping skills deficit.
The temptation of cheap offshore sourcing has been irresistible. It is understandable – because retail is competitive and offshoring has historically offered lower prices – but has come at too great a cost, and the loss of British know-how.
Manufacturers in the Far East have been entrepreneurial, and our own complacency has allowed us to become uncompetitive. Why have we seemingly gone out of our way to avoid using British people by sourcing offshore and importing overseas labour? This could never be sustainable in the long term.
If we want our business to be here in another 55 years, and if the UK fashion industry is to thrive, we must be sustainable, and that involves long-term planning. That is why education is at the heart of everything we do.
For David Nieper’s own survival, for our local economy and for the future of the fashion production industry in the UK, we have absolutely no alternative but to invest in and support young talent and make them central to our business strategy.
We need more young people to choose dressmaking as a career
We take a holistic approach to education and are involved at every level – primary school, secondary school, college, university, apprenticeship, and our own on-site sewing academy.
We need more young people to choose dressmaking as a career, so engaging with them is really important. We start this at an early age and have recently hosted our annual primary school competition, in which children as young as five design an outfit, and come and spend a day with us, watching how clothes are made from start to finish.
Our biggest single commitment to education has been sponsoring a secondary school – an unprecedented initiative for a British fashion company but, for us, something we were compelled to do. The local secondary school had been placed into special measures by Ofsted and, as a major employer in the area, we had a moral obligation to help our local children and to raise the standard of education.
The David Nieper Academy, as it is now known, seeks to bridge the gap between education and business by integrating “real life” workplace scenarios into classroom learning.
In higher education, we sponsor fashion and textile design awards at our local universities and colleges. For example, at the University of Derby we offer student bursaries and work experience every year, and we have several graduates currently employed in our design studio.
We often find that students’ training is simply not up to scratch
Our sewing school is the most vocational education we are involved in. Our experienced seamstresses work alongside trainees to teach them dressmaking, directly passing on skills such as lock stitch, cross stitch and bar tack.
Because of our commitment to skills, we have been selected by the government to help set the standards for teaching the roles of sewing machinist, pattern-cutter and garment technologist across the UK, by chairing the national “trailblazer” group for the fashion and textiles apprenticeship drive.
As an employer, we have fashion and textile students apply for jobs in our sewing rooms, but often find that their training is simply not up to scratch. So getting involved in setting the standards means we can take control, and ensure apprentices possess the right skills and aptitudes to do the job. Our aim is to pool best practice from successful companies for the benefit of all British fashion manufacturing.
The UK fashion industry’s USP is its reputation for creativity, invention and quality, which has been developed over centuries. We need to preserve this USP for the future, and it is only by teaching our children and making them the guardians of “Brand Britain” that we can ensure the future of this great trading nation. So, before we put the younger generation in the driving seat and pass them the keys to the future, let’s educate now and not throw away our long-term prosperity.