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Drapers Next Gen: Ex-M&S design chief urges designers to manufacture in UK

Manufacturing in the Far East is not as attractive as people think, according to former head of menswear design for Marks & Spencer Tony O’Connor.

Tony O'Connor

Speaking at Drapers’ Next Generation 2015 event in London today, O’Connor – one of the driving forces behind the launch of M&S’s Made in Britain range in 2013 – encouraged young designers to consider manufacturing in the UK.

“The Far East is not as attractive as everybody thinks – there are import taxes, management costs, shipping costs. The margin was always attractive, but it’s getting higher,” he said.

“There are fantastic people to work with [in the UK]. Cheaney makes some of the best shoes in the world – we’re also good at tailoring and outerwear.”

O’Connor, who trained at Newcastle University, was recruited after graduating by Next founder George Davies, joining the chain as assistant designer in the late 1980s. “It was almost like a second education; I learned about all facets of menswear,” he said.

He joined Moss Bros as creative director in 2001. “Moss Bros was very different. When I left Next it had 20 menswear designers; Moss Bros had none. I had to build a design culture and get people to buy into it.”

In 2008 he joined M&S, which he calls the “mothership” because of its size. “It’s a huge and very complex business, but a great company to work for.

“It is definitely moving in the right direction, through a tough market.”

His advice for delegates was to try new ideas all the time, adding: “Push collaborations with designers people might not think are relevant, because they might turn out to be great.”

O’Connor added that technical skills such as drawing and cutting are as important as ever. “I have seen amazing CVs but then you see one of their suits and it doesn’t look right. You need to have an understanding of cloth. When you walk in, I need to see that you live and breathe design.”

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