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Editors Comment: 'UK manufacturing needs to win the generation game'

At Pure London it would have been an interesting exercise to check how many of the thousands of samples on show were made in the UK and/or used British-made materials.

I was too busy at the generally upbeat womenswear show on Sunday and Monday to undertake this bit of research. My interest was piqued in the week, however, as I flicked through a report from The Alliance Project, an ambitious not-for-profit entity that exists to “repatriate” textiles manufacturing.

The initiative is being driven by 82-year-old entrepreneur Lord Alliance, who is non-executive chairman of and a significant stakeholder in Manchester-based N Brown Group, owner of Simply Be, Figleaves.com and Jacamo among many others. Older readers will remember that with Harry Djanogly, another lauded name in textiles, he built up Coats Viyella to be a huge vertical operation in the 1970s and 1980s. As a Lib Dem peer, Lord Alliance has been able to make the most of his close connections to business secretary Vince Cable to get his welcome reshoring campaign on the government’s agenda.

For clarification, the project’s definition of “textiles” includes clothing and leather goods, as well as the more obvious woollen and worsted cloth, carpets and upholstery. Importantly, it embraces too the largely unknown - at least to the conventional fashion sector - technical textiles area, in which the UK has a world-leading position.

The lack of knowledge about exactly what is manufactured here is one of the barriers to growth that The Alliance Project has identified. It calls for a national database to be established so that manufacturers of all sizes and specialities easily can be found. Hear, hear to that, yet Textiles Scotland, part of Scottish Enterprise, already has compiled an impressive online listing of makers large and very small north of the border. The Let’s Make It Here database, available through the UK Fashion & Textile Association, is another excellent source of manufacturers, while the British Footwear Association in Northampton has a comprehensive list of companies in the shoe trades. Much as I support the aims of The Alliance Project, I wonder who will make an overarching national database happen and then keep it updated.

The project directly funds companies and dovetails with the Regional Growth Fund that uses government money to help companies develop. This week’s report from the project lists 94 companies (almost all located in the Northwest and West Yorkshire) that have benefited from its funding in the past year. I was surprised to read in the report that 1,600 jobs had been created from all this activity during the past 12 months - that is more than 15 positions for each company. I’d be fascinated to see the breakdown on this.

Similarly, the report’s headline that up to 20,000 jobs “could” be created in the industry in the next 10 years seems fanciful to me. What do Drapers readers think? Firstly, much investment in new textile machines, IT systems and the like does not in itself create jobs, but it improves efficiency and costs, which helps maintain precious existing jobs.

Crucially, the element of the workforce that could easily increase - sewing machinists - has a chronic shortage of applicants, as every manufacturer will tell you. The industry has an image problem that prevents it attracting a new generation of employees. That is the greatest barrier to growth, I believe.

Look out next week for the first feature in a new series on UK and Irish manufacturers. As always, let us know your view of this vital subject.

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