Home to some of the UK’s most iconic brands, indies and multiples, as well as fashion personalities, Manchester has a unique place in the industry.
Think of Manchester fashion and it conjures up images of young people in baggy jeans, loose-fitting stripy tops and T-shirts in the late 1980s and early 1990s partying to music that was a mix of indie rock, acid house and 1960s psychedelia.
At the height of the ‘Madchester’ era, as it became known, the city was a unique melting pot of music, clubbing culture and a new positivity - often fuelled by recreational drugs. The period was centered around the Haçienda nightclub, which was opened in 1982 by Factory Records. Happy Mondays, The Charlatans, James and the Stone Roses were among the bands to emerge from this scene, following in the wake of earlier Manchester trailblazers like New Order and The Smiths.
Madchester’s musical innovation was accompanied by a distinctive ‘baggy’ fashion style based on the clothes worn by members of these bands. Loose-fitting tops, big-logo T-shirts, baggy jeans and even flares were essential wear. The look was often topped off with a bucket hat, now more commonly known as a Reni after the Stone Roses’ drummer. Young fashion brands including Joe Bloggs and Gio-Goi were the coolest names in town.
“We were just doing our own thing anyway and it just got picked up by the bands that were around then,” says Kashif Ahmed, managing director of supplier The Juice Corporation, which founded Joe Bloggs. “We didn’t really have to do much product placement or anything - everyone just came to us.”
The Haçienda, created by New Order manager Rob Gretton and journalist and Factory Records owner Tony Wilson, was pivotal to the fashion operators that would develop over the next decade, as clubbers, band members, DJs, and anyone who had an entrepreneurial idea - or any idea - mingled and became inspired by the feeling that anyone could make things happen.
Most of those that created brands spent as much time partying as selling T-shirts. But the era did create a legacy of entrepreneurship and confidence, if not cockiness - arguably the defining element of Manchester fashion, and it can be traced to some of the most innovative and enduring brands, retailers and fashion operators in the UK today.
Juls Dawson, key account manager at Gio-Goi says: “This was the scene that created our brand, and others. Brands including Ringspun, Bench, Henleys and Joe Bloggs were all linked to the scene.”
Gio-Goi founders Christopher and Anthony Donnelly started by selling T-shirts in the Haçienda and David Mallon, founder of streetwear brand Ringspun, worked on the door at the club. “I was the nice, sober, quiet one,” he jokes.
Dale Hicks, founder of networking club Manchester Fashion Network, adds: “A lot of these people knew each other - the bands, club promoters and fashion people. They went to the same clubs, shopped in the same shops. Affleck’s Palace, the iconic indoor market, incubated a lot of people. David [Mallon] started selling rock-inspired T-shirts at the market in the 1990s. People were selling what the high street wasn’t providing. There were opportunities and people started importing stuff.”
Manchester has a history of manufacturing and entrepreneurship that stretches way back before the heady days of the Haçienda and that has helped shape the modern face of its fashion industry.
The city was at the forefront of the Industrial Revolution and was dubbed Cottonopolis in the 19th century, thanks to its status as an international centre for producing cotton. Iconic buildings such as the Free Trade Hall, which became as well known for being a music venue as for its original function, along with the Manchester Royal Exchange, illustrate the city’s commercial heritage. The Cottonopolis moniker has now inspired Manchester menswear indie Oi Polloi to give its new own label the same name later this year.
One of Manchester’s other major influences is football, with the city hosting two big teams, United and City, which its inhabitants refer to as red or blue (see our features for the lowdown on who supports who). Years before the music explosion of Madchester, the terraces were already a natural place for people to come together and get dressed up.
For many, the late 1970s and early 1980s is where Manchester’s obsession with brands and a preoccupation with a practical, casual-based fashion aesthetic began, with mostly continental brands such as Fila and Sergio Tacchini the labels of choice. But Manchester’s Henri-Lloyd became one of the hottest brands on the terraces in the mid-1980s.
It is no coincidence that sports-wear firms such as Umbro, JD Sports Fashion and JJB Sports grew up in Manchester or its neighbouring towns, capitalising on the rise of sportswear as fashion.
Stephen Spellacy, owner of footwear agency Bad Pennie and former JD Sports fashion apparel buying director, says the city’s rivalry with Liverpool was an important factor in the birth of Manchester’s terrace fashion. “Liverpool had the team that was in Europe. The fans came back with tracksuits and they were looking better than the Manchester fans, so they had to outdo them,” he explains. “Liverpool did it on the terraces but it was taken up by the masses in Manchester.
That’s when JD Sports went from two shops to 200 in just a few years. You couldn’t get enough product; we could have sold 10 times more. We were all young lads and we didn’t really know what we were doing. I got a job there first as warehouse assistant because I had a woodwork O-Level and they thought I could help with the shopfits.”
The footballers that play for United and City are nationwide celebrities and their wives and girlfriends (WAGs), including Colleen Rooney, provide fashion role models for young women.
Manchester’s unique take on fashion is still evident today. Steve Sanderson, co-owner of local menswear indie Oi Polloi, says: “Manchester has always had a bit of an obsession with functional outerwear and style. A waterproof sportswear jacket and suede shoes - you wouldn’t normally go out in the rain in suede shoes, but that’s the attitude.”
There may not currently be the same obvious music scene to compare with the heyday of the Haçienda and Madchester - although Oasis frontman Liam Gallagher’s recently launched Pretty Green label shows that the music and fashion connection is still strong - but Manchester’s fashion operators suggest that it does have a replacement.
“There is a scene now - it’s the internet,” says Sanderson. “That’s bringing everyone together. There are always people into digging around to find new things.”
Although difficult times are on the cards for many businesses as the UK crawls out of recession and gets used to an age of austerity, most believe this is unlikely to hinder Manchester’s fashion businesses.
“Manchester is a bit more recession proof, with more aptitude for dealing with difficult times,” says Hicks. “There’s always someone starting a brand or opening a shop.”