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Labels show appetite for UK fabrics, but warn industry must encourage new talent

Retailers from high street stalwart Marks & Spencer to international luxury brand Roland Mouret are increasingly sourcing UK fabrics, but warn more needs to be done to attract talented young people into the domestic manufacturing industry.

The businesses spoke to Drapers at the inaugural Make it British manufacturing conference last week (June 11-12), which included discussions around the problems facing British manufacturing.

Simon Colbeck, innovation and quality head for general merchandise at Marks & Spencer, said: “We are seeing a real resurgence in premium British fabrics. There has been a reinvestment in the UK textiles industry that I haven’t seen in a long, long time. But we need to make sure it’s an ongoing trend.”

He suggested this could be achieved by retailers “supporting companies that already exist, particularly to invest [them] in recruiting the best people”.

Colbeck added M&S has a nine-strong apprenticeship scheme this year, and similar projects at manufacturing firms could bring fresh blood into the industry.

Roland Mouret’s head of sourcing Daliah Simble said the luxury womenswear label produces 70% of its product in seven UK factories. “It would definitely be more” if factories with the necessary skills were available, she said: “We need fresh blood with cutting and sewing skills here in the UK. It’s about getting bums on seats.”

Mulberry has moved 50% of production back to its two UK factories, up from 15% 18 months ago. Global supply director Ian Scott said part of the challenge was to “explain what manufacturing is” to potential employees: “We’re going into schools and telling kids our work is more fulfilling than stacking a shelf in Sainsbury’s.”

He added a lack of UK fashion manufacturing “is not the government’s fault – the industry has to take some responsibility too”. Scott said he hoped the event would give the industry confidence “that British manufacturing can work”. 

Simble said Make it British would help change perceptions of the costs of British manufacture, and high street retailers could stand to benefit from sourcing UK materials.

“High street retailers are competing with Inditex’s speed when getting product in to store – they can cut down on production times by manufacturing in the UK. There’s no duty, no freight, it’s lower carbon and you have more control over your end-to-end processes,” she said.  

Hobbs’ head of design Karen Boyd said events such as Make it British were an important way to help retailers forge links with UK mills and factories: “We first encountered Make it British while sourcing UK fabrics for our [capsule] Collection No 2, with the Historic Royal Palaces. It resulted in an incredibly rewarding partnership with a Scottish mill that created unique, bespoke designs for the range.”

She said the event offered “much more breadth of product than I had expected”, and added: “It has definitely invigorated our desire to build on and expand our British manufacturing links.”

Some 3,000 people attended the event over the two days.

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