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Van Dal factory closure ends Norwich manufacturing era

The falling value of sterling, a decline in the number of independent retailers and lack of support from the industry have been blamed for the decision to close women’s footwear brand Van Dal’s factory in Norwich.

Parent company The Florida Group closed the factory, which had been making women’s shoes in Norwich since 1936, at the end of August. It employed eight people in production. Three were of retirement age, and there were two redundancies. The remaining staff have been redeployed. 

Van Dal has one own store, in Cardiff, and a number of independent, concession and shop-in-shop partners, including Elys in Wimbledon and branches of Fenwick.

The Florida Group plans to move next year to a new office and warehouse in Norwich – it expects to employup to 40 people for ecommerce orders at the warehouse. Its design and technical team will be based in Norwich, as will a repair department.

Tony Linford, managing director of The Florida Group, said the Norwich factory accounted for only around 15% of Van Dal’s manufacturing output – the remainder comes from India and Italy.

He said a decline in independent retailers had made UK manufacturing unviable, and the closure had been brewing for some time: “We’ve been trying everything we could to sustain [manufacturing in the UK], but the there hasn’t been support from major retailers for made-in-England women’s products.

“Combined with the steady erosion of independents, the market has disappeared.”

The falling value of sterling after the UK’s decision to leave the European Union has increased materials costs by up by 20%, a rise Linford said the group had not been able to pass on to consumers: “That has squeezed us in the middle. It would be wrong to say [Brexit] was the reason [for the closure], but it was the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

The company now hopes to focus on the direct-to-consumer market, by expanding its department store concession business and through the Van Dal website.

“We know there’s consumer demand for the brand,” Linford added. “Finding the route to market has been the challenge. The traditional business model has broken down.”

Industry experts expressed disappointment at the closure, but insisted it did not spell doom for UK footwear manufacturing.

“It’s a terrible shame … [but Van Dal] was making a specific type of ladies’ high-heeled shoe,” said Kate Hills, founder of UK manufacturing trade show Make it British Live. “The market and manufacturing in the UK was always going to be more difficult for Van Dal than for a men’s brand made in Northampton [for example]. They’re all thriving.”

John Saunders, chief executive officer of the British Footwear Association, said UK footwear brands doing well tend to focus on the high-end market, or have invested heavily in technology: “The unfortunate thing with Van Dal is they fell somewhere between the two.”

Saunders said he believed Brexit could represent an opportunity for British manufacturing: “Hopefully, if we get anything positive out of Brexit, it will be that we can trade with international markets more freely and more easily. That will help develop British manufacturing.”

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