Fashion Enter’s founder has seen demand for UK production increase and is now focusing on training the next generation of manufacturers.
You cashed in your £8,000 life savings in 2006 to found manufacturing company Fashion Enter, and opened your factory in London’s Haringey in 2009. Today, you produce up to 7,500 garments a week for retailers including Asos, John Lewis and Marks & Spencer. Is demand from UK retailers increasing?
Yes, there is a major reshoring exercise taking place. Our largest run was 48,000 for one garment for Asos, for example. It is about speed to market.
What types of products are retailers asking for?
A lot of soft separates and tailored shift dresses. We’ve also got jerseywear and wovens, then blouses, and soft dresses while the weather is warm. Retailers need to realise that from idea to actual garment delivery, it only takes three to four weeks to produce. They have to be demand responsive. Lead times have changed so much and it is all about open-to-buy (OTB) budgets now. I was a senior buyer at Arcadia in the 1980s with an OTB budget, but the percentage for in-season needs to be so much bigger now - you have to be reactive. When I was a range selector at M&S from 1982 to 1988, around 94% of the product was made in the UK. By 2002, most was produced overseas. However, the cost benefits of manufacturing overseas are eroding and it’s amazing to see it coming back full circle.
You’re about to expand your 7,500 sq ft factory to 16,500 sq ft by moving into the 9,000 sq ft factory next door, where you plan to extend your apprenticeship scheme. How did that come about?
We are looking to open a Fashion Technical Academy (FTA), which is being sponsored by Asos and Haringey council. For the first time in the UK, we will be able to offer a qualification - which we have written in collaboration with government body Creative Skillset - that spans the whole lifecycle of a garment, from concept through to completion. What we have at the moment is our Stitching Academy, where we offer level one to four qualifications and teach apprentices to use industrial machines. At the FTA we will offer fabric inspection, laying, cutting, quality control, finishing and pressing. We have 48 machinists at our factory, all of whom are legal migrants. They are fantastic and are passing on their skills to the youth in this country. We’ve also received help from [mannequin and fit specialist] Alvanon’s chief executive Janice Wang-Millard, who donated £50,000 worth of mannequins. There are some amazing, selfless people in this industry.
You spent 25 years as a buyer, first as a junior buyer for Littlewoods between 1980 and 1982 before becoming a range selector at M&S (between 1982-88), and then a senior buyer at Arcadia for Principles (between 1988-91). Why did you decide to make the switch to manufacturing?
I didn’t immediately. I left Principles because I wanted to run my own brand. So I set up womenswear label Retro UK in 1991. We were successful and had three boutiques and a party-plan wholesaling operation as well as supplying John Lewis and Principles. However, we entered into an agreement with a third party, who I can’t name, to amalgamate our businesses and they reneged on everything. We lost the business and nearly our home. This was a defining moment and I decided I wanted to help other people avoid making the same mistake. In 2000, I set up fashion management consultancy London Fashion Forum with help from government funding. When the funding came to an end in 2006, I incorporated Fashion Enter. In 2008, we set up The Workshop in Haringey, making patterns and samples for small businesses and new designers, and then opened the factory in 2009. That decision was actually very foolish, because the difference between making a sample and doing a production run is enormous. Asos supported the opening financially and that gave us a lot of confidence, but the first year was horrendous. The saving grace has been our amazing machinists.
What has been the highlight of your career?
Surviving. We have been really fortuitous, in that we saw production was going to come back and invested in machinery and training apprentices. You help make clothes for other people, but where do you like to shop? Truthfully, I hate shopping. I’m so used to looking at the construction of a garment and identifying problems that I never switch off. I have to say M&S’s quality is great, and we produce for its Best of British range. They get criticised for having moved production offshore, but they weren’t the only ones and they have been so supportive of us.
What inspires you?
My machinists. There is a lot of bad press about migrants, but our machinists all have the legal documentation and I wouldn’t change any of them. They have amazing skills.
If you didn’t work in fashion, what would you do?
I would be a horse riding instructor. That is what I always wanted to do when I was younger and I ride in my spare time.
What is your long-term aim for Fashion Enter?
We want to make the FTA a complete success and are aiming to get more than 1,000 students through it a year. Based on the Stitching Academy, that is achievable. There are so many jobs that get overlooked in the fashion industry that are great career paths. We want to make manufacturing sexy, because it is. It is amazing to take raw components and make them into a garment. I would never go back to the world of buying or designing, because I really do love manufacturing.