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Our friends in the North

In the 19th century the North was the UK’s fashion manufacturing power base, but today it can struggle to attract talent. Yet some of the industry’s top businesses wouldn’t want to be based anywhere else.

People who work in fashion might balk at the idea of relocating up North, but in the past this region was renowned around the world for its textiles. Cotton produced in the fabric mills around Bradford dominated global trade throughout the 19th century. A vibrant fashion industry subsequently grew out of this manufacturing powerhouse, employing thousands of people.

These days, there are more career opportunities and higher salaries in London. Nevertheless, there remains a pool of fashion businesses in the North.
Discount chain Matalan, which is based in Skelmersdale, Lancashire, has been through tough times but is now increasing profits and has plans to expand. Liverpool’s Shop Direct Group is one of the UK’s largest online and home-shopping retailers with sales of about £1.7bn. Home-shopping retailers N Brown of Manchester and Liverpool’s TJ Hughes are two more big employers.

Alison Broadhurst is typical of someone who has forged a career in fashion outside of London. She has held buying roles at Shop Direct Group and TJ Hughes and is currently buying and merchandising director at streetwear brand Henleys, based in Manchester.

Broadhurst was never keen to work in the capital. Her first job was as a graduate at footwear business Clarks’ head office in Street, Somerset, where she stayed for 20 years. She moved to Manchester in 2006 to take up a buying director role at Shop Direct Group (which subsequently moved into offices in Speke, Liverpool). She was at the retailer for four years. She says her career would have been very different had she stayed in London, where people move jobs more often.

She took the job at Henleys last year because she wanted to experience being involved in a smaller business. “It’s a small company, but it’s growing. It’s very entrepreneurial.” The company was recently forced to close its 18 stores due to difficult trading, although its wholesale business has been unaffected.

Broadhurst loves living in the North: “Manchester is a great place to live. I’ve never known anyone move to this region and not be happy. There is a lot of variety. There are the shops and the nightlife. Liverpool is 45 minutes away. You have the Peak District to the east, craggy mountains in the north, the flatlands of Cheshire with rolling, open fields.”

Home sweet home

A major advantage of moving to the North is the price of housing. A senior executive at Shop Direct Group reckons his home, on the Wirral Peninsula, would cost half that of a similar house in London. “I have views of a golf course from my back window and I’m a few minutes’ walk from the beach,” he says.

He joined the group when it was Littlewoods 34 years ago and witnessed the merger with GUS in 2004. He says working in fashion in the North is a lot tougher than when he started, mainly because there are fewer jobs. However, he says once you get your foot in the door, the career prospects are excellent.

This is what happened to Rebecca Hitchings, who worked her way up the ladder at Matalan. She joined 10 years ago as a junior merchandiser and is now merchandise controller for ladieswear. She says: “I’ve had a fantastic career at Matalan, but I’ve had to make it myself. In London you can move up quite quickly because you can hop from job to job. In the North there are fewer companies so you have to forge your own career path.”

Hitchings lives 30 minutes away from the Matalan head office. Getting home quickly after work to see her two kids is a priority. She adds: “The work/life balance is much better than in London, especially if you are a working mum.”

Carl Brewins, co-founder of Leeds-based young fashion chain Republic, thinks people who spend their entire career in the capital can be short-sighted when it comes to designing products for the rest of the nation. He explains: “Not being headquartered in London gives us freshness. Our buyers and designers travel up and down the country, gleaning information from across the UK.”

However, Brewins admits that recruiting creative individuals can be a challenge. The business even considered moving to London to get closer to the bigger pool of talent, but eventually decided to set up a graduate scheme and build a creative team from scratch.

“We took them through the process of what we wanted to achieve. The scheme has produced some great people,” says Brewins. Now that Republic is more well-known, people are more willing to jump ship from businesses closer to London - it recently hired two designers from Next and River Island. And as the chain expands further - there are plans to open 20 stores this year - career opportunities across all departments are growing.

According to recruiters, the battle for talent has intensified in the North as the industry grapples with tough economic times. Graham Lucas, director of Michael Page Buying and Merchandising, says companies in this region want people who are “exceptionally talented” who are able to help move the business forward. He adds: “There are very few markets that will grow in the current environment. Most businesses want to take market share, so they’re looking for people who know their consumer and their competitors.”

There is a talent vacuum in merchandising in particular, says Lucas. “There are never enough good quality merchandisers in this region. It is a much misunderstood career. What is missing is the investment into this field. People need to be encouraged to set out on this discipline as a career.”

Lucas reckons the North is a great place to live: “Cities like Manchester, Leeds and Liverpool have a real cosmopolitan buzz, a great night-life and are attractive places to live. A better standard of life is easier to achieve here, especially when you consider most people have a much shorter commute to work.”
Ian McMullin, director of McCarthy Recruitment, agrees: “If people can see the long-term potential with an employer, regardless of where it’s based, they’ll make the move.”

The North clearly has plenty to offer, both in terms of lifestyle and career prospects. The one thing no one can change is the weather.

People who work in fashion might balk at the idea of relocating up North, but in the past this region was renowned around the world for its textiles. Cotton produced in the fabric mills around Bradford dominated global trade throughout the 19th century. A vibrant fashion industry subsequently grew out of this manufacturing powerhouse, employing thousands of people.

These days, there are more career opportunities and higher salaries in London. Nevertheless, there remains a pool of fashion businesses in the North.
Discount chain Matalan, which is based in Skelmersdale, Lancashire, has been through tough times but is now increasing profits and has plans to expand. Liverpool’s Shop Direct Group is one of the UK’s largest online and home-shopping retailers with sales of about £1.7bn. Home-shopping retailers N Brown of Manchester and Liverpool’s TJ Hughes are two more big employers.

Alison Broadhurst is typical of someone who has forged a career in fashion outside of London. She has held buying roles at Shop Direct Group and TJ Hughes and is currently buying and merchandising director at streetwear brand Henleys, based in Manchester.

Broadhurst was never keen to work in the capital. Her first job was as a graduate at footwear business Clarks’ head office in Street, Somerset, where she stayed for 20 years. She moved to Manchester in 2006 to take up a buying director role at Shop Direct Group (which subsequently moved into offices in Speke, Liverpool). She was at the retailer for four years. She says her career would have been very different had she stayed in London, where people move jobs more often.

She took the job at Henleys last year because she wanted to experience being involved in a smaller business. “It’s a small company, but it’s growing. It’s very entrepreneurial.” The company was recently forced to close its 18 stores due to difficult trading, although its wholesale business has been unaffected.

Broadhurst loves living in the North: “Manchester is a great place to live. I’ve never known anyone move to this region and not be happy. There is a lot of variety. There are the shops and the nightlife. Liverpool is 45 minutes away. You have the Peak District to the east, craggy mountains in the north, the flatlands of Cheshire with rolling, open fields.”

Home sweet home


A major advantage of moving to the North is the price of housing. A senior executive at Shop Direct Group reckons his home, on the Wirral Peninsula, would cost half that of a similar house in London. “I have views of a golf course from my back window and I’m a few minutes’ walk from the beach,” he says.

He joined the group when it was Littlewoods 34 years ago and witnessed the merger with GUS in 2004. He says working in fashion in the North is a lot tougher than when he started, mainly because there are fewer jobs. However, he says once you get your foot in the door, the career prospects are excellent.

This is what happened to Rebecca Hitchings, who worked her way up the ladder at Matalan. She joined 10 years ago as a junior merchandiser and is now merchandise controller for ladieswear. She says: “I’ve had a fantastic career at Matalan, but I’ve had to make it myself. In London you can move up quite quickly because you can hop from job to job. In the North there are fewer companies so you have to forge your own career path.”

Hitchings lives 30 minutes away from the Matalan head office. Getting home quickly after work to see her two kids is a priority. She adds: “The work/life balance is much better than in London, especially if you are a working mum.”

Carl Brewins, co-founder of Leeds-based young fashion chain Republic, thinks people who spend their entire career in the capital can be short-sighted when it comes to designing products for the rest of the nation. He explains: “Not being headquartered in London gives us freshness. Our buyers and designers travel up and down the country, gleaning information from across the UK.”

However, Brewins admits that recruiting creative individuals can be a challenge. The business even considered moving to London to get closer to the bigger pool of talent, but eventually decided to set up a graduate scheme and build a creative team from scratch.

“We took them through the process of what we wanted to achieve. The scheme has produced some great people,” says Brewins. Now that Republic is more well-known, people are more willing to jump ship from businesses closer to London - it recently hired two designers from Next and River Island. And as the chain expands further - there are plans to open 20 stores this year - career opportunities across all departments are growing.

According to recruiters, the battle for talent has intensified in the North as the industry grapples with tough economic times. Graham Lucas, director of Michael Page Buying and Merchandising, says companies in this region want people who are “exceptionally talented” who are able to help move the business forward. He adds: “There are very few markets that will grow in the current environment. Most businesses want to take market share, so they’re looking for people who know their consumer and their competitors.”

There is a talent vacuum in merchandising in particular, says Lucas. “There are never enough good quality merchandisers in this region. It is a much misunderstood career. What is missing is the investment into this field. People need to be encouraged to set out on this discipline as a career.”

Lucas reckons the North is a great place to live: “Cities like Manchester, Leeds and Liverpool have a real cosmopolitan buzz, a great night-life and are attractive places to live. A better standard of life is easier to achieve here, especially when you consider most people have a much shorter commute to work.”

Ian McMullin, director of McCarthy Recruitment, agrees: “If people can see the long-term potential with an employer, regardless of where it’s based, they’ll make the move.”

The North clearly has plenty to offer, both in terms of lifestyle and career prospects. The one thing no one can change is the weather.

Look North

Shop Direct Group Fashion etail and catalogue retailer
Location Liverpool
Number of head office staff 1,100
Departments at head office Buying, merchandising, sales, marketing, warehouse, IT, finance
Perks Massages at work

Matalan Discount retail chain
Location Skelmersdale, Lancashire
Number of head office staff 600
Departments at head office Buying, merchandising, design, marketing, HR, finance, customer services
Perks Private health care (for senior management)

Republic Young fashion chain
Location Leeds
Number of head office staff 120
Departments at head office Buying, design, merchandising, ecommerce, IT, finance, HR, marketing and retail operations
Perks 50% off products

Essentials

£150,000 Average house price*
14.7m Population
£511 Average total cost of living per household per week**

 

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