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Country of Origin: knitwear's original spin

Ben Taylor Country of Origin

Knitwear brand Country of Origin’s co-founder, Ben Taylor, blends traditional practices and sustainable approaches to create a modern, premium product

“In the next couple of years, I want this to be a fully circular-economy factory,” says Ben Taylor, co-founder of men’s knitwear brand Country of Origin. Walking around its 7,000 sq ft Leicester factory – which produced its first jumper in February and is now humming with the sound of 12 knitting machines – Taylor confidently demonstrates the premium brand’s manufacturing processes while revealing his lofty ambitions to deliver on its sustainable ethos.

Bruce Pask Country of Origin collaboration

Bergdorf Goodman x Country of Origin collaboration

When 28-year-old Taylor, and his 29-year-old partner, Alice Liptrot, co-founded the business in 2014 from their Brighton flat, the aspiration was to design and create fully UK-made men’s knitwear and revive traditional skills, to deliver sustainable and modern collections. Taylor is responsible for “the business side” and Liptrot, who is currently on maternity leave with their first child, leads on design.

Today, Country of Origin has an online store and more than 80 stockists worldwide – including John Lewis in the UK, a range of Italian independents, Japan’s Isetan and New York’s Bergdorf Goodman, with which it also has an autumn 19 collaboration collection. This week it also launched a Christmas pop-up in London. It will not provide specific financial figures, but turnover increased 159% year on year in the 12 months to 31 October 2019.

Taylor now aims to become even more sustainable, increase the size of its collections, expand Country of Origin’s stockist list and, ultimately, enter new categories beyond men’s knitwear. 

“We wanted to create something that was a reaction to fast fashion – an antidote to fast fashion,” he explains. “It was around the time of the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh in 2013, and we wanted to make something that had full transparency in how we produced it, and who made it.”

The name Country of Origin is a testament to the pair’s focus on this. Taylor says consumers increasingly demand visibility of the production processes behind, and materials used in, their garments, and believes it is more pertinent now than ever.

It’s hugely important for the environment for companies to ensure that we become more sustainable

Ben Taylor, Country of Origin

It is in this spirit of eschewing bad practices that Country of Origin is working towards becoming a circular business through the use of 100% recycled yarns. Its 70-piece autumn 19 collection is fully UK made, using natural and biodegradable British yarns, but Taylor and Liptrot are currently creating samples with recycled post-consumer cashmere yarn from an Italian spinner. Following these tests, this recycled yarn will be included in the autumn 20 collection.

“My ambition is to move to fully recycled yarns,” explains Taylor, reiterating his two-year aspiration to do so. “We want to implement change quickly.”

This week, the factory also replaced all its single-use plastic bags – Taylor says some retailers’ clothing goes through as many as three before hitting the shelves – with UK-made glassine (semi-transparent, grease-resistant) paper bags that are sourced from sustainable forests and fully recyclable and biodegradable.

“It’s hugely important for the environment for companies to ensure that we become more sustainable,” says Taylor. “But a nice side-effect of that is that there’s a huge trend towards sustainability in fashion, which is great. If it’s good for business, more people will start doing it.”

There are buyers out there who want to invest in UK-made quality knitwear with sustainability at the core

Paul Alger, UKFT

Taylor’s commitment to his brand’s goals has not gone unnoticed. Paul Alger, head of international business development at the UK Fashion and Textile Association, first met Taylor four years ago, when they visited trade shows in Japan and the US together.

He says it is Taylor’s “clarity of vision and courage” that have enabled him to push the sustainable manufacturing agenda while delivering a premium UK-made collection with a “stockist list that speaks for itself”: “I take my hat off to Ben, as what he has done is amazing. He is showing that small and lean is a good thing, and not just because he comes up with a great product, but because he has the ability to push boundaries and be innovative. Having someone with his knowledge, and enthusiasm to learn and do new things, is really good.

“There are buyers out there who want to invest in UK-made quality knitwear with sustainability at the core. Ben is living proof that small businesses can do this. He’s a million miles away from where he was four years ago.”

Country of origin tricolour jumper

The popular Tricolour jumper

But launching a UK-made, vertical and sustainable knitwear brand in a competitive and price-sensitive market, has not been easy.

After graduating from the University of Brighton’s textiles for fashion course, Liptrot started designing jumpers from the pair’s flat, using a domestic knitting machine to create samples. 

Taylor explains these were sent to a Scottish factory for production. Rather than the cut-and-sew methods used by most high street retailers, the factory used old hand-frame, “fully fashioned” knitting machines to create the pieces of the garment with no extra fabric, and hand-linking to knit the seams together.

A year later, the brand was creating a couple of thousand pieces a season as its international wholesale market – particularly in Japan – was rapidly growing. The Scottish factory could no longer handle demand, so Taylor and Liptrot set up their own workshop in Streatham, south London, in late 2016. Taylor personally manned the knitting machine.

“All the factories doing this kind of thing were very heritage knitwear,” he explains. “But we wanted to update these traditions to make it relevant for a modern market.

“In that first year of having the workshop we only had one machine, and I was working 14-hour days to make sure we got orders out. It was very hard to keep up with demand. Throughout those years, every garment passed through my hands, which was difficult.”

With Brexit we are narrowing our workforce down from a very large pool to a very small pool

Ben Taylor

With the brand growing rapidly and soon “well over capacity” at the workshop, in 2018 Taylor and Liptrot were introduced to industry veterans Saïd Saleh and Keith Cummings. The duo have more than 80 years’ combined experience in knitwear manufacturing, and Saleh once ran run a Leicester knitwear factory that supplied Arcadia Group.

Saleh was keen to open a new factory in the area, and, by September 2018, in the Wigston district of Leicester, work had begun on setting up the site, which is owned in a partnership between Saleh, Cummings, Liptrot and Taylor. In February, production started on the autumn 19 collection, and the factory is now able to produce 100 garments a day.

But sourcing the skills for both the old Streatham workshop and new Wigston factory has been a challenge, as hand-linking in particular is dying out. In London, the brand teamed up with Brighton University and took on knitwear graduates who were then trained in the traditional techniques needed. But since moving to Wigston, the team has been rebuilt.

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Taylor says he has been able to create a strong workforce in Wigston, sourcing legacy skills locally thanks to the area’s knitwear heritage, but the brand also relies on workers from the European Union.

With Brexit looming in the New Year, he warns maintaining this is “definitely a concern”: “We’ve got a good workforce here. It won’t affect us immediately, but in the future when we’re trying to recruit, with Brexit we are narrowing our workforce down from a very large pool to a very small pool.” He calls on the government to “step up” to support UK fashion manufacturing, and suggests that the reintroduction of training grants would be a huge boost.

With the new factory in full swing, the duo are now focused on more than doubling the size of their collection for autumn 20, taking it to around 150 pieces. This expanded collection will include lighter-weight knits, such as a zip-up merino jumper, and the recycled yarn designs. The brand will also debut spring/summer clothing for spring 20, in the shape of the lighter-weight merino jumpers alongside pima cotton T-shirts. These will be sold direct to consumer online for spring 20, and will be available for wholesale from spring 21.

Country of origin factory

Country of Origin’s Leicester factory recruited skilled workers from the local area

Wholesale prices range from £21 for a lambswool scarf or hat to £82 for a lambs-wool jacket. Bestsellers include the Tricolour lambswool jumper (£54 wholesale) and the Bergdorf Goodman collaboration cable knits (£195-£240 retail) which are also sold on Country of Origin’s transactional website. The collaboration also includes four hats, and will be extended for autumn 20.

For now, the focus remains on menswear, as Taylor believes “there’s a lot of space to grow”, but he adds, “In two to three years, we would look at womenswear and childrenswear as well.”

The brand is currently operating at a rough 50:50 split between online sales and wholesale, but having relaunched its website in September this year, online sales have surged. In the two months since the relaunch, sales have increased 282% compared with the same two-month period last year, while 37% of shoppers are returning customers.

Country of origin x bergdorf goodman

Country of Origin x Bergdorf Goodman

Country of Origin already has around 80 wholesale stockists on board – predominantly in Italy, which is its strongest market, Japan, France and the UK – but Taylor and Liptrot are keen to grow these markets further. It is in three John Lewis stores – Oxford Street, Peter Jones and Glasgow – for autumn 19, and there are hopes to extend to more branches. The brand is also in independents such as The Content Store and Curated Man in London, Owl Store in Harrogate and etailer Dapper Street.

For John Lewis, the decision to stock the brand was made because “we loved its product and story”, explains menswear assistant buyer Hugh Twomey: “Its clean, simple designs and bold use of colour, paired with its use of quality yarns, makes it an exciting brand to work with. It is great to launch a British-made brand at such an early stage of business, and we look forward to seeing how it evolves.”

Kru Mistry, owner of The Content Store, echoes this sentiment: “I like to support young brands that use British manufacturing, and this is what initially attracted me to Country of Origin. The brand has a bold and distinctive look. It’s refreshing in an environment where a lot of new brands tend to play it safe.”

Mistry is not convinced that, in today’s price-sensitive market, environmental credentials are essential rather than “nice-to-haves”, but adds “I can see this changing in the near future, given the recent publicity around this topic.”

To build further on its UK presence, the brand has also launched a 250 sq ft pop-up this week at Coal Drops Yard in London’s Kings Cross, which will run over the festive period. Taylor is reluctant, however, to move into permanent stores at this stage, because of the associated costs.

Internationally, Country of Origin has its sights on expansion into markets such as Scandinavia, with a wholesale push. The US was also a wholesale target before President Trump’s introduction last month of 25% tariffs on certain UK clothing and textile imports. Around 60% of the brand’s online sales currently ship to the US. Individual purchases will not be affected by the tariffs, as they fall under the $800 (£624) minimum at which they are levied, but the duties will hit the autumn 20 Bergdorf collaboration, and Taylor says “prices will probably increase”.

Despite  challenges such as this – alongside sourcing skilled workers and Brexit headwinds – Taylor remains bullish about Country of Origin’s future trajectory, and is adamant that the brand’s UK-made, sustainable story, will allow it to win. Taylor jokingly refers to his and Liptrot’s ambitious plan when launching the business as “the folly of youth”, but Country of Origin has proven it is far from that. 

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