The culture minister isn’t faking it when he says he loves fashion.
Whether he succeeds in boosting UK manufacturing and raising the sector’s profile will determine whether fashion loves him back.
Ed Vaizey likes fashion. With a brief that also encompasses the heavily regulated media industry and the political hot potato of sport, it would be easy to assume the culture minister just likes its relative absence of red tape. But it is clear he also gets a genuine kick out of the sector’s creativity and glamour.
He attends London Fashion Week catwalk shows, enthusiastically name drops his favourite designers, is regularly spotted quaffing champagne with the likes of British Fashion Council (BFC) chairman Harold Tillman, and gamely inspects his attire so he can tell Drapers where it’s all from.
He proudly shows off the frothy Hussein Chalayan dress on display in his plush Trafalgar Square office and does a credible job when challenged to explain the difference between Erdem Moralioglu’s design handwriting and Christopher Kane’s (as he once boasted he could. Erdem is all about “bold prints”, Vaizey says, while Kane is more “intricate, with neon colours [this season]”. For once, fashion has a minister who isn’t faking it.
But while all this is great for the sector’s standing with the Government, and helps British brands to build their prominence as one of the UK’s major cultural exports, it does not necessarily translate to cash or legislative support.
As Drapers went to press, the BFC was still waiting to hear if it will have public funds for September’s London Fashion Week after Vaizey was unable to come up with the goods (he privately admitted to a “cock-up” by the Treasury) and passed the decision on to City Hall (Drapers, December 10, 2010). If and when the deal is inked, it is likely to be for considerably less than the four years originally sought.
Meanwhile, Vaizey’s genuine admiration and enthusiasm for the luxury end of the sector and fashion’s celebrity business leaders mean he has arguably paid too little attention to the less glamorous side of the business - areas like garment manufacturing, which are arguably most in need of government help.
“I come to the issue through Drapers, and partly through the BFC and UK Fashion and Textile Association, but I have to confess I haven’t sat down with [manufacturers] in the way I have sat down with and got to know fashion designers,” he concedes.
Britain’s got talent
But if Vaizey is to be believed, that is about to change. He recognises there is “a bit of a manufacturing renaissance” going on, and that a British production industry not only stands to boost employment but also become “part of the sell for British fashion” overseas.
“People recognise that skills, and especially bespoke manufacturing skills, are something people appreciate and that this country can trade on,” he says.
A manufacturing renaissance cannot all be based on Savile Row tailoring and artisan knits, however, so Vaizey pledges to join Drapers on a tour of garment factories in Leicester later this year. He is also laying down the gauntlet to readers to explain their problems and come up with practical, detailed solutions that the Government can potentially get behind.
“My challenge to fashion manufacturers is to make themselves more visible to us,” he says. “Fashion manufacturing is the ideal sector to have apprenticeships in [for example]. We can help fund it but manufacturers have to tell us what they need.”
As part of the most recent budget, the Government said it would help fund an additional 50,000 apprenticeships in the UK, including 10,000 focused on SMEs. Some of these could be specifically allocated to the fashion industry.
“Within the large pile of money reserved for apprenticeships, potentially there is no reason why you couldn’t create a fashion manufacturing apprenticeship scheme that we could do in partnership with Skillset [the sector skills council] and fashion manufacturers. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) funded 10 or 11 apprenticeships in fashion retail [last year], so there is no reason why we shouldn’t progress that conversation.”
But, he adds, they need to set out clearly “how many apprenticeships they need, what kind of apprenticeship courses they would be, and what skills candidates would have at the end. People have to show that if the Government is going to assist, there is a demand for it and we’ll get value for money.” The Government will only put its hands in its pockets if the industry sorts out some concrete proposals.
As detailed by Drapers last week, Sir Philip Green is already doing that. Six months after delivering his proposals for slashing government spending, the retail tycoon is drawing up a blueprint for a fashion manufacturing equivalent of the Fashion Retail Academy (FRA), with the idea of training the next generation of pattern cutters and machinists and restoring a vital pipeline of skilled manufacturing staff.
Last month, skills minister John Hayes visited the FRA, which is spearheaded by Green and backed jointly by Arcadia, Next, Marks & Spencer and Tesco, to see for himself how it could work. He “found it a very stimulating meeting,” says Vaizey - putting his feet on a coffee table and grinning broadly. “I’ve probably spoken well out of turn now.”
It transpires Vaizey has spoken out of turn - Green goes ballistic when he learns the Government has lifted the lid on his plans, not least because he wants to limit the extent to which he is seen as working with the Government - but once the dust settles the manufacturing academy could be vital to the return of garment manufacturing to this country.
If it goes ahead, it is likely to be jointly funded by the industry and government, but that is where the public backing or government involvement ends.
Vaizey disagrees with suggestions from UK manufacturers that retailers should be obliged to put their hands in their pockets and fund a skills renaissance. “They have a whole range of issues to deal with: tax, the economic cycle, rates, skills. All sorts of issues. To be prescriptive and say you have an obligation would be insane,” he says. Instead he argues it is down to British manufacturers to ensure they are competitive - a position likely to raise eyebrows among many in the industry that feel the UK is not operating on a level playing field to its counterparts in Europe.
Not so fast
Just in the past few months, Mulberry chief executive Godfrey Davis and accessories designer Anya Hindmarch have called for National Insurance holidays and relaxation of employment law respectively to make it viable for them to manufacture more goods in this country.
But Vaizey is downbeat about the prospect of turning their requests into reality, or at least doing so fast enough to take advantage of the window of opportunity that UK manufacturers now face, courtesy of soaring cotton prices and labour costs elsewhere and global freight delays.
“I’m very familiar with these arguments because they are made by almost every kind of business, so they are on the agenda but they are macro-economic issues. It is good that the fashion industry adds its voice to those concerns, and we are a Government that would like to relax regulation,” Vaizey says.
Does that mean these policy changes are too complex to consider introducing quickly enough for the fashion manufacturing industry to take advantage of the window of opportunity?
“Yes,” says Vaizey. “Clearly if we are to relax employment laws - if I can put this delicately - it is important that people have rights. You have to do these changes very carefully, [with] proper consultation, proper debate.”
And National Insurance? Vaizey concedes with a straightforwardness unusual in a politician: “I’ve dodged the question … is it something we’ve put forward from the DCMS in terms of what we would like to see in the budget? Erm, no, it is not something we’ve put forward. It is not something we’ve considered.”
While that will be disheartening to British brands and suppliers looking to expand in the UK, Vaizey offers candid advice to manufacturers that want to step up a lobbying campaign for more favourable conditions.
“We need to raise the profile of some of the personalities involved in fashion manufacturing. Why is film seen as sexier than video games for example? It’s because high-profile figures are attached to it. Fashion design has clear icons, so, ‘I want to be a fashion designer’ - is [an] obvious sell],” he says.
Vaizey, the glamour hunter, knows what it takes to turn a head like his.
2010 Minister for culture and creative industries
2006-10 Shadow minister for culture and creative industries
2005 Elected as Member of Parliament for Wantage and Didcot
2004-06 Chief political speech writer to then leader of the opposition Michael Howard
1996-2004 Director of PR company Consolidated Communications
Q & A
Talk me through your outfit.
The tie looks a bit like a Damien Hirst [painting] but it’s Etro Milan. I’m wearing an M&S shirt and my shoes are from that Northamptonshire factory, Crockett & Jones. I shop for myself, but I shop like a bloke. I wait, and then I go out and buy [lots of] shirts and trousers. My last clothing purchase was a Mulberry jumper.
What did you make of the John Galliano debacle?
No comment. This is Drapers, this is serious fashion news. [The Galliano incident]isn’t just technically to do with fashion. It has to do with the behaviour of an individual. I don’t want to be drawn into it. It’s not for me to get involved in something I don’t have any knowledge of beyond what everyone else has seen on TV etc.
Which is your favourite retailer?
On a personal level it is Sir Philip Green. I just think he’s so passionate. I love Harold Tillman [as well]. I think what he’s done for the British Film Council [sic] is amazing. British Fashion Council! I can’t multi-task!
Who is your favourite designer?
I’m a great fan of Erdem because he’s still trendy and I know him.
Do you check to see whether your clothes are made in the UK?