With economic uncertainty and credit insurance a continuing worry for fashion businesses, the chairman of fashion and textiles’ first umbrella trade body, UKFT, is fighting the industry’s corner.
Such was the popularity of the UK Fashion and Textiles Association’s (UKFT) first meeting of its full membership that chairman Peter Lucas ran out of chairs.
“We had in excess of 30 people turn up, people who had come straight from work. This was one of the things I wanted to achieve – make UKFT a body that had people on it who were actively working in the industry,” says Lucas, who led the creation of the trade body in May.
Earlier this year, the British Clothing Industry Association (BCIA) was rebranded to UKFT, an umbrella group that, for the first time, has come to represent all the fashion and textile industry’s trade bodies.
A raft of leading industry players were also appointed to the board, including Simon Berwin, chief executive of tailoring business Berwin & Berwin, Nigel Lugg, managing director of supplier Prominent Apparel (Europe) and Richard Craig, managing director of designer brand Margaret Howell.
When it launched, UKFT had a handful of members – The Association of Suppliers to the British Clothing Industry, UK Fashion Exports and the Savile Row Bespoke Association – but in the lead up to last month’s meeting, which set out the organisation’s strategy, the list skyrocketed. New members now include the British Fashion Council (BFC), the British Menswear Guild (BMG), the Textile Institute and the Scottish Textile Industry Association (STIA).
So, what does UKFT do? “With issues like credit insurance, for example, it’s difficult for individual organisations to influence Government, but as UKFT, ministers have listened,” Lucas explains, referring to the trade body’s demand that the Government channel some of the cash set aside to support the UK’s financial institutions into insuring suppliers’ orders from UK fashion retailers. Thanks to the UKFT, the Government backdated the period of cover assistance it would offer from April 2009 to October 2008.
“Training and development is also fundamental to our industry and this was coming through Skillfast-UK, but it has now lost its charter. It’s trying to get it overturned but this is unlikely. We could find ourselves in March without a sector skills council,” he says.
The UKFT is also in talks with the Government over bank lending – or lack of it – which Lucas says is in danger of bringing the industry into a “second recessionary retrenchment when there isn’t a recession”.
He explains: “Other countries have come out of recession and we will get our three months [of consecutive growth] and come out of it too. Then we should see a steady climb in 2010. So a lot of our retail friends are saying: ‘We’ve ordered spring  stock but wouldn’t it be great to get more stock in time for Christmas?’ As a supplier, I would need to borrow from a bank to satisfy the order, but the banks are saying no. If you can’t take advantage
of coming out of recession, you go into it again.”
Call to arms
Lucas insists the Government is responding to UKFT’s calls, but that it is not doing enough. Yet despite the early successes of UKFT, Lucas knows he must up the game, especially when he introduces a subscription fee to members in 2011.
Currently, UKFT is financed by funds from the old BCIA and Lucas is yet to decide what the subscription fee will be and what it will be based on. “Should it be based on turnover? On the number of members in each organisation? I don’t think it will be a problem because of what we’ll offer [to members],” he says.
But Lucas may come up against criticism from members, with BMG chairman Oscar Udeshi suggesting the decision to introduce a fee has not yet been finalised. “We haven’t got that far yet and have no idea what the fee might be. There may be other ways to raise cash,” he explains.
There could be. One of UKFT’s biggest assets is its offices at 5 Portland Place in central London. Ideally, Lucas would sell the building and use the funds as income on a long-term basis, while finding a more suitable venue for UKFT. But in a weak property market, it’s unlikely that Lucas will get the £7m he wants for the building so the likelihood is that UKFT will remortgage it and use the money for refurbishments.
Within the new offices and boardrooms will be UKFT’s newly formed committees, of which there are four: finance and investment chaired by
Phillips-Van Heusen chairman and managing director John Miln; marketing and PR chaired by Simon Berwin; design and brands chaired by Richard Craig; and training and education chaired by Mark Henderson, deputy chairman of tailoring brand Gieves & Hawkes. There will be a fifth – textiles – but UFKT is still putting the final touches to it.
Lucas was determined to stay away from product committees – “our members already do that”, he says – and it is this willingness to allow affiliates to retain their autonomy that has won Lucas so many members.
“We were reluctant to join because we were worried about losing our autonomy,” admits Udeshi. “But our fears were completely unfounded.” Udeshi adds that one of the major benefits is sharing knowledge and information with other trade bodies, and attending seminars at reduced costs.
One of Lucas’s next steps is to get the British Shops and Stores Association (BSSA) on board as a member, which may seem at odds with a predominantly textiles- and supplier-based organisation. Not so, says Udeshi. “It’s good to have retailers of your brands involved and many brands have stores too.”
It’s a challenge that Lucas is up for – this and whatever else may come his way. “We need to give people a reason to stay, to feel it’s worth paying towards,” says Lucas. “We’ve talked the talk, now we have to walk the walk.”
Who is your fashion mentor? Donald Parr. He built menswear group the Baird Group. Up to when he retired he watched over the business with a firm but very friendly hand.
I learnt a lot about people management from him; he was a great businessman. In terms of fashionability, I admire [Savile Row tailor] William Hunt – he puts a smile on my face. He’s quirky and different, he has the balls to take it on and do his thing, but also to create something commercial.
What is your favourite shop? Tea shop Bettys in York for the English cream tea.
What is your proudest achievement? The management buyout of BMB (now Baird Group) in 2000. I went from being an employee to being an employer. Nine years on it’s still here and growing.
What has been the best-selling product you have ever worked on? From a product and heritage point of view, I love the Baracuta G9 jacket and it has done extremely well for us. But in terms of sales, the Baird Group moved enormous volumes on suiting made from Bengali fabric.
Which British designers do you most admire? People like Matthew Williamson and Vivienne Westwood always put a smile on
my face. British fashion is innovative, bold, creative and adventurous.
What would be your dream job outside of fashion? This is my dream job, but if I couldn’t do this then I’d like to be a farmer. Between the ages of 13 to 22 I worked on a dairy farm during the weekends.
2009 Chairman, UKFT
2008 Chairman, BCIA
2000 Chief executive, BMB (now Baird Group); led the buyout of the business
1989 Managing director, William Baird
1986 Responsible for manufacturing and sales, John Collier
1982 Part of John Collier management buyout
1977 Joins menswear retailer John Collier