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The Drapers Interview: Howard Klepper

Today’s manufacturers must be agile and responsive, qualities that Manchester-based Karpelle, run by Howard Klepper, has in abundance

On the corner of a trading estate on the outskirts of Manchester city centre is an unassuming grey building. Step inside and mounted on the walls are photographs of the glossy-haired Duchess of Cambridge wearing bestselling styles from Hobbs and LK Bennett, which provide the first clue you have entered the headquarters of premium womenswear manufacturer Karpelle. That and a Drapers Award proudly positioned in reception.

For the uninitiated, the 2015 Fashion Supplier of the Year is a third-generation family business with the annual capacity to make up to 475,000 garments for the likes of Windsmoor and Boden, as well as LK Bennett and Hobbs. Specialising in tailoring, coats and occasionwear, each garment is made by partner factories in Romania, Macedonia and Sri Lanka.

A combination of flexibility, quality and personal service helped Karpelle achieve turnover of £12m in 2014. While unwilling to disclose profits, managing director Howard Klepper believes the company’s ability to react to increasing demand for in-season product is part of the winning formula.

“When trade is difficult retailers and brands leave more open to buy, so as a manufacturer fast-react is the name of the game,” he says, leaning forward animatedly in his chair in the showroom at Karpelle HQ.

Karpelle managing director Howard Klepper.

Karpelle managing director Howard Klepper.

To speed up the process, some brands now arrange for greige (unfinished or undyed) fabrics to be held in Europe at one of Karpelle’s partner factories. These are then dyed to order on a two to three week turnaround. From fabric dyeing it takes one week to deliver to a partner factory and between five and six weeks to reach the client. Other customers prefer Karpelle to dye ahead of time and use the same base cloth across six or seven styles.

“Because we can deliver in season from Europe, brands don’t need to plan the whole season or commit their budget so far in advance and can get repeats on bestsellers, which is where we all make the money,” says Klepper.

A typical order volume is 1,250 to 1,500 units a style, but Karpelle can drop to 500 units for quick turnaround in-season. While it depends on the complexity of style and size, a 500-unit order is loaded onto a smaller production line, meaning the garments would typically come out one week earlier. So on the occasions when the Duchess wears a Hobbs brown silk wrap dress, as she did in January, Karpelle can capitalise on the spike in demand.

“Celebrity endorsements have an unbelievable effect,” says Klepper with a smile. “Over the years we’ve made clothes for the royal family and various celebrities. It’s incredible how it affects sales and the need to offer quick response to back up stock.”

Karpelle is benefitting from the trend for brands branching out into diffusion lines. “The classics area of the market is really tough,” Klepper acknowledges. “Today the 55-plus lady doesn’t want to wear classic fashion, so brands are trying to modernise with diffusion lines.”

As long as Karpelle has the volumes on the mainline collection it is willing to produce as few as 150 units for a diffusion range. This flexibility comes from longstanding relationships. “Brands are where most of our business has been over the years. We’re not the cheapest, but our constant is good quality, good service, on-time delivery and an ethical environment,” says Klepper. “The customer has become far more discerning in terms of quality and often the most expensive article is the bestseller.”

Manufacturing is in Klepper’s DNA. Growing up in Manchester, school holidays were spent working at his grandfather’s coat company, Snugkoat. By the early 1970s Snugkoat had grown to five factories in the Northwest, employing 1,500 machinists.

However, by the time Klepper joined full time in 1980, British manufacturing was on the wane. Snugkoat started closing its UK operations in the mid-1980s, shutting its final factory in 1993.

Klepper saw another way, establishing Karpelle in 1986 as a new venture based on European manufacturing. “The way we were operating was unsustainable, so I started looking overseas,” he recalls. “Sourcing raw materials from Europe lent itself to European manufacturing. While my contemporaries were running to Hong Kong and becoming traders, I still wanted to be a manufacturer.”

After three years of intensive research, Klepper settled on Romania, the homeland of his grandfather Sidney, but took his time to establish an infrastructure, beginning production in 1991. With an abundance of dedicated womenswear CMT (cut, make and trim) factories, Romania was the perfect choice. Karpelle has since decided not to diversify into menswear due to its specialisation in womenswear.

In 2006 the manufacturer branched out to Macedonia to remain competitive after Romania joined the EU and there was a spike in labour costs.

Showing Drapers around the 7,500 sq ft Karpelle head office on James Street in Manchester, Klepper says hello to each of the 45-strong team, which includes two designers, a fabric sourcer, three account managers, three merchandisers, six product developers, a four-strong fabric team, six pattern cutters and two garment technologists.

Another 45 people are employed across a 5,000 sq ft sample unit in Arad in Romania and its partner factories in the country. Fully kitted out with CAD, sewing machines, pressing, cutting and finishing equipment, the unit produces 60 prototypes a week.

Production taking place for Karpelle at a Romanian factory.

Production taking place for Karpelle at a Romanian factory.

Karpelle has a fixed contract with seven factories in Romania and three in Macedonia, which represent 60% of production. The UK team supplies everything from the fully worked CAD design to the raw materials, even down to the sewing thread. Karpelle technicians are on site in each factory to ensure production meets the specifications.

The company normally submits initial fabric options to the client within 24 to 48 hours. Once selected the bulk fabric takes on average four to six weeks to be produced by the mill and a further one to two weeks for testing and delivery to factories in Romania or Macedonia. The conventional lead time is then five to six weeks to reach the UK.   

Eighteen months ago Karpelle started working with two factories in Sri Lanka, specialising in tailoring and softs. “We believe we’ve achieved the same level of quality in Sri Lanka as we have in Europe,” Klepper says. “We produce the same product, but using cheaper fabric for more price-sensitive brands.”

Lead times are the trade-off. On average it takes eight weeks for fabric to be produced in Asia, three weeks to ship the cloth to Sri Lanka, four to five weeks for garment production and four weeks for shipping back to the UK. Third-party fabric inspection on all fabric orders from the Far East adds to the lead time.

“When trade is difficult retailers and brands leave more open to buy. So as a manufacturer fast react is the name of the game”

Karpelle sources approximately 35% of its fabric from China, Taiwan and South Korea. The other 65% is European, 50% of which hails from Turkey and the rest from other EU manufacturers. The Karpelle team attends fabric shows like Première Vision and Texworld in Paris, and Intertextile Shanghai Apparel Fabrics, and makes weekly visits to agents in London.

“Fabric is a huge driver for this business,” says Klepper. “While 25% of clients come to us for design, 95% utilise our fabric sourcing. However, fabric quality is one of the biggest issues we encounter. The quality of fabrics from China is difficult to control.”

Fabric sourcing expertise was a big draw for lifestyle retailer Boden, which started working with Karpelle in 2013. “Their work is so impressive - from day-to-day account management to fabric sourcing and producing beautiful formal garments,” says buying manager Lucy Rosenberg. “We were attracted by their handwriting and the fact they work so close to home.”

Karpelle’s heritage as a family business is the reason clothing brand Pepperberry, owned by lingerie retailer Bravissimo, has worked with it since its launch in 2011. “Karpelle’s heritage stems from a family-run business, which prides itself on exceptional service and quality,” says Pepperberry buyer Lucy Hewitt. “We’ve developed a strong working relationship with a dedicated team, whose full service approach and flexibility mean they are always on the front foot.”

One of the three factories Karpelle works with in Macedonia.

One of the three factories Karpelle works with in Macedonia.

Maintaining European manufacturing was the smart move that allowed Karpelle to flourish, according to Klepper, who saw many brands go too heavily into the Far East only to now be forced to shift production back to Europe. “No question retail is tough, but we feel fairly buoyant,” he says. “The next year will be a period of consolidation.”

With its strong European connections providing the agility it needs to offer fast-response in-season product, Karpelle is well positioned for this. And with a fourth generation of Klepper now in the business - namely Howard’s daughter Gabriella, who is working in product development - its manufacturing heritage looks set to continue for a good while longer.

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