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Steven Miller

The last true British shirtmaker, Turnbull & Asser, enriches more than just gentlemen’s wardrobes. Its boss explains why it won’t compromise on its Made in Britain ethos

Up to 40 people have had their mitts on Daniel Craig’s shirt. One might think that’s an appealing prospect for a lot of people, but measuring James Bond’s torso, stitching Prince William’s pockets and getting to grips with Simon Cowell’s turn-down cuffs is not as attractive as working at Tesco for young people today.

That’s the reality facing Turnbull & Asser, England’s famous shirtmaker to the stars.

A typical Turnbull & Asser ready-to-wear shirt takes one hour to make. At the firm’s Gloucester factory it goes through up to 40 pairs of hands and an amazing 37 processes before it is pressed three times, folded, wrapped in cellophane and shipped back to the store to be collected by the customer.

Traditional bargain

When you consider the amount of work that goes into producing one of Turnbull & Asser’s shirts, they’re a veritable bargain, given their iconic three-button (mother of pearl, of course) barrel cuff style retails from just £135. And the accuracy and attention to detail is such that its Gloucester factory, based on an industrial estate in Quedgeley, has a 99.8% compliancy rating – a near -perfect score on its quality of output. It’s undoubtedly due to managing director Steven Miller’s introduction of a quality control check at every stage of the process – “measure it twice and cut it once” is a mantra that now rings out across the factory floor.

Meanwhile, demand for Turnbull & Asser’s shirts – the company also offers an even more complicated bespoke shirt-making service from £210 – has rocketed, thanks in part to the resurgence in demand for Made in Britain goods and because Turnbull & Asser’s under-the-radar reputation has gained pace through word of mouth.

It was word of mouth that first drew Ali Al Fayed (brother of Mohamed Al Fayed) to become a customer. So impassioned did he become about the British business that he bought it in 1986.  Today, sources claim Turnbull & Asser and its factories may not be trading now had Al Fayed not invested.

Al Fayed says: “Turnball & Asser was, and always will be, intrinsically and emotionally linked to the Made in Britain strategy. It is at the core of everything we do. We always have invested, and continue to do so, in our own manufacturing base of the best shirts and ties. In addition we are always there to support our long-standing suppliers. Of this we are proud, and it is one of the key reasons we have survived and prospered over the last 125 years.”

The business is run day to day by Miller, but Al Fayed and three of his US-based sons, James, Liam and Sam, sit on the board, along with Neil Clifford, chief executive of luxury footwear retailer Kurt Geiger, who was appointed as a non-executive director last year.

According to Miller, annual sales stand at almost £20m – a significant uplift on the last available figures from Companies House for the year ended January 30, 2010, when sales were £9.1m. At the time pre-tax profits were £345,000, although this is thought to have also improved significantly.

The numbers speak for themselves, but growth is hampered by Turnbull & Asser’s limited production capacity. The existing Gloucester shirt factory will produce around 65,000 shirts this year – an impressive volume when contrasted with that of Italian global luxury brand Brioni, which produces around 110,000 shirts a year yet has more than 50 stores. By contrast Turnbull & Asser has four stores – Bury Street (bespoke) and Jermyn Street in London, a concession in Harrods and a store in New York – plus its wholesale business, which sells to the likes of etailer Mr Porter.

Miller says: “It’s a chicken-and-egg situation. We can sell more, so we need to ramp up both the sales and the manufacturing in tandem. We have to be very careful with how we manage expansion.”

Searching for staff

Fortunately, Al Fayed has deep pockets which has enabled Miller to expand the shirt factory into an adjacent unit to cope with some of the new interest in the business. Various functions will relocate into the new building to free up space for more production.

The challenge now, which chimes neatly with Drapers’ Save Our Skills (SOS) campaign, is to hire the manufacturing staff needed to drive expansion.

Miller says: “Young people don’t see [manufacturing] as a career. The rise within a business and the money earned is not as meteorically quick as young people expect. The trouble is they aren’t in the real world.”

Bette Elton, who heads the factory floor and who has worked for Turnbull & Asser since 1964, says attracting people to work for her is challenging because schools no longer train or educate youngsters about the industry.

The reality is that the factory competes with the local Asda and Tesco stores for staff, even though Turnbull & Asser says its hourly pay rates are reviewed regularly and there is a bonus scheme linked to production performance on top of those reviews. In reality, a good machinist operating at 10% to 15% above target can earn significantly above the minimum £5.93 hourly wage for over 21-year-olds. Turnbull & Asser also runs its 37.5 hour working week so staff finish at 1.30pm every Friday and enjoy a long weekend. “Some of the old traditions are not bad,” chuckles Miller. “And if we don’t start training in-house we’re dead.”

Turnbull & Asser is now in talks with the local Stroud College about developing an apprenticeship scheme, which will see young people work in the factory and spend one or two days at college each week. The scheme will be part-funded by local government.

It’s not just its own factories Turnbull & Asser is committed to investing in (it also has a tie factory in London). While shirts make up about 60% of the company’s sales, the business also offers a range of suits, cashmere knitwear, boxer shorts and socks in its Jermyn Street store. All have to be sourced locally, in line with the company’s Made in Britain ethos.

A willing investor

Leicestershire-based hosiery brand Pantherella makes the 30,000 pairs of socks Turnbull & Asser shifts each year, while Turnbull & Asser has the 30-gauge knit machine at the John Laing factory in Scotland nearly completely booked in terms of capacity. It knits just 60 sweaters per week, “but feel them,” says Miller. “They’re the best.”

Its boxer shorts are made by a small operation in East London, which often calls upon Turnbull & Asser to help with cash flow. It willingly pays up front for goods or part-way through production. Miller says: “We rely on them [our suppliers] and they rely on us.”

Recently, when Turnbull & Asser lost its English tailoring manufacturer, Miller approached a seamstress who already made the company’s smoking jackets and asked her to set up her own ready-to-wear plant, which would be supported by Turnbull & Asser guaranteeing orders. She promptly remortgaged her house, employed a team of people and created her new business, such was her faith and trust in Turnbull & Asser.

It’s a heart-warming story, and while Al Fayed’s cash is ultimately what makes stories like this possible, this is a business which lives and breathes its Made in Britain label, rather than one that haphazardly stitches a Union Jack into the back of a yoke. The UK fashion landscape would be a much poorer place without it.  ●

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