It's London Fashion Week again which inevitably leads us to discuss the dilemma of having fabulous UK Designers but nowhere in the UK to manufacture. But is this still true? For large volume brands the answer, sadly, may well be "Yes" but is it time the big "super" brands had a re-think about their source of supply?
The land that gave the world the Spinning Jenny (a means of multi-spooling cotton that kick-started the Industrial Revolution in this country) was in the ascendancy for hundreds of years. One by one, however, the great manufacturers fled to Asia where production and staffing costs were lower.
In 2000 Courtaulds closed in Worksop. In 2007 Burberry closed its Rhondda factory. Now we find ourselves exporting the machinery to manufacture rather than the garments. The sad fact is that 90% of the clothes we wear are manufactured outside the UK with a nett import value of £12.5 billion. The business of actually making clothes seemed dead.
So are there signs of a revival? It would seem so. Marks and Spencer are producing a " Best of British" range, although it is currently a very small number of designs. This collection is made in Hinkley with around 20 other factories actually manufacturing here.
Apart from flying the flag for Britain, this makes sound commercial sense as the lead times are so much shorter and the cost of logistics significantly reduced. Speed to market is key in fashion and shorter lead times make it possible to purchase "little and often" improving cash flow and reducing the amount of cash tied up in stock. My colleague Mike is passionate that retail Distribution Centres should do exactly that, distribute, and this greater responsiveness makes it possible to reduce the requirements for warehouse space.
In my role as a Retail Consultant I have analysed the supply base of many retailers, both big and small. I have looked at country of origin and supplier / factory performance and in most cases the nett profit of garments manufactured in the UK and the rest of Europe is vastly superior to buying from the Far East and India once all the costs are taken into account. I'm shocked how often the measure of profitability of an individual buyer is "intake margin". The cash generated by a garment has to be viewed with transparency of true costs of logistics and cash invested in stock over time. My findings have always come as a surprise to CEO's who can forget that as always "Retail is about the Detail".
Kate Hills has set up makeitbritish.co.uk bringing production back to the UK. In June she will launch the first trade show for buyers, brands, factories and makers, bringing them all together at the Old Truman Brewery in East London. It's a great chance to quantify what's out there. Hills says she has a database of around 1,000 factories and units, but nobody knows for sure what's left of the industry. We are missing some things entirely: Component makers for lingerie; shirting producers for men's formal shirts; a maker of high-heeled women's boots and general lining makers. "Things are coming back, but slower than they should be" concedes Hills. "We still lack infrastructure".
A note of warning to these factories is not to put all their eggs in one basket. It's great that M&S are pushing British products, but remember they were one of the biggest culprits in the demise of UK manufacturing and the suppliers that made solely for M&S went out of business.
Ultimately the health of British fashion manufacturing may well rest on whether we can develop the skill base we need fast enough. That and the fact that the majority of people who work in manufacturing are over 40 so we need more young people in the profession. There are some great schemes being set up: ASOS have established a stitching school. The British Fashion Council has set up "Fashion Enter" to offer apprenticeships.
However it is currently the case (and may always be) that the UK cannot compete for the lower end of fashion who manufacture in Bangladesh, where prices are low and large volumes can be manufactured cheaply, but we must be able to compete at the higher end. John Miln, Chief Executive of the UK Fashion and Textile Association said: "In the UK manufacturing industry for menswear, formal wear continues to be strong. Unlike the high street where business is tough, formal wear and tailoring is holding its own. There is plenty of fabric production in the UK from locations such as Yorkshire where there are some great suppliers, particularly of wool, operating well".
John Smedley produces from the world's oldest working factory - manufacturing began in 1784 just 20 years after Hargreaves' invention of the Spinning Jenny - and employs about 400 people across 3 factories in Derbyshire and Yorkshire. Ian Maclean, the brand's Managing Director, is the eighth generation family member to run the business and has big plans. The group makes about 400,000 garments a year, of which 60% are exported. Japan is its biggest export market, followed by Italy, Germany, France and Russia.
Mulberry has long made its products in the UK and is a rare example of a British luxury brand continually investing in the production of leather goods in the UK. A second Somerset factory will open later this year beginning a new chapter in a manufacturing story that is local in impact but global in reputation.
So there are definitely signs we may become a significant manufacturer again, but it is likely to be vastly different from the past. The luxury brands who claim to be "British" in particular should now show that they support manufacturing here and customers need to play their part by demanding to know where garments are made. It's no longer a legal requirement to label garments with country of origin but if it doesn't say "Made in Britain" then it probably isn't. If we can take some of the £12.5 billion away from imports and into UK infrastructure we will have a viable industry, which can invest in training and make this a choice of profession desirable to young people.
"Make it British" is launching the first and only sourcing event exclusively for British clothing, textile and leather goods manufacturers this summer, called "Meet the Manufacturer". This major 2-day event, held at The Old Truman Brewery in London's East End on the 11th and 12th June 2014, will showcase the best British manufacturers in the fashion and textile industry.
Let's hope the leaders of our fashion brands go along and start placing orders!
Written by Erica Vilkauls: Director JEM Retail Consultants