Meet The Manufacturer: Is it time we all made it British?
4 Jun 2015
Heated debate ensued at the Meet The Manufacturer conference this week, as the panel of guest speakers all weighed in on whether now is the time - and if indeed it is, then what is the best approach? - for all arms of the UK fashion industry to unite under the Made in Britain umbrella.
Hosted by Make It British and featuring designer Nigel Cabourn, Saville Row’s Patrick Grant, the British Fashion Council’s Chief Executive Caroline Rush and shirt maker to the world’s top power players Emma Willis, the event dissected what needs to happen next if we’re to restore Britain to its former fashion glory.
Unsurprisingly, the bulk of the conversation fell on the relationship between manufacturer and retailer, quality versus margins, and the real meaning of value for the consumer. On the future of manufacturing in Britain, Patrick Grant was keen to stress the importance of blending the industry’s romanticised past with the efficiency of the new. 'We have fallen in love again with the making of things here in the UK. We love the craftsmanship of it, and we love the human element. ‘But what we really need, is for small, romantic businesses to become bigger and more efficient in terms of modern manufacturing. ‘We have wonderful manufacturers here in Britain who produce brilliant products, but can’t deliver high volumes in good time. We need factories that are more modern, consistent and brilliantly laid out.’ But flagging up the main gripe of the industry, and the very issue which sends most retailers searching for an overseas supplier, Nick Cheema, Director of Basic Premiere, noted that as a manufacturer, the main issue here is of course price.
Can Britain ever win in the price war?
With factories in Bangladesh, Portugal and Asia offering cheaper prices on high volume orders - deals are being lost and won on as little as a twenty pence - what business incentive is there for big retailers to keep things British? Especially when shareholders demand such fierce growth year on year in a market which, due to the fast fashion culture, is arguably more competitive than ever.
A notable example of the price war came in the form of Marks and Spencer’s now infamous suede skirt. Originally produced by a British manufacturing company, the store’s £199 skirt quickly sold out following a pandemonium of press coverage and celebrity endorsement, with top-up orders being sent straight to a factory in India. The reason for bypassing the original suppliers? Margins, apparently. But this, agreed the majority of the Meet The Manufacturer line-up, is where a backing of Brand Britain can hopefully step in.
Nick Cheema maintains that given the right working relationship, a British based factory could offer retailers greater flexibility and better speed to market in situations such as the sell-out suede skirt, as well as rapidly changing trends, by offering better communications and cutting out both the cost and time delay of international shipping.
But it was perhaps Christopher Nieper, Managing Director of the hugely successful family-owned David Nieper, who highlighted the real beauty of investing in a Made in Britain ethos.‘Value doesn’t have to mean the cheapest price when you have better quality fabric, a better cut and fit, and longer term value for money. If today’s consumers like to know where their clothes are made, and like to buy well-made British brands, then give them what they want. ‘If the provenance of the British brand means quality, you can sell that anywhere.’
How to bridge the skills gap
Increased demand for British quality however, inevitably casts the spotlight on the skills gap. Since most artisan trades from textiles and leather making to the art of beautiful sewing have dwindled in popularity, there are now fewer numbers of people who can be drafted into the workforce to supply such delivery. Let alone a workforce to back future growth.
The likes of Emma Willis and Patrick Grant have a solution however - make apprenticeships more appealing, and offer them yourself. This they say, is where much more support and focus is needed. Emma, who runs a small training school for sewers above her Gloucestershire factory, says the want for knowledge is there. Young people in particular, just need the opportunity for training. ‘Demand is huge, I know people want to make again, and I know that you can train young people these skills quickly while they earn as they learn.’
Caroline Rush has also been looking into what the British Fashion Council can do to help bridge the gap, and expanding career conversations around the fashion industry beyond ‘model, designer and retailer’, is just the start.
Working with educators at Creative Skillset, over the next year the BFC hopes to offer greater access to ‘making’ skills, especially for micro-businesses and on a regional basis.
‘Now is a time for intervention,’ said Caroline in her rousing call to the room. ‘If we can come together as an industry with one voice and make an impact, it’s going to benefit everyone.’
Written by: Amy Lewis