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Can Britain make its clothing locally?
Meet the Manufacturer discusses bringing textile manufacturing back to the U.K. from across the world
reporting by Louisa-Clarence Smith
on June 11th, 2014
Hundreds of British textiles manufacturers and designers descended on the Old Truman Brewery in east London for the first ever conference dedicated to returning British textiles manufacturing to the UK today.
Meet the Manufacturer founder Kate Hill, a former fashion designer and buyer, organised the conference after becoming frustrated with the dependence of British retailers on Far Eastern suppliers.
– In ten years’ time, will you be able to find out where your shirts are made and who tailored them?
– Is it financially viable for businesses to base supply chains in the UK?
– Are customers prepared to pay more for home-grown fashion brands?
– What are the key challenges and opportunities for businesses manufacturing in the UK?
We’ve included the live blog here for updates on the conference!
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10.30am London, UK
Mary Portas, recognised as a top authority on retail and brand communication, speaking to British designers and manufacturers.
Calling for a return to homegrown manufacturing, she said: “British manufacturing is alive and kicking but we could be bigger and more people need to believe in it and more people need to buy into it.
“Our country is about ideas, creativity and making. We have got a big perception problem of British manufacturing. We have believed the narrative in the media that we can’t compete.”
She admitted we will never be able to compete with Far Eastern suppliers who can make a pair of jeans for £5, but also said that we shouldn’t try.
British manufacturing is about making a premium brand; it’s not about fast, cheap value manufacturing.
She said: “We need to educate government and consumers and put pressure on big business to manufacture here and create pride and aspiration built around being British, not just value about cheap values and fast fashion.
“We are about quality manufacturing and building stuff that matters for people in the UK.”
11.30am London, UK
Tony Lutwyche, founder, creative director and executive chairman of tailors Lutwyche Holdings, shares his remarkable story.
This British tailor began his career in the British army, at a time when men had to go to Saville Row to get a bespoke suit.
Recognising a gap in the market, he started travelling around London on his moped selling suits to businessmen until a fortuitous appointment with a lead lawyer at Linklaters LLP inspired him to expand the business.
Admitting the business, which now has a store in Bond Street, has been a pursuit of passion, not profit, he said: “Over the last two years I have seen the reward for considerable sacrifice over the last six years.”
He said: “I believe that in our workshop we make the best suits in the world. We have taken customers who for years both Italian suits and are now buying from us in large numbers.”
1pm London, UK
Panel discussion: what do the words ‘made in Britain’ mean to you?
Chaired by Lucy Siegle, from The Observer, the panel, including Cheaney shoemaker William Church, Grey Fox blogger David Evans, dance costumer producer Jillian Bamsey and CEO of Ethical Fashion Forum Sarah Ditty discuss the meaning of ‘Made in Britain’.
Some confusion about the meaning of this much-lauded label. If a pair of shoes are produced in Asia but finished in the UK, does that mean we can call them ‘Made in Britain’?
William Church, managing director of Joseph Cheaney & Sons, which has resolutely made all components of its shoes in England since the late 19th century, said ‘Made in Britain’ is a very grey area. He’d like to see the government introduce laws to add value to the label.
Sarah Ditty pointed out that sustainability and ethics do not necessarily come with the ‘Made in Britain’ brand, citing a recent case in the Midlands where Bangladeshi factory workers were being paid the minimum wage of Bangladesh.
For blogger and consumer David Evans, he would like to know exactly where everything he wears is produced, but couldn’t tell you where every component of his ‘Made in Britain’ purchases are from.
He admitted he can’t afford to have a full ‘Made in Britain’ wardrobe, but argued the higher quality and durability of clothes made in the UK means he doesn’t need a vast range of clothes.
Lucy Siegle said there was a missed opportunity for brands to step in with transparent supply chains after the Rana Plaza disaster in April 2013, when a textiles factory collapsed in Savar, Bangladesh, killing factory workers making garments supplied to UK firms.
She said: “For me, there was a real missed opportunity after Rana Plaza…It felt like there was no-one to step in to say actually we are doing it.”
As part of her own campaign work in the sustainable fashion industry, she said she is working on an alternative so that if there is another horrific disaster like Rana Plaza, it will be an opportunity for brands with alternative manufacturing models to step in.
2.50pm London, UK
Why Made in Britain is Here to Stay
Jenny Holloway, CEO of Fashion Enter, a North London factory which manufacturers about 10,000 garments a week for retailers including ASOS and John Lewis, encouraged the audience to get excited about manufacturing in the UK.
Admitting it was a tough first year after launching the factory in 2006, she said: “No two days are the same. Manufacturing is the way forward.
“It’s great to say that you work in London or England. There are opportunities for everyone but it’s about partnerships and relationship-building.”
She cited gaining skilled employees from eastern European countries like Romania following relaxation of immigration rules and increasing transportation costs of off shore imports as reasons to be positive about the future of UK manufacturing.
The social enterprise’s next project is to launch a Fashion Technology Academy in north London, the first of its kind to fill the skills gap in UK manufacture which falls short of increasing demand for British-made garments from overseas buyers.
3.15pm London, UK
Mulberry’s group supply director, Ian Scott, shares his experience of training up a new generation of craftspeople
Mulberry’s luxury leather goods epitomise the opportunity for brands to capitalise on the ‘made in Britain’ label.
Using mostly Italian leather, handbags are manufactured in two Somerset factories in the villages of Chilcompton and Bridgwater – although they still produce some bags in Turkey and other leather goods such as purses in China.
Since opening last year, the Bridgwater factory has trained and employed more than 300 craft workers, 90 per cent of whom are from the local area.
He said: “I remember 25 years ago when we went round factories in the UK where they all had a training centre. That all disappeared but we have re-established it.”
He said he can see Mulberry continuing to expand it’s manufacturing activity in the UK, but said it would be too risky to only produce in one country.
3.30pm London, UK
Daliah Simble, head of sourcing and production at Roland Mouret, says recruitment consultants are inundated with garment manufacturing and production managing qualifications.
She said Chinese and Russian consumers don’t want to buy garments with the ‘Made in China’ label, and look to the UK for an alternative.
She also cited the USA as a discerning consumer market which values British-made clothing.
But she said the biggest challenge to UK manufacturing is education, which should be re-introduced at both primary and secondary school levels.
4pm London, UK
“Making it British – The Challenges and Opportunities”
Chaired by Meet the Manufacturer founder Kate Hill, the panel discusses the challenges and opportunities of making in Britain.
Education and limited government support have emerged repeatedly today as key challenges to the growth of the British manufacturing industry.
Jayne West, national partnership manager at Creative Skillset, which supports skills and training in UK creative industries, criticised the UK government for only providing support for SMEs, which she said account for just 0.2 per cent of companies.
She said while the majority of British manufacturing takes place in the North East, groups like Hackney Fashion Hub are bringing together an increasing number of garment factories in London.
She said: “It’s just not true that people aren’t interested in making things.”
Ideas abounded about different ways of getting more people back into manufacturing, with silk importer Toby Gaddum, director of Gaddum & Gaddum, sharing his recent entry into a prison to train female convicts to use sewing machines, one of whom he now employs in his Staffordshire factory.
Roland Mouret’s Daliah Simble said one of the key challenges was getting garment manufacturing to be seen as sexy again, saying careers in fashion need to be perceived as more than just “designing, styling and buying.”
Contrary to the perception of impossibly high production prices in the UK, Daliah said: “In the UK, we are slightly cheaper than Romania and Poland but our quality is far far higher.”
Kate ended the day with a final question about whether the panelists had seen tangible evidence of consumer interest in Made in British brands.
James Shaw, founder of Albam Clothing, said he saw a lot of his customer base lose interest when he temporarily relocated some of his production to Portugal, where factories are more reliable.
He said: “When you’ve been around factories, you notice ‘made in England’ looks a certain way”.
Daliah said: “We are quite an international company and our market in the USA is very hot on where their products are made. We make products in Portugal too but customers are discerning.”
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