Manufacturing in the UK has attracted a rising tide of interest within the fashion industry for the past couple of years. This spring's Channel 4 television programmes about retail commentator Mary Portas re-opening a small lingerie factory in Greater Manchester was the most high-profile example of the trend.
Portas' Kinky Knickers brand, which retails for £10, now counts House of Fraser, Liberty, Marks & Spencer, ASOS, Boots, Selfridges and John Lewis among its stockists. Ironically, demand has outstripped the production capacity of the small unit of 14 or so machinists and the styles are regularly unavailable.
The publicity created by Portas reminded both consumers and indeed fashion industry buyers that products are still made in the UK despite the severe reduction in the manufacturing sector in the past three decades. Among buyers in particular there is widespread ignorance about the very existence, let alone the vitality, of British manufacturers of textiles, clothing and accessories. Improved communications between makers and buyers is seen as a key requirement to maintain, let alone improve, domestic production output.
Scottish Enterprise, the national economic development agency north of the border, has quizzed 14 category buyers at designer brand Paul Smith about their views on using manufacturers in the UK. Only three of the 14 had ever used British factories. "Many of the buyers now making sourcing decisions in major companies are too young to have ever bought anything from the UK. It is clear that the manufacturing sector needs to re-educate buyers from brands and from high street retailers," says Stewart Roxburgh, a Scottish Enterprise executive. "There is a rosy glow around the idea of making in the UK but a more serious piece of work is needed to examine the product portfolio the UK offers. Today's buyers are reluctant to switch to an unknown British supplier. They do not believe that they would get the same service that they get from factories in Italy or Turkey or the Far East."
In short, fashion buyers do not know what the UK has to offer and they do not seem inclined to go and find out. Interestingly enough, Sir Paul Smith himself is speaking at a conference in London on November 2 entitled A New Dawn - Rebuilding UK Textiles Manufacturing, which has been organised by leading textile industry figures under the auspices of three City of London Livery Companies, The Clothworkers, The Weavers and The Dyers. Vince Cable, the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, is scheduled to give the keynote address at the conference.
In recent weeks Cable has been lobbied by industry leaders to appreciate the importance of the sector, which employs more than 90,000 people. The lobbyists include Lord Alliance, chairman of N Brown, the home shopping clothing business, which held an open day for UK manufacturers in early 2011. "We attracted more than 50 suppliers, which was better than expected, and from these we are now using about 10 UK suppliers," says Paul Short, buying and merchandising director at N Brown. "We are buying mainly jersey garments, knitted tops, T-shirts, leggings and some dresses and knits."
John Lewis too has held open days at which UK producers could meet the firm's buyers. "There is an appetite from our customers for UK-made product," confirms Matt McCormack, director of buying for fashion at John Lewis. "For the past 18 months it has been apparent that our menswear customers in particular are interested in the story behind our products. We are now using British factories for outerwear jackets, shirts, ties, gloves, and cufflinks for our mainline collection and our John Lewis & Co fashion range. It's all been growing organically and our buyers have enjoyed the experience."
Online retailers like Asos and fast-fashion multiples like Topshop use British factories more than is generally recognised as they need to develop new ideas or have fast-selling styles re-made quickly. Topshop sources a wide range of product areas from basic and fashion jersey to accessories, tailoring, coats and soft separates and increased its intake from UK factories by 60% last year.
Some manufacturers are developing their own brands to sell through independent fashion shops or directly to consumers, so as not to be so dependent on third-party orders. LS Manufacturing in Wolverhampton is a busy and well-regarded factory with 150 machinists that makes 2,000-2,500 men's outerwear garments a week for premium brands and better-end retailers. Working with menswear industry consultant Dean Batty, the business has developed a naval- and workwear-inspired menswear collection under the Cro'Jack label. On October 10 it opens a pop-up store in Monmouth Street in London's Covent Garden to showcase exactly what can be made in the UK, using British cloth too. The name Cro'jack is derived from a term for part of the rigging on a historic naval vessel. While it is not all plain sailing yet for British textile and clothing manufacturers, there are plenty of keen entrepreneurs that plan to make the most of the rising tide of interest in UK-made products.