London Fashion Week is one of the most glamorous events in the calendar, and at a time when many of Britain’s most loved high street clothing stores are struggling, one niche area is making an exciting come back.
In the same year when Jane Norman, Aquascutum, Hawkins Bazaar and La Senza have all failed, a revival for British manufacturing of unique garments, accessories and footwear is occurring.
The resurgence of all things Britannia is partly driven by the industry pegging its cost margins in line with rivals in Europe and China, but partly because costs are no longer the only thing to consider – creativity and new designs are putting Brits back on top.
British designs are much-coveted by overseas shoppers, particularly in the Far East
Lee Coleman, founder of Quintessentially Gifts, told the Huffington Post UK that in a recession, people were opting to spend what little cash they have on hand-created bespoke items.
“Over the last two months we’ve seen a surge in sales from international clients who came over to London for Jubilee, Wimbledon, Queens and The Olympics,” she said.
“The British industry also pumps a lot of money into growing new designers which is how we’ve retained our edginess and freshness approach to design.
“British heritage has always been an influence. Designers such as Mulberry and Ettinger are bringing all their business back to the UK in order to retain its heritage and history, in turn making their brand stronger.”
The public also likes buying into the ideal of the British countryside, according to Coleman.
“A lot of manufacturing takes place in the countryside – Mulberry in Sussex for instance. People buy into this. All the above brands are steeped in Britishness and designers are still discovering the hidden treasures that this island has in abundance.”
A model wears a Celtic Sheepskin coat in a typical countryside pose
Huff Post UK has spoken to dozens of UK fashion manufacturers, some are decades old, others are new start-ups, but there are two things they all have in common; they’re niche and they’re exporting huge amounts of their product.
At the top end, you’ve got the elite fashion designers and manufacturers; think Christopher Kane, Erdem and JW Anderson.
All based in London, these darlings of the fashion world were greatly assisted by a revamped and refocused British Fashion Council and a more collegiate atmosphere, where designers old and new helped each other in business and shared shows abroad.
The British Fashion Council's ambassador for emerging talent, Sarah Mower, has written an uplifting piece on this development for the Telegraph.
But the more exciting movement is within the small manufacturers.
Niche is good
Most of the manufacturers Huff Post UK spoke to said exports made up a quarter of their business.
Knitwear specialists Johnstones of Elgin is a good example; 25.5% of its sales are overseas, with total profits hitting £2.6m.
“Our key unique service points are design and innovation, quality, service and production flexibility,” said managing director James Dracup.
“We have a commitment to people, craft, quality, bespoke manufacture and concentrate on producing products for customers worldwide who value and can afford to pay a fair price for a product made in the United Kingdom.”
This is a key point raised by many of the manufacturers – there’s no cutting cost and lowering prices in this market; it’s about reaching out to discerning customers worldwide.
Accessories are also performing well as customers value the craftsmanship
Christopher Ward makes bespoke watches and exports 25% of its produce to more than 90 countries. It’s “beautiful watches at accessible prices combined with a bespoke approach to customer service that harks back to an earlier, less frenetic age” that has helped it stand out, according to its spokesman.
Lingerie is big business for British manufacturers too – Derbyshire-based David Nieper designs and manufactures 100% of its garments in its own UK factory and design studios, employing 230 skilled staff.
Exports represent 35% of the business, with a rising customer base appearing in the US and Australia according to managing director Christopher Nieper.
“We only use the finest fabrics, that drape properly, from sustainable sources such as Swiss cotton, Italian Satin and delicate French lace,” he said. “They are all selected from Haute Couture mills in Europe then brought to Derbyshire to be sewn using local skills.”
Such is the demand in Europe that Nieper has had to recruit bilingual sales staff with French, Dutch and German language skills. And more than 90% of customers return, with sales expected to increase over the next year both at home and abroad.
From a business making £12m profit to a brand new start-up; Betty Blue Loungerie, which specialises in vintage style lounge wear and lingerie.
British sewing skills are making a comeback
Owner of Betty Blue's Loungerie Betty Hobcraft told Huff Post UK that after a year of trading she exports 50% of her wares.
“I want to expand my wholesale customers both here in the UK, but especially abroad as there is a vast market out there,” she said.
“I want to keep providing women with glamorous and comfortable alternatives to sweat pants and hoodies.”
Some businesses even exceed 50% exports – Red By Wolves has gone from exporting just 20% to 90% in the past few years.
“Smaller labels are able to offer substantial added value in terms of design. Companies such as ours are able to move quickly to adapt to demand in certain areas of the range and also to create what might be considered fringe design,” a spokesman told Huff Post UK.
There’s no getting away from the fact that trading will continue to be difficult for all manufacturers.
Data from insolvency trade body R3 shows 37 manufacturers of apparel and leather related products went into liquidation in the past six months.
And another 159 companies in these sectors are considered to be at a high risk of failure in the next 12 months - about 4%.
"Fashion retail is by definition a risky venture," said R3's president Lee Manning.
"It is a business people like to come in and try, despite others having failed before them. Retail is experiencing its own upheavals as bloated store portfolios compete, or take advantage of, the convenience of online shopping. And online hasn’t added sales but merely diversifies existing sales.”
Despite this, niche British fashion houses remain bullish; Celtic Sheepskin, the makers of the original Uggs, said its trading had been on a long-term strong trend of double digit growth, although it started to soften toward the end of 2011.
“The current conditions are clearly more difficult than we have previously experienced but still capable of delivering growth,” they added. “We recognise the need to be continually improving on our offer to remain competitive and relevant. Even the most successful brands can’t be complacent at this time.”
Overseas shoppers can help to offset weaker markets in the UK
Jewellery manufacturer The Great Frog’s Reino Lehtonen-Riley was among many who told us they expected to expand in the next 12 months.
“We have been able to grow while the economy has been in down turn, as things pick up our investments should see reward,” he said.
“I also feel that our market in Japan will expand significantly and I hope to make forays into Hong Kong and China.”
Diversifying is popular too; Northampton-based shoe manufacturer Grensons (which is part of Global Footprint - an initiative to boost Northamptonshire shoes) plans to expand into handbags and small leather goods.
And of course, personalised customer service; Maternity wear specialists Isabella Oliver said it worked hard to create a bond with the customer at what is one of her most emotional and fashion challenging times.
Co-founder Geoff van Sonsbeeck said the focus on service and quality had helped take the company from a single digit loss figure into double digit profit in just 12 months.
So while the future may be rocky, the innovation, service, style and attention to detail, which Brit fashion manufacturers have always mastered, should ensure these businesses are here to stay.