Like many areas of British manufacturing, clothing and footwear has been in steady decline for the past 30 years. Whilst British fashion still receives global acclaim, 90% of the clothes we wear now come from abroad with a net import value of £12.5bn. In the past six months a number of manufacturers of apparel and leather goods went into liquidation, with a further 4% of companies considered to be at high risk of failure in the next 12 months.
The stark truth is that since the 90s, Britain’s clothing industry has been left devastated as many brands departed the UK in favour of more economically advantageous manufacturing conditions and cheaper production facilities overseas in the emerging markets. For businesses, the quality of goods produced abroad, which so often had tipped the balance in our favour, had by the mid-1990’s come to rival what could be produced in Britain but at a fraction of the cost. Investment and improvements in technology and capacity meant businesses were suddenly more confident about moving their production abroad, and for nearly three decades British manufacturers had struggled to compete. An average British-made garment costing about two and a half times more than a foreign import. It’s difficult to argue with the economics.
But whilst large parts of the manufacturing sector may still be on the slow decline, the global growth in the British fashion industry, worth an estimated £21 billion a year, is sparking a renewed interest in how we can keep more of that value here on our shores. From the famed handmade suits and leather boots of London’s Savile Row to the red carpets of Hollywood, adorned by the creations of designers like McQueen, government and industry have been forced to sit up and consider what more can be done to retain world-class knowledge, skills and craftsmanship here in the UK.
The tide is slowly changing, helped by rising standards of living in developing and emerging economies, with retailers facing an increase in production and labour costs abroad. This, combined with the post-Jubilee and Olympics’ resurgence of all things Britannia, means that consumer demand for exclusive British manufactured goods is once again in demand. In particular high-end luxury brands have seen sustained growth as foreign consumers clamour for goods ‘Made in Britain’, where we have become known and respected for our heritage and craftsmanship. “Made in Britain has cachet again. It’s shorthand for a certain kind of luxury”, according to British accessories designer Anya Hindmarch.
Major brands such as Mulberry are bringing their business back to the UK, recently investing £2m to expand its Somerset-based factory, taking the brand back to its traditional roots; people like the exclusivity and intrinsic value that comes with goods that are manufactured in the British countryside.
Barbour, a fourth-generation, quintessentially British brand, has manufactured its core waxed-cotton garments in a factory in Tyne and Wear since 1894. Steve Buck, the Managing Director explains how “Britishness is in our DNA – all our designs are created in the North East of England, taking their inspiration from our rich history and heritage”. He believes that “The benefit of manufacturing in the UK is that we have control over our product, flexibility and we can focus on the detail. Feedback from our customers tells us that they do feel it is important for Barbour to continue to make its classic jackets here”.
So how can the UK supercharge its manufacturing capabilities? Surprisingly cost is not the only prohibitive factor, according to designers. Rather, Britain needs to rethink the way it approaches the supply chain and cashflow. Government, retailers, suppliers and financial lenders all need to do more to support the fashion industry and bodies like the British Fashion Council if we are to maximise our potential.
“There’s a lot which can be done. Business subsidies for manufacturers, or other incentives to help lower the overhead costs of running and staffing a factory in the UK, would all ease the pressure on smaller designers. But most importantly it’s about putting pressure on the big retailers to support small business by offering more flexible credit terms and paying on time”, says fashion designer Maria Grachvogel, who manufactures both in Poland and the UK. “Currently we use a number of UK manufacturers for our busy periods as we find the quality and price competitive. But most cannot offer credit terms, so this is hard for cash flow compared to the overseas manufacturers”.
Maria, who shows at London Fashion Week, is one of many elite designers, including Christopher Kane and JW Anderson, who have benefited from a revamped and refocused British Fashion Council, ensuring that Britain retains its fresh approach to design by manufacturing in the UK. London Fashion Week itself now makes £20m a year for the capital and draws in orders of £100 million, largely in exports. ‘Made in Britain’ is strong and increasingly popular abroad.
But part of promoting ‘Made in Britain’ is the need for government and industry to do more to help showcase the UK as a centre of excellence, not just in technology and innovation but also craftsmanship, customer service and heritage. Manufacturing here can capture the traditions of the past and use the technology of today. Investment in manufacturing must be made. Recently Vince Cable met with top fashion executives with the aim to secure government support for reviving Britain’s clothing industry. There is a need for investment in apprenticeships, training the next generation of skilled workers, and in equipping ageing factories to cope with competitive large-scale production. Based on the current rate of growth, fashion manufacture will contribute £2.1 billion to UK GDP by 2015. So while cost has driven many brands out of the UK and labour and production costs may still be comparatively high, freight and import charges are eliminated and lead times are shortened allowing greater flexibility. Customers are increasingly appreciating the provenance of their garments and see the ‘Made in Britain’ label as a status symbol, which could prove crucial in retaining billion-pound brands like Burberry.
The next step is to ensure that ‘Made in Britain’ does more to appeal to our local consumers and not just focus on foreign exports. We need retailers, business groups and government to do more to get us all to buy British, because Britain, supported by the best in the fashion industry, is still a hot bed for talent and innovation. And we are once again becoming proud of our industrial heritage and manufacturing talent. To remain a global player in the manufacturing industry we must invest in its future and realise our full potential both home and abroad.