With Mary Portas, traditional brands and new young designers – as well as high-street chains – backing British clothing manufacture, home-grown fashion is back in style
It is fair to say that I am more knowledgeable than most fashion writers on the subject of British clothing manufacture, both the loss of it to the far east and the reasons for its tentative return to our shores. My qualification? I’m married to Mary Portas, who 18 months ago reopened a defunct lingerie and nightwear factory in Middleton near Manchester, and brought it back to life by creating a self-funding knicker brand entirely made in Britain, by trainees fresh from the dole.
Living through the Middleton experience – oh, there were drama and tears – demonstrated the problems of the entire British manufacturing industry. This particular factory had closed in the mid-1990s when production moved to China, putting dozens of skilled machinists out of work. Over time, the town became depressed, shops closed, youth unemployment soared. In 2011, when Mary found them again, the machinists, nearing retirement age, were stacking shelves in Tesco, their skills – which should have been passed on to the next generation – withering away.
Today, that factory, though tiny by Chinese standards, is thriving. The machinists plucked from Tesco are back in charge and have trained 32 young people to make Kinky Knickers, fashioned from colourful Nottingham-made lace. In March 2012, when the not-for-profit brand launched, seven trainees were creating 300 Kinky Knickers a week. Last week, the 32 young machinists made 6,500 pairs of pants to be shipped to, among others, Liberty, John Lewis, Asos and House of Fraser. Yes, at £15, they do cost more than a Chinese-made knicker, but some customers are willing to pay for provenance.
In Cardigan, David Hieatt saw the same thing happening to his town. When the local jeans factory employing 400 of the 4,000 locals moved production to Morocco, he was compelled to launch his own jeans brand Hiut last February, and opened a factory employing 10 of the men he calls “grandmasters” to keep the skills alive and pass them on to apprentices. After a week he had so many orders he had to suspend his website for three months, though it is now back on track with fulfilment. “We lost the battle for cheap, but we can win the battle of quality, credibility and ideas,” says Hieatt, whose business now crafts 100 pairs of handmade £230 men’s jeans a week.
The unique selling point of these products is, of course, that they are Made in Britain, and all that conjures up, which is quality, credibility and a level of class. Something we British gave up on in favour of piles of three-for-a-tenner tat. Now, recession-bogged consumers are realising their purchasing decisions can make an impact on jobs and industry in the UK.
Traditional British clothing brands such as Mulberry, Burberry, John Smedley and Barbour trade on their English heritage, and all make some of their products here, but not as many as you would think. Burberry still makes raincoats in West Yorkshire, but the rest of its range is made abroad. Mulberry makes 30% of its products at The Rookery, its factory in Chilcompton, near Bath. This capacity will shoot up later this year with the opening of The Willows, a new handbag factory funded in part by £2.5m from the government’s regional growth fund, creating 250 jobs.
The new faces of Made in Britain are not what you might expect. The Northampton shoemakers, the Scottish knitters and tweed weavers et al make up a tiny proportion of the industry. The real Made in Britain fashion action is happening where you would least expect it. Young up-and-coming designers including new label House of Hackney (it launches on Asos.com next week) and London fashion week boy wonder JW Anderson make every stitch of their clothing in Britain. Anderson’s geek-chic clothing – for spring 2013 it’s all outsize frill T-shirt dresses, and printed Japanese-inspired PJs – is being shipped globally. Knitwear label Sibling also endeavours to make as much as possible in the UK. “We are definitely returning to the good old days where Made In Scotland/Britain/UK is a badge of quality and heritage,” says the label’s co-founder Cozette McCreery.
However, the brightest hope of all for the British clothing manufacture industry is a gradual return of support from high-street chains, notably Asos.com and Topshop. This is being driven by simple economics. “The rising cost of labour, freight, raw material and fuel costs in China mean more high-street retailers are getting more made in the UK,” says John Miln of the UK Fashion and Textile Agency. Indeed, Philip Green recently announced Arcadia Group had increased the number of British factories it is working with by 20% to 47. “We’ve been pushing to see what we could do to keep it nearer home,” he said. “This is something we are looking at, every day, every week. UK manufacturing gives us a different capability.”
Type “Made in Britain” into the search bar on Topshop.com and there is a wide range of pieces from cute T-shirts to chic tailored suits, and hipster leather Bermuda shorts on offer. “It’s true, high street retailers are all increasing their Made in Britain offer,” says Kate Hills of the influential blog makeitbritish.co.uk. “They have realised they need the capability to make in the UK, and if they don’t build relationships with factories now, they will be gone.”