A Factory Sampler: how to make Brexit work

A Factory Sampler: how to make Brexit work

Words Mark Hooper

Photographs Dan Wilton

The British garment industry was once the pride of the nation – and with Brexit looming there has never been a better opportunity to reboot it. From investment in factories to apprenticeships, here’s how to get it right – from those who know best…

Visit any of the traditional heartlands of the UK garment industry – the factories and mills of Walsall, Nottingham and Manchester, for instance – and what will you find? Pubs and nightclubs and luxury flats, filling the cavernous spaces that once hummed with productivity during the day.

It’s symptomatic of a nationwide problem: Brexit puts the emphasis on Britain becoming an exporting nation once more: which means investing in manufacture. But where is our manufacturing industry? A footnote behind the headlong rush towards service and entertainment. And yet there are still models for success out there: thriving businesses producing goods to a quality that the world appreciates and is prepared to pay for. Surely these should be the template for a revival in British manufacturing?

To that end, Hole & Corner has convened a style council of those who have been there, done that, and made the T-shirt – and asked them to explain from their experience what is wrong with the industry and how it can be fixed. Here then, is a 12-step plan for recovery…


Style Council members

William Asprey & Lou McLeod
Chairman / CEO, William & Son

Nicholas Brooke
CEO, Sunspel

Lucy Clayton & Patrick Grant
CEO / Founder, Community Clothing

Douglas Cordeaux
MD, Fox Brothers & Co

Robert Ettinger
Chairman and CEO, Ettinger



Realise what you’re best at

WA ‘Made In Britain has a much greater appreciation outside of the UK than it does inside the UK. We have a reputation for making things: for longevity and quality.’

RE ‘When I go the Far East and the Middle East, they all think Britain is the best place in the world. We’ve still got the best schools and universities – and hospitals to an extent. They like us probably more than any other country in the world, and they’d like to do more business with us, given the opportunity. We don’t blow our own trumpet enough, and that is a British trait. Sometimes you need a foreigner to point out that you’re not as bad as you think!’

PG ‘We are still a great manufacturing nation, but increasingly we’re moving towards very high-margin, highly technical products. Which is of huge importance to our economy. But I strongly believe we have a great opportunity to restart manufacturing more of the things we use or wear every day. But to do this we need to think differently about the business models we operate under.’




Understand the importance of quality

NB ‘For Sunspel it’s about appreciating where something comes from and how it’s created. So that goes back to history, expertise, care and craftsmanship. It’s appreciating that – and then feeling that in the product.’

RE ‘We select the best ingredients as raw materials – for us that’s leathers, linings, fittings; we just buy the best we can: in England if possible, but if it’s not made here anymore – a lot of tanneries and metal manufacturers have gone – then we buy in. The best zips come from Switzerland, the best linings from Italy… It’s like cooking: you need the best ingredients. And if you’ve got those, plus the skills – which we have – then you’ll make a beautiful product.’

NB ‘I think people are increasingly beginning to understand that there is a price to be paid for a £3 T-shirt, and that price is paid by the people making it overseas and the environment, in terms of where that crop is grown, etc. I’m always really happy to explain why what we make costs what it does. It lasts longer, it feels better and it looks better.’

WA ‘I feel that within the UK, a lot of it has come down to price and not quality. People don’t know what real quality is. If you can’t tell the difference, then you look at which is more expensive than the other. But is it better to buy something once and keep it forever, or replace it on a regular basis with something that is cheaper and of lesser quality?’



Embrace the craftsmanship movement

LC ‘People are feeling increasingly alienated by throwaway products and fast fashion. But they need credible, affordable alternatives, and that isn’t always easy to find. Knowing where something was made – and who by – is part of
that, but so is knowing that the process is low-impact, that it’s been done with decency.’

LM ‘It’s quite interesting to see all these big stores swinging over to British craftsmanship, when they were the ones who destroyed it in the first place. The irony being they’re now thinking, “What have we done?” and are turning back to it. But that’s good.’

NB ‘I think a lot of the big brands are getting really interested in craftsmanship. I’ve just come back from America and it is a really big area for the huge brands out there – exacerbated by the pressure in America right now to be making everything in America. But it is something that we’ve always done, and you really have to make sure you don’t miss the opportunity to tell people what you do and why you do it. Otherwise all these other brands are going to be blowing their trumpets about it.’

LM ‘This word trend, we’ve all been guilty of using it, but it needs to be more than that – it needs to be ongoing.’

WA ‘To say that craft is a trend is nonsense, because this creativity – this craft – is something we’ve always had, it’s just a question whether we choose to highlight it or not. What we should do now is to go from craft to Britishness. We’ve got Brexit coming up, people are saying prices in supermarkets are going to go up: well don’t import. Go back to what we always used to do, which was fruit and veg was seasonal. Spring lamb was in the spring. And if you’re bringing something from halfway round the world, there’s a transport cost. And yet New Zealand lamb is still cheaper than British lamb – that I don’t get. I’m not saying we should be protectionist, but if people are concerned about price, it’s because of transport costs. The supermarkets hold manufacturers to ransom and fix their price.’

RE ‘I am aware of the wheels turning in the right direction. I’ve been doing mentoring, first for the Prince’s Trust and now for Walpole’s Crafted programme – and there are more and more people who are wanting to learn a skill, and a number of them are coming out of well-paid jobs,
and earning far less but doing something they’ve always wanted to do – and they love it. It isn’t all about money, but I always say, “You’ve got to make a living – think about
selling a bit more!”’




Turn negatives into positives

WA ‘I heard about this chap who set up a Museum of Failure. I found it fascinating: that’s the way you learn – through your mistakes. You look at something and you think, “why didn’t it work?”’

LC ‘Community Clothing works with the best British cloth and clothing manufacturers, who struggle with fashion’s seasonal cycle. We make our garments during the quiet periods these factories have between seasons – so we can keep them busy all year round.’

RE ‘On the Crafted programme, they’re all one- or two-man (or woman!) bands: and the hard thing is to scale up: to go from that – which is really hard in terms of exporting and going to the shows – and then growing to five, 10, 20 staff. That’s really difficult and that’s where they need help from the government.’



Sell your story to the customer

WA ‘In this day and age of the internet where people look at pictures and say “Yes” or “No”, you don’t get the opportunity to sit down face-to-face with your client and explain that story.’

LC ‘We sell direct to the customer, cutting out the wholesale and retail costs. And we’re a Community Interest Company, so we pledge 75% of our profits back into projects in communities. We want to create jobs, make clothes and restore pride.’

WA ‘We’re very fortunate that most of our clients come through the door, so we do have the opportunity to tell them the stories – to tell them about the manufacturing processes, to engage with them and explain what it is that they’re buying – that it is
of a small run and you’re not going to see it everywhere. And I think
people like that.’



Lead by example

DC ‘Working directly with individual customers via trunk shows with tailors has been the best part of my job, it’s lovely being able to help a customer choose a cloth which is then given to one of the world’s best tailors and created by hand into a suit or jacket that will last for years.’

WA ‘If you treat people properly, you build a loyalty. Even if you don’t sell them something, but you give them good advice, the next time they want something they will come back to you, because they remember how nice you were. Even if you don’t make a sale, you want people to look on you favourably. And if you can generate that goodwill simply and easily, then why not?’




Education, education, education

DC ‘Supporting art and design in secondary education is key to the fashion and textile industry. There are so many offshoots from creative skills that are overlooked, but are worth so much to the country. We are a nation of creatives but it would be good if we could physically make more of these creations on our own shores. More government incentives are needed to put manufacturing on the educational curriculum.’

RE ‘There is a PR/marketing exercise to be done to tell young people about manufacturing. When the kids talk to their employment advisors at school, they need to talk about manufacturing and having a skill. I think they should extol the virtues of it and why it’s something to look at.’




WA ‘People say things will be much more expensive after Brexit because we’re importing – well, don’t import! It should be homegrown.’

RE ‘We export over 90% of what we make; but we always have done. I remember years ago I said to my father, “Why don’t we import from China and bring in cheap wallets and things” – but then it’s just down to price and you’ll disappear eventually. We didn’t do that – and in hindsight that was the right decision.’

DC ‘Brexit is with us and we have to deal with it. I think the UK fashion and textile industry has huge potential, it’s celebrated worldwide – but there has to be some investment – and as consumers we have to get behind it, we need to buy less but buy well, learn to appreciate quality and save for it: support slow fashion.’

NB ‘I’m worried about Brexit. From a business perspective, it’s already made anything that we buy more expensive, because the pound has depreciated. But if we have tariffs with Europe, I think that’s going to be a disaster for brands like ours.’

RE ‘We will still have a single market, because we import more than we export, so the German carmakers will not be happy if there’s a 10% tariff on BMWs and Mercedes. But right now, who knows what’s going to happen? It’s a big mess.’

DC ‘I’m a great believer that world skills should be supported, more so now that Brexit has happened. We should not be seen as too protectionist – as a result of Brexit, our retail arm is launching a more worldwide approach to its product – we will now make things where the skills are, starting with trousers made in Naples using Fox flannel woven in Somerset.’



Sell the job

WA ‘You need to catch people young and teach them that going into a manufacturing business – whether it’s leather goods, clothing, silver, bicycles… is a worthwhile job, and making something is so satisfying.’

RE ‘We need to get young people to realise that working in a factory, is not a bad job to have. You might not earn as much than if you go and work for a retailer for the first few years, but you’re making something that’s useful and beautiful.’




Make apprenticeships work

RE ‘I think the problem now is that the government has only started talking in the past few years about apprenticeships. But they’re still not what I call proper apprenticeships – I lived in Germany for two years as an apprentice, where you start in the factory for six weeks making the things, then you go to the packing department, then you go to import, export, accounts, sit with the MD… Here, the apprenticeships in engineering are better, but in all the other trades they’re not strict apprenticeships.’

WA ‘There are small pockets of great skill here, and what we have to do is to keep these people going, encourage them to pass on their knowledge to others.’

RE ‘We had one apprentice who wasn’t particularly academic, but she still had to pass Mathematics and English exams for us to get the money – she doesn’t need that, she needs hands-on experience and a love of what she’s doing.’



Invest in factories

RE ‘We’d been using this leather company called James Homer in Walsall for some work when we couldn’t cope in the London factory. And then 20 years ago we approached them and bought the business and we’ve helped them to grow and expand it. They’re still in the same place they’ve been since 1890 (which we’ve renovated). Great place – lots of long windows to work by natural light.’

LM ‘William’s invested in the fabric of buildings as well. For example the Scottish factory in Howick – we’re rebuilding it behind the current factory. And Simpson’s, the leather company which was originally in Shoreditch – we’ve moved that to Canning Town to a bigger facility and we’ve taken on more staff.’

NB ‘We’ve now started working with this mill in Manchester – the first new cotton-spinning mill to open in over 50 years,  because the textile industry is an example of an industry that disappeared. In the early 1900s, we were producing enormous quantities of cloth. There was a resurgence during the war, because we had to make our own cloth, and they tried to get it going again in the Fifties, but by the Eighties it had pretty much all disappeared.’

RE ‘We aren’t seen as a manufacturing nation any more. When I was a kid, Walsall was a big leather town. There used to be hundreds of factories. Now there’s only two of any size, and the other one is half-owned by the Japanese.’

LM ‘People need to be more educated. We know this from Howick – it was destroyed when Chinese cashmere came in. Factories closed – from around 73 factories, there are now eight left. Now all of a sudden people are concerned about quality, and so they’re reinvesting in Howick.’

RE ‘Yes there’s risk – we invested in Homer and we took on their people. And then you’ve got to keep on paying them so you’ve got to keep the orders coming in. But that’s the same in any business. It’s a chicken-and- egg situation but it’s worked for us.’

PG ‘Actually the big idea behind Community Clothing is about getting away from the marginalised cottage industry model that UK manufacturers are stuck in. I am delighted that so many of them are finding a market, but this is about something big and industrial. We can’t create large numbers of sustainable jobs without breaking away from small-scale operations.’



Stay relevant

WA ‘You can’t stop, you have to keep innovating, keep having ideas and keep pushing everyone forwards. You cannot sit back and say, “I think I’m doing all right”.’

NB ‘It’s a question of applying historical principles that have stood the brand well and making sure they’re contemporary – and that comes down to design.’

LC ‘We like to think of ourselves as part of a long tradition of great British manufacturing – many of the clothing and textile factories in our cooperative have been in business since the 1800s and we don’t want to see them disappear. But it’s not just about saving or sustaining these places, we want to help them thrive. So while we treasure heritage and history, our plans for Community Clothing are expansive and progressive and bold.’

DC ‘Heritage is important, we have so much – from supplying the chalkstripe flannel used by Henry Poole to make Churchill’s iconic wartime three-piece, to Fred Astaire’s grey flannels – it’s all incredible stuff, but today that’s not enough. A business has to be relevant. We’ve done this through various collaborations – for instance with Nike, Globe-Trotter luggage and 45rpm in Japan.’

RE ‘We know from our web sales that our customer base is really diverse – from 18 to 80. It’s not just bankers or lawyers buying our wallets. After all, it’s the same kind of money for a pair of jeans or trainers – so it’s luxury, but it’s not beyond what’s affordable.’

communityclothing.co.uk; ettinger.co.uk; foxflannel.com; sunspel.com; williamandson.com

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