British clothing wins back its shirt

The uniform of the mods of the 1960s and the skinheads of the 1970s - the Ben Sherman button-down shirt - is making a star-studded comeback. The garment is a symbol of the revival in the UK's clothing and textile industry, the motor behind the industrial revolution and now a sector where the UK runs a mighty, albeit shrinking, trade deficit.

Sherman Cooper, the company that owns the brand, is tiny by world standards but growing at a rate to make any businessman envious. It posted a pre- tax profit of pounds 6.5m for the financial year ending 30 June, up from pounds 1.5m. Sales increased 55 per cent to pounds 37.7m from pounds 24.3m.

The surge in sales was helped by the shirt's popularity with the lads of Britpop, Oasis and Blur. It is also due to a marketing and export drive by Sherman Cooper, one of a growing number of clothing firms making inroads abroad. "We've had enough of Nike and Ralph Lauren, we have enough British brands to take them on," said Bill Walker, Sherman Cooper's chief executive.

British clothing and textile companies are focusing on top quality design, clever marketing and innovative manufacturing technology to recapture lost global market share.

UK clothing exports were pounds 3.3bn last year against pounds 6.2bn in imports, according to the Department of Trade and Industry. The overall textile trade was also in deficit, with pounds 4.1bn worth of goods sold abroad against pounds 5.9bn of imports.

The good news, however, is that UK plc exported 10 per cent more clothes last year than in 1995 and the trend seems set to continue. "In terms of the basic cotton and wool spun yarn, we lost our competitive advantage years ago," says Sahill Shan, a Leeds-based analyst with the investment bank Granville Davies. "But developing countries, where a lot of raw fabric comes from, don't have the technical expertise to apply patterns that are popular in the high street or come up with innovative fabrics like Lycra."

Companies like Courtaulds have linked their chemicals and textile businesses to develop new stretch fabrics popular with designers at home and abroad. Another tactic that has proved successful is making exclusive arrangements with a large UK retailer.

The Yorkshire-based Dewhirst Group has seen a healthy rise in profits as a result of its position as a dedicated supplier to multiple retailer Marks & Spencer. Dewhirst profits for 1996-97 rose by 18 per cent to pounds 26.4m from pounds 22.3m a year earlier.