British smalls make a big mark FASHION

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The Independent Online
The bowler hat and rolled umbrella have been toppled as trademarks of British style. The British look now starts with the foundation garments - probably a Gossard Ultrabra, a warm Chilprufe vest or the ubiquitous St Michael knickers - and continues with outerwear from Marks & Spencer or Paul Smith, exclusive knitwear from the Midlands, and ends with a waxed jacket and a pair of Dents gloves.

The ensemble is confusing - as is the message sent by overseas markets to the British clothing industry. While export awards to Barbour, Gossard and knitwear manufacturer Peter Geeson, point to refined quality and material as the principal attractions of British clothes, awards have also gone to the cheaper end of the market.

They include the London-based international division of Freemans, the mail-order clothing catalogue, and Haven Country Classics, whose mid-market range of waxed clothes is much cheaper than Barbour's. The awards illustrate, however, that despite the proliferation of manufacturers and designers, and the predominance of retailers such as Marks & Spencer, there are still profitable niche export markets to be exploited.

Haven Country Classics was founded on a wide-brimmed waxed hat and Peter Geeson on 30-gauge (ultra-fine) knitwear. Peter Geeson has achieved a turnover of £2.5 million from scratch in five years, despite being in the same county as the brand-leader in sheer knitwear, John Smedley, a few miles away across Derbyshire. Mr Geeson, whose name is the same as his label, says a "raison d'tre" is essential. "My view of the textile industry is that this can be either high quality, niche market or bulk production. I believe in this country there is a significant opportunity if you can find a niche market product and ally that to marketing and manufacturing skills."

He had made socks and worked in exporting high-quality textiles before setting up the factory in Long Eaton, with 24 workers. There are now 120. "We were working on the basis that there were very few people in the world - probably about 15 - who made 30 gauge knitwear," Mr Geeson said. "We saw clothing getting lighter and lighter, with air-conditioned offices and warm houses, and styled our range to be classic yet sophisticated. "Our least expensive product retails at about £50 and the most expensive £270. In this country our main market is in the West End. Our exports go to the Far East - the biggest export market is Japan, but we also go to Korea and Hong Kong - and we now sell in America. Our order book this autumn will be 30 per cent up on last autumn."

From a small town in Lincolnshire, Jeffrey Stainton started Haven Country Classics to manufacture and sell "equestrian and country" clothing after diversifying from his original occupation: touring country shows and markets selling other people's. "We started with waxed jackets, with the company tenet intact: every garment had its name and address inside. Inquiries began to come from abroad, and Haven eventually decided to dispense with its UK agents and concentrate on exporting. At its base in Horncastle, it now employs multilingual staff to deal with markets in Europe, Scandinavia, Russia, Taiwan, Argentina and Korea. "The market was saturated, but we had style, quality, and quality of service," Mr Stainton said. "Some of our competitors run six to 20 weeks lead times; we run an ex-stock service, and our ability to deliver is fantastic. If somebody rang me and said they needed 10,000 jackets in seven days, that wouldn't be a problem."

Gossard, the underwear manufacturers which has been uplifting and underwiring in Leighton Buzzard since 1926, has won its first export award by more than trebling its exports over the last six years. Its strongest lines have included the Ultrabra - the outcome of a bitter battle with Berlei over the Wonderbra, with which Gossard's name was linked for years - the Glossies range, the Ultrabra's softly-contoured stylistic opposite, and the provocative Gypsy styles. "We launched the Ultrabra in January 1994 and it has been the most fantastic success since then, particularly in Europe and including France, which is the fashion leader," John Hall, Gossard's chief executive, said.

Gossard was the first lingerie company to receive an award from the British Knitting and Clothing and Export Council. Its workforce of 350, which made rubber dinghies and flares during the Second World War, is split between Bedfordshire and three factories in the Welsh valleys, but it boasts that there is hardly a village in the country without a stockist, and that it has dressed millions of brides in its basques. It is one of the oldest manufacturers in the country.

Dents, which has been making gloves since 1777, has more than doubled its exports between 1991 and 1994. With the ending of the Cold war, it changed from producing gloves for the Ministry of Defence, to exporting fine leather and knitted dress and sports gloves. It now exports almost 100 per cent of its output, supplying Japan, Europe and Canada.

Paul Smith marks a departure from the "British classic" look, although with 21 years' success, his expensive casual tailoring has become a modern classic. Mr Smith, whose main export markets are Japan, America and Europe, was awarded the CBE for his contribution to British design. His empire, which has 144 retail outlets in Japan through a local manufacturing licensing agreement, remains based in Nottingham, where he began designing in a back room behind his original, still existing shop in a narrow old lane in the City Centre.