Cutting it fine to lift a tattered industry: Manufacturing: a Nottingham-based network plans to co-ordinate textile firms within Europe

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The Independent Online
NOTTINGHAM'S name was once linked to lace. In future it may be famous for 'Fine' - an ambitious attempt to rescue Europe's tattered textile trade.

Fine stands for Fashion Industry Network Europe, a telecommunications network set up by Nottingham City Council to help its own textile businesses. Areas of Spain, Portugal and the UK are already swapping information. And some of Italy's textile centres are poised to sign up soon.

'The European textile industry is characterised by a large number of small companies, all beavering away in their own little areas,' says Paul Burgess, Nottingham's assistant director of development. 'This is a very different approach to the UK-plc-declares-independence views of the anti-federalists. We're saying there are lots of benefits that can go both ways.'

'There are factories here that make Jaeger, Paul Smith, Alexon, Burberry, Laura Ashley,' says John Taylor, the council leader. But much cheaper clothes are also made in Nottingham. And the companies that produce these can no longer compete on cost alone. Differences in production costs within the EU are fast being eclipsed by the threat from outside it.

'The idea that the British textile industry has to worry about Portugal or Greece is nothing compared to the immense challenge of China,' Mr Taylor says.

The renegotiation of Gatt will accelerate those cheap imports. But textiles and clothing are still Nottingham's largest manufacturing industries, providing vital work in the city centre. Modelling its response on the European regions in which the textile industry has prospered, the council set up a support system. Better design, technical innovation and an improved city were all crucial, they decided.

Nottingham is a Labour council, but for Mr Taylor intervention is less a political decision than simple common sense. 'Even right-wing European political parties accept state, regional or city intervention in local economies,' he says. 'And they all accept that you've got to go upmarket in order to compete.'

Theirs is not a view shared by the Government, but it is the continental consensus that Fine hopes to harness. Already, plans are well advanced for a shared information system with expected EU funding to standardise the software. Firms could then flick electronically through the pooled resources held in each region's textile centre.

The high cost of fashion forecasting has previously excluded smaller companies from such specialised advance information. But full European trend forecasting is Fine's eventual ambition, helping to tailor their clothes to fit the fashions of each country. England and Portugal are already sharing predictions, with Spain soon to join them.

In the meantime, Fine's membership is growing. It includes Citeve, the national textile institute of Portugal, and Spain's Aitex and Cittesma. UK members include the Welsh Garment Centre, Scottish Enterprise and Belfast's Fashion Business Centre. Fine is following up interest from Germany, and will soon be visiting France. It is also advising the Exporters Association of Northern Greece on setting up a Fine-affiliated centre in Thessaloniki.

In northern Italy, the textile centres provide the publicly funded backbone for a thriving body of local firms. Three of these centres are expected on board - based near Milan, Biella, and in the centre of the Italian silk industry at Como.

As fashion fragments and shops demand an ever faster turnaround of stocks and styles, there should still be a place for small companies with access to sophisticated information. More firms will fall by the wayside, Mr Taylor concedes. But European textiles may yet turn out to be the industry on which the sun can not set.

(Photograph omitted)