Fashion designers call for return of rag trade

The 'Made in Britain' label has almost died out, along with the skills it nurtured. But a tentative revival is under way

Susie Mesure
Monday 09 September 2013 15:26 BST
Thin thread: Manufacturers fear the skills of previous generations will soon be lost
Thin thread: Manufacturers fear the skills of previous generations will soon be lost (Getty)

What with the booming soundtracks that accompany London Fashion Week, the noise of backs being slapped might be a little hard to hear. But the five-day style circus, which starts on Friday, is an excuse to celebrate the British fashion industry, and why not?

Much will be made of the £21bn that it pulls in through sales, and even more of the fact that many of the designers – big names like Mary Katrantzou, Peter Pilotto, Holly Fulton and Christopher Raeburn – make their clothes in Britain.

Caroline Rush, chief executive of the British Fashion Council, which runs LFW, said brands making goods in the UK were prospering. She added: "Although they are trading high-value products, it seems that the consumer is happy to pay a premium on products that have been made by a transparent industry."

Yet step outside the world of high fashion and the picture changes dramatically. Influential industry insiders warn that despite high-profile efforts to spark a "Made in Britain" revival, the clock is ticking for the UK's garment industry.

John Miln, who heads the UK Fashion & Textile Association, which represents manufacturers, puts the "time bomb" at "three to five years" before the skills learnt by previous generations are lost. David Hieatt, who owns the fledgling Cardigan-based Hiut Denim label with his wife, Clare, sees a "10-year window" to train replacements. And Nick Beighton, finance director of the UK's biggest online clothes retailer Asos, is bleaker still, declaring skills are not just "vanishing but have disappeared" during the past 20 years.

Scores of factories closed after all major retailers sent production overseas. Some big names, such as M&S and John Lewis, are pushing "Best of British" ranges, but the lack of manufacturing capacity means they are little more than tokenistic.

Sir Philip Green, head of Arcadia, made headlines by saying he planned to ramp up domestic production, but industry sources say he has yet to make good on that pledge. When pressed, a spokesman for TopMan, part of the Arcadia empire, pointed to just three suits, two blazers and one coat made in Britain that will be on sale from November.

Mr Miln said there was "very little evidence" of big factories being built. M&S is stocking its new range, out next month, in just five stores despite trading from more than 350 locations across the UK.

Government figures suggest the UK textile industry employs around 100,000 people; that compares with 2.9 million in the retail sector. "The textile industry is not seen as hugely attractive as a job opportunity. If you can earn more shelf-stacking at Tesco, why not do that?" Mr Miln added.

In one small "factory" in north London – a glorified shed in reality – all 45 machinists tackling the mountains of black jersey piled next to each workstation are immigrants.

"None were born in Britain, and that's not right," says Jenny Holloway, who runs Fashion Enter, a government-backed project to encourage people back into the industry. She set up the Haringey-based factory partly as a training centre with funding from Asos, which last week announced it wanted to make more clothes at home. The online retailer is supporting the creation of a Stitching Academy, based at the Haringey site, which will run free six-week courses to train people as seamstresses and tailors.

The first "graduates" – 120 will be trained per year – finished last week; many hope to enrol on one of the new apprenticeship schemes run by firms such as M&S, Asos and TopShop. Shana Tekila, 18, hopes the grounding will help her fulfil a childhood dream of designing clothes for a living. For now, she is waiting to hear back from the east-London factory outlet Florentia, while running up outfits at home in the evenings: "I sit down at my machine; I'm happy."

Mr Beighton said increasing UK production made sense, given rampant wage inflation in China and pressure on commodity prices. The retailer uses the site, which can produce up to 7,500 garments a week, for items that sell out online. "We are backing... sure-fire winners," he said, adding that this avoided mark downs, which at about 30 per cent of sales are retailers' single biggest cost.

This compensates for higher labour costs, he said, which, combined with a two-week lead time – against up to eight weeks for something made in Turkey and three months for China – "means the economics are becoming favourable".

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