Last April, when royal bride Catherine Middleton took her wedding vows at Westminster Abbey decked in Alexander McQueen, she became a living advertisement for British textiles and craftsmanship: McQueen’s creative director, Sarah Burton, who created the dress, had worked closely with the Royal School of Needlework, based at Hampton Court Palace, on the hand-appliquéd lace and used hand-cut English and French lace for the bodice, skirt and underskirt trim.
Burton’s move wasn’t simply symbolic, a decorative concession to the tradition-bound royals and the proud British public. She is one of a host of British designers and high-end brands that choose—despite a variety of challenges—to source and produce all or part of their collections in Britain. Although the British textile and clothing industry has been on the wane since its heyday under Queen Victoria, a robust network of high-end specialty manufacturers remains. And they focus on quality rather than quantity: Burberry continues to make trenchcoats at its Castleford factory in Yorkshire, where it has recently launched an apprenticeship program and increased the workforce, while Victoria Beckham turns to the workshops of East London for her clothing collections, and Pringle of Scotland produces its core knitwear range and hand-knitted items for the runway at its factories in Hawick, Scotland.
Elsewhere, British accessories brands are expanding their local production facilities in order to keep up both with domestic and international demand. Mulberry has just spent 2 million pounds, or $3.2 million, expanding its Somerset, England, factory, known as The Rookery, and has plans to build a second facility nearby that can turn out a further 140,000 handbags annually. Meanwhile, the high-end glove-maker Dents—whose clients past and present range from Queen Victoria to Korea’s Hyundai Department Store Group—has just spent 4 million pounds, or $6.4 million, on a state-of-the art factory in Wiltshire, England.
“In an ideal world, we’d make all of our bags in the U.K.,” says Mulberry’s chairman and chief executive officer, Godfrey Davis. “We are an English brand, and the factory here carries our DNA. Producing here also means we are quicker to react. We can make or customize a bag here on a Friday, and it can be in the Bond Street store by Monday.”
Mulberry makes its Bayswater and other top-end collections at The Rookery. It also sorts leather and design components, produces prototypes and trains apprentices at the Southwest England facility.
Like Mulberry, whose sales in the first six months of the fiscal year rocketed 62 percent to 72.3 million pounds ($113.3 million), Dents is also grappling with an explosion in demand. The brand, founded in 1777, posted sales growth of 50 percent last year, thanks in part to demand from Korea and Japan.
“The Koreans and the Japanese favor our pigskin gloves—which are the most expensive at 200 to 300 pounds, or $320 to $480, for a pair—and they want classic styles. They are buying into our history and quality,” says Deborah Moore, senior director and creative head of the company.
Dents also produces gloves for British fashion brands including L.K. Bennett, Karen Millen and Hobbs. Moore says she feels this is an important moment for quality manufacturing, which gives the U.K. an edge.
“People are buying less but better, and there’s a social conscience to buying today: Customers want to know where the products are made and whether they have been sourced ethically. It’s all part of the same package,” she says.
James Dracup, group managing director of Johnstons of Elgin, which produces clothing and soft accessories under its own name and for clients including Paul Smith, Hugo Boss and Gant, says many British manufacturers upped their game when they saw their mass market clients—such as Marks & Spencer and other high street giants—move sourcing and production offshore, particularly to the Far East. “We created a niche by focusing on design resources, value-added textiles, bespoke services and a flexible way of working. Our thinking was: ‘You want 100,000 black scarves? Go to China. You want a smaller number of fancy, patterned scarves? Come to us.’ ”
Dracup adds the irony is that today upper-middle-class Chinese shoppers come to Europe looking for authentic, locally made products because there is so much counterfeit and copycat merchandise in China. “On top of that, all of my brand clients are growing like crazy in China, which means a lot of our growth is now coming from there. There is a real appetite now in the Far East for heritage, provenance and quality products from the West.”
Some would argue that with inflation and labor costs rising steadily in the Far East—China’s current inflation rate is 3.2 percent, compared with the U.K.’s 3.4 percent and the U.S.’ 2.9 percent—it makes increasing economic sense to source and manufacture at home. Against this backdrop, the U.K. Fashion and Textile Association, a trade organization, has set up a microsite and database that help designers and brands connect with British manufacturers.
“We believe there’s a huge degree of excellence here—and if we don’t use it, we’ll lose it,” says John Miln, UKFT’s ceo. “Mainstream, volume manufacturing exited our shores long ago. What we can offer today are higher-end products.”
The initiative, called “Let’s Make It Here,” launched in the summer of 2010. Users can search specifically for garment, fabric or component manufacturers.
Despite some designers’ passion for producing in the U.K., the increased investment in local factories and fulsome support from UKFT, the British manufacturing industry continues to face some major challenges—including indifference to provenance. In a recent Bain & Co. survey of British premium-luxury shoppers, researchers found that country of origin did not matter when making a purchase. “U.K. shoppers are just not brand loyal—they’ll try four to six different brands of shoes and clothing in a given year,” says Tory Frame, a partner at Bain & Co., who heads the firm’s U.K. and Ireland Consumer Products practice. “Promotions are a big reason for their buying premium or luxury products, or they’ll buy a certain brand because it’s been recommended by a friend or family member, or because it fits their needs at that moment.”
Ruth Runberg, women’s buying director at Browns, the designer multibrand store in London, said that for many clients, a “Made in the U.K.” label is simply the icing on the cake. “The label is not going to break a sale if it’s not there, but it could well make a sale,” she says. “We want to support local artisans and talent, so we will use ‘Made in the U.K.’ as a selling point.”
Runberg adds that manufacturing at home is particularly beneficial for fledgling designers: “The factories are smaller and more flexible on minimums, which is ideal for young designers producing on a smaller scale.”
There are myriad other challenges facing U.K. makers, including an aging workforce; a young generation weaned on celebrity culture that is uninterested in low-paying and unglamorous apprenticeships or artisanal careers; the mountain of government red tape facing small and medium-sized businesses, and labor costs. The cost of hiring staff may be far cheaper in the U.K. than in France or Italy, but few Western nations can compete with the lower staffing costs in Far Eastern countries like Vietnam, Eastern Europe or Turkey—countries that are now siphoning business away from China.
While Mulberry can afford to produce its Bayswater bags (800 pounds, or $1,272) in England, it makes its Effie bags (400 pounds, or $636) abroad. Dents, too, makes only its high-end products—deerskin, pigskin, and hair-sheep leather gloves—in the U.K., and for years has made its less pricy lines in Eastern Europe and the Far East.
In addition, most U.K. factories can’t handle big-volume orders. “Some of these fabric mills have about six machines,” says Miln of UKFT. “They can take a 100-meter order, but not one for 1,000 meters. They’d love to get an order from Marks & Spencer, but then they’d be crying into their soup because they couldn’t fulfill it.”
Miln says one chief aim of the “Let’s Make It Here” initiative is not only to raise awareness and create networks but to help build manufacturing capacity. “I don’t think there’s a faint hope that we’ll return to the volumes of the past, but maybe we can move back to sustainable manufacturing.”