Ross Allen, regional director, North America for the U.K.’s Department for International Trade and acting Consul General in New York, is a diplomatic matchmaker of sorts. His role is to help British companies export goods and services to the U.S. while also working with American companies looking to invest in the U.K. So, making introductions is a key part of his job.
And on any given day, Allen, who started this role in August 2016, could be trying to convince U.S. retailers to place orders for British-made yoga pants in the morning and by the afternoon find himself in a deep and detailed discussion about the current state of commercial satellites.
Here, Allen shares his insights about the U.K. fashion market as well as the role of the DIT, which has about 140 people stationed across the U.S. as well as 25 in Canada.
WWD: How would you describe the overall state of business?
Ross Allen: We had a very successful year last year in terms of the amount of British exports we were able to support into North America. And we landed a record number of investment projects into the U.K. So overall, it’s going well, and within this fashion’s quite an important sector for us.
WWD: Can you briefly describe the role of the DIT?
R.A.: It’s a bit like a matchmaking service. Often we know that there’s demand out there and we try to identify the right supplier in the U.K. to match them up. Often in the States, and Canada as well, it’s largely about getting the right people in the room together and then a little bit of just leaving them to it. A big part of it is just matching them up.
WWD: Do you conduct some sort of assessment?
R.A.: Yes, our team here has a good understanding of the particular exports that are needed in the market. In retail or fashion, we’re constantly asking: “What’s the demand?” Then our colleagues back in the U.K. are identifying the best U.K. suppliers to meet that demand. Then we make the introductions. We enable these connections through some larger activities too, like bringing over a delegation of U.K. companies to the N.Y. Women’s Market Week trade shows starting September 16 and sending a delegation of U.S. buyers to Pitti Uomo this coming January to meet our large group of U.K. men’s wear exhibitors there.
WWD: You had previously mentioned some notable U.K. companies that are doing well here, such as Asos, which is based in London. Who else is finding success and why?
R.A.: Boohoo.com is a Manchester-based success story. It goes back to Manchester’s heritage with textiles and it’s come full circle and now it’s benefiting from the fact that around Manchester, you’ve got lots of knowledge of textiles and apparel making as well as technology and e-commerce. It’s this combination of strengths that makes it work. Glamorous is another great Manchester success story, who’ve been doing lots of business in the U.S. They will be exhibiting at Coterie later this month in New York. Macclesfield, outside Manchester, is the “silk capital” and home to lots of great manufacturers like Robert Keyte, who were part of our Brits in New York promotion at MRket in January.
WWD: There seems to be growing interest in British brands here in the U.S. What’s driving it?
R.A.: We’re doing really well because we basically focus on two markets. One is that we’re known for these high-quality traditional brands, products with heritage. Like Jermyn Street (home to brands such as John Lobb, Turnbull & Asser, T.M. Lewin, Benson & Clegg and Charles Tyrwhitt, among others). It’s high-quality tailoring and handmade shoes and shirts. Then, at the completely other end, you’ve got cutting-edge brands like Victoria Beckham, Self Portrait and Jenny Packham who are all on display at NYFW. These are cool, new and exciting brands that attract a different audience as well. It’s a brilliant combination of both.
WWD: What about the contribution to the U.K. economy?
R.A.: For us, fashion means 800,000 jobs, which is a lot for a country with a population of 63 million. And it totals 12.4 billion pounds. And it is growing, especially with certain sectors within apparel such as ath-leisure and men’s wear, which are actually outpacing other segments. And there’s room for more growth.
WWD: Aside from fashion, technology is also an important segment, correct?
R.A.: We have some of the most sophisticated online technology companies globally — and that’s across all categories. Not just fashion. Also, our consumers tend to be early adopters of technology. They’re used to online payment options and are also comfortable with mobile shopping — more so than other consumers, I think. We’re leaders in the convergence of fashion and technology.
WWD: What’s your advice to first-time U.K. exporters?
R.A.: One of the missions we have as a government department is helping grow the number of exporters in the U.K. And there are certain markets where we try and encourage first-time exporters to sort of cut their teeth in. The U.S. isn’t actually one of them. There are some examples of U.K. businesses getting their fingers burned here if they aren’t ready, so we often encourage British first-time exporters to try places like Ireland, France or Denmark first. Get established within the European single market first and then grow from there. It’s easier.
WWD: You mean they can learn the frictions and issues first in the European single market?
R.A.: Yes. They figure out what they’re doing and then the U.S. might then be a good next step. For companies determined on the U.S. first, of course we will give them extra assistance and perhaps encourage them to seek advice from a U.S. business partner. We want them to succeed.