LONDON — Call it pre-Brexit jitters.
As the U.K. government is sorting out how to best part ways with the EU, with general elections slated for June 8, the country’s apparel industry is losing no time in adapting to a new reality.
Business was booming at Meet the Manufacturer, the London trade fair, which brings together British suppliers with designers and retailers who wish to source and produce their products in the U.K.
Held at The Old Brewery, the sprawling event ended its two-day run on May 25, showcasing 180 garment manufacturers, textile mills, leather-goods makers and homewares suppliers, while attracting 3,500 visitors, 92 percent of whom were British. “It’s been our busiest show to date. We’ve had double the amount of people [both visitors and exhibitors] as last year, and the show is five times bigger than when it started three years ago,” said Kate Hills, founder and chief executive officer of Make it British, which organizes the event.
Two words — Brexit and heritage — dominated the chitchat.
Pointing to the pound’s uncertain future, Hills explained that demand for local manufacturing was buoyed by concerns from local businesses over currency fluctuations, while it also attracted international visitors lured by a weaker pound. Foreign interest, most notably from Japan, the U.S., as well as Continental Europe, spiked 50 percent versus last year, according to Hills, who noted that those “buyers are interested in our product because of heritage. We’ve got knitwear companies that are 250 years old — that has helped create a buzz.”
One of the busier stands was Abraham Moon & Sons, which counts Paul Smith, Marks & Spencer and John Lewis among its clients. “It’s been just manic,” attested John Harrop, the mill’s apparel sales manager. “We go to Première Vision and Unica for the bulk side of the business, but it’s the start-ups and designer labels we hope to scoop up here, and they are coming out of the woodwork now. It’s the ideal place for them because they are on a limited budget, can’t travel [to bigger shows abroad]; the minimum orders here are one meter, and there are more companies offering CMT [cut-make-trim], so it’s like a one-stop shop.”
He added that while people are indeed nervous about what will happen in two years time when the U.K. is due to exit the EU, some just really want to make it British. “They want to source locally, too, and it’s sometimes disappointing, because we have to buy wool from New Zealand or South Africa. We also have British wool but probably not enough.”
Local wool, he explained, is coarser because of the climate and not all is suitable for the apparel industry. “But we don’t buy from Australia, which has this policy with mulesing, and we support high street’s stand against [it].”
Capacity is indeed one of Britain’s biggest issues, acknowledged Hills, singling out the lack of skilled labor as the main culprit. “The biggest reason I hear from previous exhibitors that can’t come back for the following year is that they’ve got too much business from the previous show. They can’t expand quickly enough, because they can’t find any machinists. And the problem with Brexit is, a lot of the skilled Eastern European machinists are getting nervous about coming here,” she lamented, warning that this would continue to happen “if the government doesn’t sort out how to bring those skilled workers in, even if we use them to train our younger generation.”
According to Christopher Nieper, who runs one of the largest sewing factories in the U.K. as well as the David Nieper Education Trust, which works to develop local skills and provide career opportunities in fashion for young people, 900,000 jobs have gone in the last 30 years “and with it a whole ecosystem: buttons, zips, cutters, engineers,” he deplored, adding that “to re-create that, we will need to take a holistic view of education that starts at primary schools.”
Laxtons, the 110-year-old yarn specialist, said it made a U-turn just in time. The company closed its production site in Yorkshire in 1999, carried on trading for 10 years using suppliers from Eastern Europe and Africa, until 2010, when it brought its manufacturing back, with a new local mill and increased capacity. “We thought machinery would be the toughest to get back, but it was the skills. A few years down the line, and they would have been lost forever,” said Laxtons’ sales director Alan Thornber, noting how the company regained control of its own production “instead of being in somebody else’s hands in terms of quality and lead times.”
“We are not the cheapest,” he allowed, “people come to us because of expertise and flexibility.”
Both brands and manufacturers praised that flexibility as the main advantage of producing locally. “The key is to understand the value of speed-to-market, instead of talking about price all the time,” said Simon Platts, sourcing director for online fashion retailer Asos.com. He argued that large volumes were quickly becoming a relic of the past, as they produce expensive waste through product that never gets sold and negatively impact the end-margins. His solution: “Build strategic partnerships with local suppliers, invest in machinery that can make things more quickly. Smaller orders produced more often and closer to home — that’s where the world is going.”
Patrick Grant, the Savile Row tailor and designer behind men’s ready-to-wear brand E. Tautz, urged fellow designers not to “try to shove a square peg in a round hole,” but find a shoe that fits. “Much like in France and Italy, there are some great factories and there are some shoddy ones, but the good ones here are very, very good, and it’s also a question of working with them. If they are not used to a particular technique and you drop it on them and expect them to pick it up overnight, it’s not going to happen. We believe in long-term relationships with manufacturers,” said Grant, who in 2015 bought Blackburn-based Cookson & Clegg, saving the storied outerwear specialist from becoming extinct. The factory, he said, had “two big problems: enormous seasonality of demand and general lack of scale,” until he created demand via Community Clothing, a non-profit label poised to reinvigorate the British textile community with season-neutral evergreens such as chinos, chambray shirts and raincoats produced at an affordable price range and during the factory’s downtime.
“I have great faith in British manufacturing. But it will need patience and scale,” Grant insisted, arguing that with scale and efficiency eventually the cost would come down, too.
Margaret Church, founder of Good Joe, an ethical, high-end T-shirt label, agreed that many of the traditional suppliers are “kind of hiding,” with no web presence or advertising to help scout them, which makes shows like these vital. “When I started this 18 months ago, it was very difficult to source online. Manufacturing in the U.K. allows us to be ethical, and we do this because we want to support the labor in the U.K. and give to U.K. charities. The only problem has been to find a good-quality fabric to make a premium T-shirt, particularly in cotton-jersey. And it took us a year to find a manufacturer that could make seams that were straight. They may well exist but it was hard trying to get to them.”
This year, she discovered Letsmakeithere.com, a free-to-use database launched by the U.K. Fashion & Textile Association, which allows brands and retailers to search by category, keyword or location, and which also had a stand at the show.
While walking the fair, Church said she stumbled across Aristo Fabrics, which specializes in high-quality jerseys and cottons, fabrics she’s been craving for a long time. “It’s really nice jersey, and I wasn’t aware of them until today,” she said, having previously had to rely on foreign suppliers.
Aristo, meanwhile, said it was teaming with English Fine Cottons, a fellow exhibitor and spinner of luxury yarns, further closing the loop. “People are surprised to find a jersey manufacturer who does cottons in the U.K. — a lot of the jersey manufacturers in Leicester are now doing polyesters, but we are not going there. And we are now using U.K. spinners to make it, so it’s British jersey. We are giving providence,” said Rajen Ved, Aristo’s chief executive officer.
Judith Neilly, director of John England, billed as the last weaver of jacquard and Irish linen left in Banbridge, County of Down, said: “Four years ago I would be worried about the whole trade, but you cannot sit back and wait what will happen.”
There used to be 38 mills in her town, “and we are the last one standing,” she said, citing the company’s ability to adapt as key to survival. “We are weavers of tablecloth, but we have to be honest, people won’t use them every day, and so we said: ‘Why spend 1.5 million [pounds] on a new loom when we can adapt a tablecloth loom into an apparel loom?’ Everything we have now you can wash and tumble dry. We developed a soft finish, so it doesn’t need to be constantly pressed. We now have more colors, more woven designs. And we work closely with designers, we encourage them to look at texture, drape,” said the executive, who provides fabrics for “Game of Thrones” and is said to count Gucci, Ralph Lauren and Vivienne Westwood among her clients.
Paul Alger, director of international business developed at UKFT, said he sees the high-end as Britain’s biggest chance. “Huge volumes will always be in China. Designers are our future,” he insisted, but added that as much as they are part of the solution, they are also part of the problem. “A lot of the designers fresh out of university don’t know how to cut a pattern. And they are not consistent,” he said, citing examples of manufacturers that are already working close to capacity devoting time to start-ups, which either failed to pay their bills due to a lack of business acumen or which took the orders to Turkey, once they had the production going.
Alger suggested manufacturers provide designers with a starter’s “tech pack,” telling them step by step what is needed to manufacture a product, “because time is precious.”
“After decades of downsizing, it will take many years to regrow what was lost, and the U.S. will discover that, as well, but it will work eventually,” he assured.