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Made in Britain – Why Is It So Important?


Brand UK. In a highly competitive, technologically driven global marketplace for fashion and textile manufacture, should brand UK have any special industry concessions or government subsidy to help claw back some of the global market share it once enjoyed? Do previous glories somehow pre-qualify longevity with the latent value of Brand UK, still a desirable and valuable commodity in the right hands in the right brand? Think of the residual value of Cheaney shoes with its pedigree quality handmade craftsmanship intact, launched as a brand in its own right after many years servicing Church’s, the parent company.

Patrick Grant. Down to earth, articulate and ridiculously cool in sweatshirt, olive green styled-combats and Red Wing boots. Speaking at the Meet the Manufacturer (MTM) event recently, he had caught the sewing bug, seeing an opportunity to buy up a UK factory that had closed down. So naturally, when he re-launched the E Tautz brand (named as BFC/GQ Designer Menswear Fund 2015 winner) he wanted to keep it made in Britain.

patrick grant at mtm

Patrick Grant speaking at Meet the Manufacturer 2015

“We make our own product, train our own people – it’s how we retain the quality we have. We evangelized for made in Britain, and are pretty much an ambassador for British manufacturing.”

In 2007 a BBC Savile Row program aired and their firm got a fair amount of coverage. It re-awakened interest in the industry and their business, going from one apprentice application per month to now, one a week applying to fit and sew with them. Using the medium to its full made-in-Britain potential, they made a ‘Harris Tweed’ documentary, followed by a film for American Esquire, evoking cinematic couture trailer imagery: ‘one man, a lot of fabric, and the never-ending pursuit of the quintessential male suit.’ “It was an epic 3000-mile journey the length and breadth of the UK, visiting all the UK manufacturers we used at E Tautz. It was extraordinarily successful, eight films, each one a day-in-the-life.”

Patrick cited the different brands that use them while encouraging the need to grow the smaller manufacturing businesses into the bigger manufacturers. “It’s not just having a UK label, it’s about quality, price and delivery. We need to take investment so that the factories have modern equipment.”

patrick grant e tautz

Designs by E Tautz, Patrick is the Creative Director

Acknowledging a certain nostalgia for the charming British period building factory, he firmly believes the aircraft hangar styled modern factory as the model to follow. To E Tautz’ credit, they work with most of the UK traditional brands – Johnson of Elgin, Corgi, John Smedley, William Lockie, Vanners for silks, Drakes, etc. “But strangely, with the best woolen manufacturers in the world, we don’t make suits. Our high quality, high volume suit manufacturing has been lost.”

‘Lost’ may be emotively charged regarding Made in Britain, with numerous global, economic business differentiators lining up to explain why. E Tautz tried getting machine made parts of suits done elsewhere and put together in the UK, but it just didn’t work. “We sell too few at E Tautz, the retailers need to take it on.” It wasn’t the first time Patrick singled out retailers, the bigger ones in particular, to pick up the mantle for re-investing in UK manufacturing at the business-critical end of the process. “A certain amount of re-training needs to be built on a much more long term basis with manufacturers and wholesalers.” He acknowledged, “companies are answerable to boards, to shareholders and there are many different demands on margins. However, we need somehow to break it, talk much more long term with manufacturers. It is not cheaper to manufacture in China than the UK necessarily, as long as there is a future. Making a few hundred to a few thousand pieces makes a huge difference. If UK factories had the same investment and the same volume the price would be more competitive in the UK.” Get the critical mass right and the cost numbers fall into place. So where is the volume (orders) coming from?

There’s a logic to this that is hard to refute. The if word is pivotal however. Why aren’t the bigger retailers making this kind of investment commitment in UK specific manufacturing and what ROI incentive do they need? Or is why make it British? The white elephant in the room? Perhaps some sort of responsibility ethics should be at the core of a paradigm shift to address these issues. Patrick talked about brand responsibility for ‘Make it British’ advocating a long term supplier arrangement giving the reproducible quality, where “the quality and the ethical sit close together.” It makes sense, if the desire is there to follow through on this paradigm. But what is the value proposition? For many, it’s a no-brainer. The make it British concept only works at the quality high-end to sustain costs and margins. If the UK manufacturing starting cost price is prohibitively higher than Asia for example, and crucially, non-competitively so for retailers chasing margins, then where do you start?

At MTM, chasing margins at different times in different voices became the stick to hit the retailers with. Direct and indirect blame for the decimation and held-to-ransom price-sploitation of the UK manufacturing base at one end, and stoic acceptance of the cut and thrust world of business at the other. Wouldn’t it be nice if they considered it at least, sat like an unmarked dance card, uncomfortably in the middle? The nature of much of fashion, fast fashion in particular, driven by retailers chasing margins is that by definition it’s an exploitative behaviorism that feeds itself. Stop the loom, loons. I want to get off.

It takes someone like the former Member of Parliament Lorna Fitzsimons, of The Alliance Project, to say, “we are chasing the wrong rabbit down the wrong holes,” in response to the dynamic driving fashion. According to her contact with the industry, she does not believe the manufacturers of the future will be big producers and that the more sustainable model will be a micro-manufacturing one.

This argument is not about the UK specifically but garment manufacturing as a whole – wherever the customer wants it, in a way that makes sense. Which may not just be price driven, but speed-to-market or consumer driven with Zara-like distribution and economies of scale. Increasingly we see ‘on-demand’ as a prevalent shopping phenomenon, combined with ‘mass customization’ – terms that suggest a more direct fleet-of-foot, technologically enabling consumer model.

Patrick concluded with “every generation of young people is different. There’s a shift back to making things, which is more interesting.” Since Sewing Bee, (which to his credit he absolutely did not bang on about, if anything still stunned by its success), sales of sewing machines have gone up from 100,000 units a year to 400,000 units. Family bonds (not insignificant when one thinks of factory workers drawn from many generations of the same families) and competition to be first on the needle, are positive by-products of this phenomenon. From these new little sewers, the thread of a tradition of making can be rekindled for new reasons perhaps, fuelling a more adaptive micro-manufacturing model for a future generation. Perhaps. But, you only have to peer inside most UK factories to see the pathway has been broken regarding the makers: the machinists are from Eastern Europe, Asia and elsewhere – not the UK. That’s a broken strand that lies at the heart of the made in Britain DNA. Training, and investment in training is likely to be the only recuperative possibility. And only successful combined in response to a different business model: a paradigm shift underpinning the rationale of how we manufacture in the UK. Then the world’s your flatbed oyster. With a meaningful brand UK label sewn into the garment in the UK, ideally by the same person who made it.

By Paul Markevicius

Related articles:

If You Can Make It Anywhere…Make It British

Meet the Manufacturer 2 – A Resounding Success

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