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N17 Employer Engagement: Why Make in the UK with Kate Hills & Jenny Holloway

19-05-2021   


Paul Markevicius reviews and reports on the N17 Creative Callings Zoom employer engagement session (14/04/2021) ‘Why Make in the UK’ with Kate Hills and Jenny Holloway…

I think it’s fair to say, that if you were tasked with re-building the UK fashion industry, pre or post any pandemic that happens along, you would be hard pressed to find two more capable, experienced sets of hands than Kate Hills and Jenny Holloway to trust the job to. Cut from the same cloth, with dove-tailing M&S CVs, entrepreneurs, consultants, innovators and two more blimmin’ well ‘get on with it’ can do-ers you would be hard pressed to meet.

I met Kate, via her hugely successful ‘Make It British’ event in 2014 sprung from the brand she founded in 2011. This captured the zeitgeist for a return to UK manufacturing for many fashion brands, but most importantly to instil in many designers, the desire to research the possibility of a made in UK brand and process in its full sense. Not for nostalgia reasons, but because it was a way of putting our own market first, in a sustainable way – in order to make it sustainable.

Stranded garments, whole collections rendered out-dated and raw materials on slow boats from China during the pandemic. Ridiculously price-hiked containers from the same locale now, have demonstrated the foresighted wisdom in Kate’s (and Jenny’s) long-term crusade, to make in Britain.

Kate will have inspired many graduates and stalwarts alike to re-imagine their supply chains and be more rigorous and adventurous in sourcing from the UK. To keep production on these shores and all the individual processes, the zips, the buttons, the specialists, was a challenge Kate set herself, “having been totally disappointed in large part by M&S taking their business offshore.”

As a former event organiser myself, and having attended several of Kate’s events, (the last one in 2019, sad to say), I know how hard she worked pulling in and vetting reputable UK suppliers as exhibitors, sponsors and speakers to her annual event. The organiser takes on damn near all of the financial risks, especially when the pandemic presented force majeure with an insurance policy blind spot no one saw coming and few I’m sure were protected against.

The ground-breaking events were matched with an enviable speaker list of the great and the good of UK fashion, design and production. I’m sure a waiting list of practitioners, happy to set foot on the same stage, were proud to declare themselves advocates of a British primacy for fashion, textile and interior design. Who knows, when the post pandemic dust settles, we may be able to get the best parts of Make in Britain back for the right, compelling reasons.

The discussion began with an invitation by Kate for Jenny to comment on any longstanding out of sync expectations of what it means to actually make in Britain today. “At least three times a week, we will receive an email based entirely on pricing misnomers. Ridiculous to think that if you make 50 garments you can compete with big brands’ pricing. It’s actually insulting to the factory,” said Jenny Holloway. Kate added, “The phrase often used is ‘affordable luxury.’”

This is an oxymoron. It’s completely unachievable. “There was consensus on what designers should be thinking about (in the UK) instead. Going to the factory to get the pattern right, not to focus on pricing. In the old days of Debenhams products being made in China”, Kate mentioned, “it could take six months with samples going back and forth, ten or twenty times even. This is a huge cost. Retailers do not factor in cost. Working directly with the factory saves so much time and money – changes are very costly.”

Kate Hills and Jenny Holloway Live via Zoom

Jenny questioned whether changes were necessary or just cosmetic in the grand scheme of things, particularly as their ethos as a social enterprise at Fashion-Enter is to try and help new designers and brands, not penalise them. But there’s only so much goodwill they can offer for poor planning or naïve expectations. The key point Jenny stressed was that with the factory paying both minimum and London living wage, and performance related pay, (so the workers earnings are commensurate with their productivity), it is not simply ethical or sustainable to make cheaply. Someone will be abused along the way to achieve this.

The conversation shifted towards what the user of a factory should be aware of as part of their due diligence, which can only come from a site visit. Jenny has two separate rules of thumb for assessing the factory you might give your work to – where to inspect, and what flows to monitor. “Visit the canteen. Is it clean and tidy? Visit the staff toilet. Both places will tell you how well they look after their staff. Check out the stock room; is it a mess, poorly run with no obvious controls? If so, it does not bode well for how they will manage your business.”

Jenny then posed the flow questions to the webinar attendees to make the session more interactive. What flows should we be looking for in assessing quality? Five key areas she pinpointed, derived mostly from the attendees, included; the work flow of the machinist; the supply of materials to the machinist; the garments being collected and batched; quality controls and finishing on produced work and the actual supply of materials coming into the factory to be worked on, “late fabric deliveries can be a disaster for productivity, efficiency and operational cost.”

The main structure of the webinar was anchored to Kate’s slides covering ‘Top 10 Tips’ for using a factory and making in Britain.

1. Do your research. Know who you are contacting, what they make or specialise in. This fundamental was prefaced by an even more rudimentary question – who are you actually making for? Better to know it’s a vanity project at the outset and not waste everyone’s time pretending otherwise.

2. Pick up the phone, it’s quicker. Kate is very much from the practical hands-on school. She advised it’s easier to get all your questions answered by phone than by email, especially if the factory is busy.

3. Know who the key people are to make contact with at the factory. Who will look after your work and who you can put pressure on to get answers? This comes from visiting, inspecting and asking questions.

4. Don’t expect cost prices on the spot. For a CMT, (cut, make, trim) factory so many questions need to be answered in the garment construction, (if they are tasked with making the sample), what is the seam construction, difficulty level, time involved and many more, including volume obviously.

5. Ask questions. Must learn to ask lots of questions of the factory in order to learn. Everyone starts from the same place. And understand the supply chain process. Fashion-Enter is a social enterprise – they are tasked with helping people by definition.

6. Be organised. Know all your elements, your fabric. “Nothing worse than starting an order and because labels aren’t there in time, garments are left on the side, adding delay and cost,” said Jenny.

7. Play to the manufacturer’s strengths: go to a factory that already makes what you want with the machines you need, e.g.“Leicester for jersey, Scotland for knitwear,” suggested Kate.

8. Samples are going to cost you, proceed with caution. Kate gave a great example of how someone with experience could get an established brand like M&S to maintain the discipline of getting it right first time, by giving them very high re-sampling rates’ for their ‘Made in Britain range’ – and this was incentive enough! As Jenny remarked with separate third parties involved, like a pattern grader, cutter as well as the factory, the inclination is for each to blame the other when things go wrong, Kate picked up on this and asked Jenny, “If the sample is made somewhere else, what do you do?” “First, we look at the pattern and garment. Does it match? If there are changes, we don’t criticise, we recommend doing a toile (muslin), which is relatively cheaper to make, without the cost of fabric.”

9. Consider hiring an expert. Get people who know what they are doing to design or make the samples for you, or more. Jenny said they make recommendations to designers they know.

10. Make a commitment to your (main) supplier. This also includes understanding all the ancillary costs that producing overseas can engender. As Kate said, “people often only look at the landed price of the product, and not all the costs for flights back and forth are factored in. Freight costs in China now has quadrupled in price – HK$2000, now HK$8000 per container. Weighed up against these factors, smaller businesses are really seeing the benefits of local manufacturing.”

Dirty Factories

There has been much scrutiny of the manufacturers in the UK, with the recent Panorama program and the image of manufacturing dented in Leicester, with ‘dirty factories’ exposed. Many factories have gone under, or sold out to suppliers, with the phenomenon of etailers influencing the market to try and control cost and pricing now common. Not always for the right reasons, or for the best outcomes. The recourse is the due diligence stressed throughout the webinar and the relatively new independent adjudicator role, as an industry ombudsman able to fine 1% of total turnover if they find malpractices.

Kate pointed out that its important to recognise the distinction for the products that are just better made and sourced from outside the UK, “outerwear for example, can be best made in Portugal and Turkey, where we can’t compete for scale and the lead times as just too long for it to be commercially viable.” The double-edged sword for make in Britain is the minimum orders increasing because of overhead costs, making it harder for brands and designers not to go abroad. “The duty is a nightmare. Since Brexit, Fashion-Enter’s home-grown brand ‘Belles of London’ had not received any orders from the EU, which is very worrying,” commented Jenny, adding wryly, “if more fabric was available in the UK, TMC can work here.”

The effortless conversational flow between Jenny and Kate covered new territories of single flow, mass customisation for factories, “any colour, any fabric, because with the advent of new technology, factories can’t afford to stand still,” said Jenny. Following up, Kate posed the rhetorical question, many have wondered, “why don’t brands, own their own factories – like M&S for example?” A great way to bring production onshore and control costs with Gym Shark in the process of doing just that. Jenny agreed that there is a great opportunity to make it direct and start your own micro-factory, as with the intermittent apparel trend.

Playing devil’s advocate Kate asked, “what does an ethical factory actually mean?” “Transparency from start to finish,” came the quick reply. “You have to make regular visits to the factory, and will soon find out if something untoward is going on,” Kate countered. With Jenny adding, “miserable staff, with no-one making eye contact (in fear of their managers) will also tell you. You need to know that your factory will keep your IP (intellectual property) of the designs safe, and not shared with others, and if they will sign an NDA.”

Also, you can’t really say you are an ethical brand if you have not seen your factory. When it comes to the ethics of the factory, Kate said you need to know if they pay their staff by the hour or by the piece. Jenny agreed this was crucial to know, based on her own painful experience of ‘trying to do the right thing’ and get it right for everyone – not always possible or welcome. “We tried everything for fair pricing. We had a £250k loss from paying the conventional rate and could have gone under. Galaxius was a Godsend. Only two people walked out. It worked. With the same staffing we went from 4,000 garments to 7,000 per week, by monitoring and paying against productivity.”

When incentivised in a transparent, fair way – then people who work harder will be rewarded. Should more manufacturers be social enterprises, like Fashion-Enter Kate wondered? Not really, because of Fashion-Enter’s unique status as part academy and centre of learning, with money made going back into education.

The session closed with a review of where things are for UK brands currently, selling online direct to consumer, via Instagram and seemingly not compromised, with the ability to ‘tell the story of the brand’ more immediately. Kate encouraged brands to use her website, for local matchmaking and to promote themselves, and promised to do another Make it British virtual event in September, while acknowledging the depth of the business traction at a face-to-face live event.

Great that Kate keeps the flag flying with solid, experience-based advice and consultancy services for brands looking to keep it British. Long may her endeavours and Fashion-Enter’s provide much needed guiding principles for the ethical growth of a sustainable onshore fashion industry.

Contact Kate Hills at hello@makeitbritish.co.uk

The next N17 Creative Callings Employer Engagement seminar will be with Mark Dodds on Sustainable Fabric Sourcing on Friday 23rd April 2021. Tap here to find out more and book.

By Paul Markevicius




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