As LC:M draws to a close, what remains of home-grown manufacturing in fashion?
As London Collections: Men wrap after three heady days of shows, it’s pretty clear that London has no shortage of creative talent. Our designers respond to the world around them with thought-provoking collections rooted in incredible craftsmanship and produce some of menswear’s strongest statements. But what we do have a shortage of is manufacturing possibilities and workshops here on UK soil. Over the last few decades, countless key fashion manufacturers and fabric makers have closed down, and we’ve lost a painful amount of home-grown skill and precious artisanal knowledge in the process.
“We used to have a sensational manufacturing industry both for clothes and cloth. In 1970s and early eighties it slowly disappeared because it was thought by the powers that be – the government of the time, and not just in Britain but around the world – that everything was going to move over to the service industry in countries like ours and that the manufacturing would go to the East,” notes Sir Paul Smith. “Some of it did, but it was a very confusing time. There was one point in the seventies when there were about twelve mills closing down every month. It was really awful. I think that in parallel to cost issues it was to do with a lack of innovation. A lot of the manufacturers weren’t keeping up with new methods of making.”
Thankfully, there are still brilliant and highly specialised manufacturers alive and kicking in the UK, and a growing number of our brands are now keeping large parts of their production on home turf. Meadham Kirchhoff produce all their pieces apart from their Italian-made knitwear in the UK, Burberry’s iconic trench coat is still made in Yorkshire, Topman have their successful Made in England tailoring and Alexander McQueen have teamed up with Huntsman on Savile Row for bespoke menswear. Sibling and Sister by Sibling by trio Cozette McCreery, Sid Bryan and Joe Bates also work with a number of UK fabric developers and factories to evolve their knitwear vision, and when they represent the UK in the International Woolmark Prize in Milan next week, their entry will have been knitted by one of the label’s key manufacturers in Scotland.
“We used to have a massive industry in the UK,” comments Sid Bryan. “When I graduated from the Royal College of Art and started working with Bella Freud – and first started working with Cozette in fact – Bella was working on a line for Jaeger, the knitwear of which was made entirely at a factory in Belper, Derbyshire. They were incredible. And then they hit really tough times and closed because so many large high street UK businesses were moving their suppliers abroad back then, taking their huge cash-supportive orders with them – the overheads were getting too high here and UK factories just couldn’t compete with the Far East.”
Looking at the amount of nurturing and support that has gone into growing our designers, you can’t help but feel like we now need to apply the same amount of adoration, dedication and support to get our manufacturing industry back on track. London only keeps gaining momentum and designers like Christopher Kane and Jonathan Saunders are building megabrands from their studios in East London, making it exactly the right time to put focus back on ‘Made in the UK’ and the high level of quality we can offer here. It would be a giant waste of an incredible opportunity not to at least try, whether it’ll be through government support for smaller manufacturers or setting up more apprenticeship schemes.
“There are plenty of great manufacturers here – it’s just about finding them. We get some amazing fabrics from the UK,” notes Charlie Casely-Hayford, who designs menswear label Casely-Hayford with his father, Joe Casely-Hayford. “When we started the brand we made the entire collection in Japan, but now we’re slowly coming back to the UK. But there are still certain technical things that are much harder to do here,” he says. Sid Bryan echoes this: “What we do with sequinning and embroidery for Sibling – you can’t do that here. These types of factories and that kind of setup don’t exist in the UK.”
Aside from the tech stuff and the need to build factories that can deal with large-scale productions during busy times, what should our existing manufacturing industry be focusing on? “What our mills and manufacturers need to realise – and I say this every time I see young designers or do talks – is that nobody needs another journalist, another magazine, another designer, another art gallery, another TV programme. You’ve got to have a point of view,” Paul Smith notes. “The mills and manufacturers have to ask themselves: what are they offering? Have they got some new machinery? Have they got laser cutting? Have they got hand skills at the other end of the scale? It could be anything. But they need to understand that they must have a point of view.”
For his SS14 British Collection, Paul Smith has worked with Clissold, one of Yorkshire’s few surviving mills dating back to 1910, to produce bespoke fabrics that fuse traditional craftsmanship with a very modern point of view. “It’s really delightful that we can use Clissold. They were so willing to work with us to do things which are actually quite complicated, both at a design stage and on the loom. A lot of commercial mills just want to do classic formal in navy blue or black and at 20.000 metres,” Smith says.
A major part of the challenge will also be to rebuild the skill sets that have been partly lost as well as establishing the future generation of innovative craftsmen. Right now, 60 percent of the people working in manufacturing are 40-plus years old, and their wisdom needs to be passed on before they retire. When I recently visited Lavenham at their buzzing factory in Suffolk where the label’s iconic quilted jackets and pieces for Kenzo, Liberty and Casely-Hayford are made, managing director Nicky Santomauro spoke of how difficult it is for them to get young people interested in manufacturing. Perhaps one step could be to rebrand manufacturing in more artisanal terms.
Hopefully, the growing number of brands that are slowly bringing production back home to underscore their British heritage will help usher in a renaissance for our factories. And perhaps the rising cost of labour and production in the Far East will also drive more business back to our shores. We’re already producing the talent and the ideas, and it would be such an epic step forward for British fashion to fully re-establish our once thriving production industry.