Fashion industry professionals including small business owners, students and representatives from UK Trade & Investment (UKTI) and the UK Fashion & Textile Association (UKFT) were among the crowd at a sell-out event in Manchester on Wednesday, 29 July 2015 to discuss whether goods being made in England really matters.
They were gathered for The Fashion Network’s panel discussion Made in Britain – Who Cares? An informed debate followed, regarding several questions about the past, present and future of UK manufacturing.
Dessy Tsolova, Utelier founder, was joined on the panel by James Eden of Private White V.C., Paul Alger of UKFT and Denise Pearson of Deni-Deni. Around 10 people in the audience were involved in brands that are made in England, and so were able to offer their own experiences and question the panel.
A resurgence of UK manufacturing
The panel was asked by event Chair, Dale Hicks of The Fashion Network, if there was a resurgence in UK manufacturing and there was a mixed response.
Paul Alger said that there was, but also, “If you were to ask an MP however, they would think a lot more is going on than actually is.” He explained that if the product is good and the price is right, then you would have a sustainable business, suggesting that a resurgence of UK manufacturing isn’t necessarily relevant if you can’t maintain your Made in Britain brand.
Eden’s response reinforces the idea that the responsibility is on fashion business owners who make in Britain, to be successful. Rather than a resurgence of UK manufacturing creating successful fashion businesses.
Addressing the issue of cost as a barrier, Denise Pearson said: “People would love to work with UK manufacturers but trying to find factories that will take on small runs is nigh on impossible.”
Why do people buy British?
Now this is a question that I don’t think anyone will ever be able to answer easily. There are patriotic consumers, and there are consumers worldwide who will buy British because they believe it is made better. There are British consumers that believe buying British is safer for the environment as products move shorter distances and therefore have a lower carbon footprint, and that it means ethical fashion, because there is no unfair treatment of factory workers in Britain. Or is there?
The panel went into more detailed explanations of why they think people buy British, and also what they have experienced through their own sales for reasons why people buy British made products.
James Eden said, “People don’t buy ‘Made in England’ time and time again just because they are patriotic. There needs to be a quality and a premium. All the elements have to be better than the best. To make this Made in England thing work, it has to be about the product.”
Suggestions from the Chair and the audience were that there is an emotional attachment with buying British made products, and that Made in England does mean something to people.
Dessy Tsolova said, “The Made in Britain label has a huge appeal internationally. Britain as a whole has a somewhat iconic status with foreigners who love the Royal family, the British sense of humour, and the power and stability that Britain represents. And as such, they want to buy British made goods. They want to own a part of British-ness by buying from British designers and products made in Britain.”
One audience member explained that she supported British-made products, but that every item of clothing she was wearing that day was not manufactured in the UK. However, her point was that her wedding ring and wedding dress were made in England, because “If it’s something important and it is meaningful, I buy British-made.”
It seems as though British made products are perceived by consumers to be a luxury label in their own right. British made products can be aspirational and items that people want to show off. Especially when they themselves are British, as it shows solidarity and a “paying in” to the “salt-of-the-earth” British factories.
It could well be that the rambunctious nature of UK politics of late are simply resonating within the UK fashion industry, and therefore the fashion industry as a whole including consumers, are fighting back in every way possible to save the very nature of heritage-type fashion.
But back to the question: Why do people buy British? Some people simply like a good story and that does tend to come with British made products. Take Private White V.C. as an example, you can find out about the inner workings of the factory, go and watch beautiful products be constructed and then purchase them, all while soaking in the history of the brand.
A story like that is what you can bring into a conversation, after your outfit has been complimented, about why you INVESTED in this jacket. Men are more likely to do this. They buy investment pieces at a high price point, whereas women tend to move along with changing trends, not including investment pieces such as handbags and footwear.
James Eden added, “Men are a bit more considered in terms of providence. Women are more fashion-forward.”
How cost-effective and sustainable is manufacturing in the UK?
It can be considered a privilege to manufacture in the UK and so it is more expensive, and as Denise had said at the start of the discussion, many UK factories do not do small runs. This is difficult for UK SMEs who are determined to be fully made in England.
Paul Alger said, “Manufacturing at the current scale is sustainable in the UK, there’s enough talent. But you probably won’t see the return of volume manufacturing here in the UK because it is too expensive. If you are trying to make cheap fabric in the UK, then generally speaking you will fail.”
James Eden said, “People are over designing and under charging. If you can sell your product, you’re okay. It doesn’t matter if you’re uber expensive or very cheap.”
Dessy Tsolova also made the valid point, “Another reason that Made in Britain is not for everyone is that when you have a growing brand and you sell to international retailers, they often ask for a background of the factory where the products are made. They ask for audit reports and so forth, and British factories are not able to provide that information as they are often small units that are under resourced, and not necessarily meeting international standards.”
Overall, UK manufacturing can be cost-effective and sustainable if you have taken the efforts to ensure that you can run a successful fashion business.
Support for makers of Made in England
The audience wanted to know more about support available for makers of British made products, and there is support available for manufacturers in the UK, you’ll be pleased to know. But as Paul Alger said: “There is support available for manufacturers but it tends to be regional, there’s a lot of advice but not huge amounts of cash, but there are regional growth funds.”
Denise Pearson explained that Creative Lancashire had supported her so that she could be involved in Best of Britannia. James Eden told the audience that there is a lot of support for designer brands, such as Passport to Export, and as a manufacturer his brand has also benefited from grants.
Divia, a representative from the UKTI, confirmed that funding is available to buy machinery, and mentioned the Textile Growth Fund which is specifically for the Manchester area. She also reassured the audience that funding is also available to get you overseas for trade shows, for translation services and so forth.
One of the questions from the floor was about fashion businesses who lose out on the Made in England label, because not all of their manufacturing took place in the UK, as sometimes they felt forced to outsource some of the production to factories overseas due to costs. But, if it’s not ALL physically manufactured in the UK, then it’s not Made in England.
Furthermore, Paul Alger offered a rousing ending as he said, “We should all be ambassadors for UK manufacturing. We’re responsible for how we spend our money, and we also need to question the way retailers behave.”
Dessy Tsolova explained, “Retailers have to be more transparent about where they manufacture, and EVERYONE has a responsibility to educate consumers on why they should support ‘Made in Britain.’ But one will only buy British made products if the quality justifies the end cost of the product.”
Image credit: Furious Goose via Twitter