The British clothing manufacturing industry is much smaller than you may think
When you hear the words ‘British fashion’, what does it conjure up in your mind?
London? Burberry? Central Saint Martins perhaps? In other words, a big city, a global lifestyle brand and world-renowned fashion education.
You may not naturally think of a British factory; the machinery, the skills, the years of experience. The oft-viewed bleak world of textile manufacturing is perhaps not what is best known to have propelled our country to its present position amongst the higher echelons of the fashion industry.
I’ve always understood the clothing manufacturing industry in this country to be a closed and small one. Just quite how small, I didn’t realise until recently.
Meet The Manufacturer is the largest gathering for professionals in the British textile manufacturing industry, and having attended for the first time in May, it’s certainly the best place to find a faithful collaborator.
Meet the Manufacturer May 2016, image courtesy of meetthemanufacturer.co.uk
Our cultural identity is in danger
In addition to discussions around heritage and innovation, bringing mass-customisation to the industry and understanding the supply chain, the idea that struck me most sharply, was that of our cultural identity. And the reality that we have been, and are still in danger of, losing control of it.
There are between 100 and 150 thousand people employed in the UK textile manufacturing industry today – one sixth compared to about 30 years ago.
This is mainly due, of course, to the change in our consumption levels, as well as the ease of manufacturing abroad in larger, and cheaper quantities. But fashion education must also play a part in this. Today, we are taught to be ‘designers’, not ‘makers’. The white collar still preferable to the blue. It’s all about aspiration.
I’ve mentioned before the extreme disconnect between the wearer of a garment and its maker, but it is just as common today to find a designer who cannot cut a pattern or stitch a seam.
Right now, the story of our clothing is less about investing in luxury and skill, and more about fine tuning a process of passive production. One person designs, one person makes, another thinks about who’s going buy it and when, someone else sells it and then someone else analyses its success. No wonder the industry as a whole is in crisis.
A modern British factory with education at it's heart
Enter Fashion Enter - the thoroughly modern British factory.
Situated in North London, they produce clothing for ASOS, the M&S ‘Best of British’ line and, more recently, London born brand Finery, as well as smaller start up labels. But what makes them different is their investment in apprenticeships, skills and education alongside manufacture.
Forget the bleak stigma attached to a factory environment and think clean, airy, light filled spaces.
The Factory, image courtesy of fashion-enter.com
The aim of their Fashion Technology Academy (the UK’s first technical academy offering eight qualifications on the garment life cycle) is to keep clothing manufacturing skills alive in the UK. And it is hugely apparent that today there are not enough British people with the high level of manufacturing expertise required.
From short term stitching, pattern cutting and production skills classes to 24 month long apprenticeships, expert advice is available from technicians who’ve run their own factories, to seamstresses from iconic brands like Vivienne Westwood. The knowledge they have and experiences they are able to draw on, give a new generation the skills to move the industry forward.
Quality control station at The Factory, Fashion Enter
When significant change occurs, one of the first things we all invariably do, is to think about the effect it has on us as individuals and more broadly, the industry we work in.
Former Financial Times manufacturing editor Peter Marsh cites on his latest website, Made Here Now, that ‘De-industrialisation - manufacturing’s shrinking share of the UK’s economic output - has gone far enough. If we are to have sustainable economic growth and higher living standards, Britain must re-industrialise’.
Brexit was the last thing most people who work in, or aspire to work in the British fashion industry would have wished for. Now decided, the outcome itself seems of little consequence: it is how we react that is important now.
Britain is a patriotic country in many ways. But not, it seems, when it comes to the making and purchasing of clothing. British manufacture is a huge part of our cultural identity – an identity that we export successfully. A ‘Made in Britain’ label stands for heritage, skill and quality and lots of people want a piece of it. We as a country must to get behind it too.
This post was also published on The Huffington Post