Back to British: One pair of knickers at a time
British manufacturing is making a comeback and retail guru Mary Portas is spearheading its return. Not content with putting the va-va-voom back into forty-plus female fashion, she’s also rejuvenated the former jewel in the crown of the British town centre, its high street, by dispelling the mass produced tat of pound shops and challenging the dominance of the supermarket. Her latest project has been even more ambitious: energising the UK clothing industry by starting her own production line to manufacture a staple in any woman’s wardrobe – 100% British knickers. Documented on Channel 4’s Mary’s Bottom Line, millions of us have watched her recapture Britain’s lost past one pair of knickers at a time.
The idea for the programme came out of some startling statistics. 52 per cent of textile manufacturing jobs have been lost since 2000. In the Midlands alone, once a clothing manufacturing powerhouse, production has been badly hit by cheap foreign competition over the past 20 years. The once booming industry has been crippled. The fact that 90 per cent of Britain’s clothes are now imported is testament to this loss.
With transport costs and foreign labour costs rising, however, Portas has identified potential to rebuild and reignite the British manufacturing industry. The programme followed her to Middleton, Greater Manchester, to set up a new production line for her British-made knickers.
It isn’t just Portas that’s pushing for more British made fashion. For Kate Holmes, founder and creative director of luxury brand Client, which specialises in military chic clothing, the ‘made in Britain’ ethos is key to her label. Taking post war and vintage garments and ‘remaking’ them in her North London workshop, Holmes uses buttons engraved with Client from the north of England and leather from the East London Leather Factory.
“I just don’t feel comfortable making my line anywhere but the UK”, she says. “This is an ethical decision, but also a pragmatic one. For me to produce abroad would be a massive outlay as most factories won’t make less than 1000 pieces. When you run a small business, and place smaller orders, it is far easier with production in the UK.”
A made in Britain label gives the garment desirability and a level of kudos. “More and more this is becoming a selling point as people become increasingly aware of the implications of producing domestically”, says Holmes.
Yet even with high-end labels, much of the production is undertaken in China. “They have obviously identified a trend in that ‘made in Britain’ is suddenly a great marketing tool. I know that some brands make most of their stuff in factories in the Far East and perhaps make 100 pieces here in the UK. They then mix them all up and sew a ‘made in UK’ label on everything. This is a clever loophole to mislead the public.”
So what is the value of buying British? For Portas, it’s simple: “skills, UK jobs, pride in our manufacturing heritage”. It sounds obvious, but how many of us really stop to think where our latest dress or designer handbag is made? Buying British-made fashion helps to create British jobs and boosts our flagging economy.
It may not be the cheapest way to shop, but early signs show that the UK public is buying into the ethos and the Portas brand, and is willing to pay the ten pounds price tag in order to do their bit for British jobs. According to Portas’ website, ‘Kinky Knickers have been flying off the shelves faster than we can make them’. Marks & Spencer, ASOS, Boots, Liberty and Selfridges are all currently out of the stock. As cheeky shopper Gary Journeaux told me on launch day in London’s House of Fraser, “you can’t put a price on a good bum.”
For Holmes, it’s been a similar story. “Client customers always comment on the quality of my clothes so I am proud that everything is done here in the UK. Supporting fashion manufacturing in this country so important. We have so many factories here already, but so many others have closed down, losing a generation of the workforce. In a recession, we need to build these up again and retrain the upcoming youth. Mary Portas has got it right.”Tagged in: High Street 2012, made in Britain, manufacturing, Mary Portas, Mary’s Bottom Line, production, retail
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