The state of British manufacturing: A debate at Private White
Two weeks ago, I chaired a discussion in the Private White VC shop in Mayfair around the topic of British manufacturing.
It turned out to be one of the most enjoyable such talks I’ve ever done.
The speakers were great, with both young and old; style, product and make-focused; and an audience that contributed as much as the speakers themselves.
I've transcribed the highlights here. I hope you find it interesting.
Simon: Good evening everyone. Today we’re going to be talking about British manufacturing - something that has come into vogue in the past 10 years, but I think it’s fair to say is rarely analysed in detail.
The first thing I would like to get is some sort of perspective on the Made in Britain trend. Because while it’s certainly seen all around us, few people relate it to previous trends along the same lines. And I certainly haven’t been writing long enough to be able to give that myself.
Tarlach, how have you seen attitudes to the location of your manufacturing change over the years?
Tarlach de Blácam, Inis Meain [above]: Well, I guess I can provide some kind of perspective on this, being more long-in-the-tooth than some of the other speakers.
Inis Meain is a little island off the west coast of Ireland. That’s Ireland by the way - so not British manufacturing!
Simon: Ah yes, apologies about that.
Tarlach: That’s fine - I originally went to Inis Meain as a student of celtic languages, and I can tell you ‘Britain’ has long been a word for all the islands of this archipelago, so no harm done!
When I first went to Inis Meain in the mid-1970s, there was no running water, no electricity, and everything came ashore by canoe. I went there to write, but ended up setting up a knitwear factory - primarily to make use of the fantastic local skills there.
When we first started to sell, it was for export, and we came to London and worked with an agent here. He loved the product, but it was hard to sell. He always said, if only I could stick a ‘Made in Italy’ label on it, it would all go. Being made in Ireland wasn’t much of a draw at the time.
The transformation that has taken place in the past 5-10 years, among young people who want to know more about quality and provenance, is breathtaking. It’s fantastic. When we started selling back in the 1970s and 1980s there was nothing like that, and I do think it's unprecedented.
I take my hat off to all the young people in the room here. Now we need to train them to use their hands, to learn real skills, rather than these stupid industries where people sit in front of a computer from morning to night.
James Eden, Private White VC [above]: Well of course, I was one of those stupid people working in front of a computer screen all day, but I took a rather different route to the industry. I started working with Stolly - Mike Stoll, our factory manager there in the front row. If you don’t know Stolly you really need to, because he’s a legend.
When I was growing up, I only knew British manufacturing as a busted flush, in a terrible state, and frankly I still think it’s in that state today.
The only way we’ve been able to survive as a manufacturer is by creating our own brand. Without that, we would never have been able to continue. The private label business [making for other brands] is very very hard by comparison.
Today I think you need your own brand to create the interest, the price point, the desire, to support a factory and all of the staff we want to train and push forward.
Simon: Euan, how have you seen the Northampton shoe business change? Edward Green has always made mostly for itself, but how have other factories in the area evolved that did private-label work?
Euan Denholm, Edward Green [above]: I think many have realised how much you need your own brand.
Apparently there were 505 shoe factories around Northampton at the turn of the 20th century. They were all making bulk, mostly for the British market. Now only the high end is left, mostly in niches, mostly for export, and you need a brand to support that.
You’ve seen factories transition from private label to their own brand - as the Church cousins have done with Cheaney, for example. And the factories that are left are going in that direction as well.
Simon: Nick, how have you seen British industry evolve over your career? You must have a different perspective, coming more from the design side of many brands.
Nick Ashley, Private White VC [above]: The family company saw a lot change, yes.
For those that don’t know, my mother was Laura Ashley [English clothing and furnishings brand]. She and my father started out in Wales in the 1950s producing fabrics, and everything was made in the UK back then.
They ended up with thousands of people across several factories. Eventually they had to close, but I think that actually if we still had those factories today, even with the focus on British manufacturing, they wouldn’t be profitable.
It’s just too expensive to produce here, and once you have those costs, what you end up with is a luxury product. We came to that realisation with Private White.
But to answer your question, I’ve certainly seen things change in attitude to manufacture. When I left Laura Ashley I set up my own menswear brand, in 1992. And back then it was all about brand - that was all anyone cared about. Now people are far more aware of provenance and sustainability.
Simon: I find it interesting that everyone is saying there must be this link between manufacturing and brand for the former to survive. Because most people still associate the word ‘brand’ with big designer brands, almost as the antithesis of quality and craft.
Alice, what’s your view on this, because you have the unique perspective of working both with lots of different British factories, and more on the industrial side.
Alice Walsh, Alice Made This [above]: Yes, and my background was in furniture design. We found there that there was a big wave of people going out to China, to Vietnam, and then gradually coming back as British manufacturing started to reform, to start to think about how it could channel materials or processes to do something beyond just the machine parts it had done traditionally .
It made them more open, which is great for a brand like ours when we go to them and ask for unusual pieces. And they've proven that UK production can actually be more cost-effective, once you factor in travel, building relationships and so on.
Simon: How widespread a trend is that? We often hear news items about brands bringing manufacturing back to the UK. But is that the rule now, or the exception?
James: In the apparel industry, there isn’t much that’s real. There’s a lot of green-washing and a lot of smoke and mirrors.
I don’t see anything significant coming back to the UK. It’s a very long-term decision to start making here again, and people aren’t prepared to do that. To be honest I don’t see it ever happening in the future either.
Alice: As a brand, it must be a lot easier for you all, because you’ve always made here, you can philosophy into your brand from the start. It must be much harder for someone like LVMH to pull everything back from overseas, to suddenly try and change people’s perceptions.
Audience member: What do you all feel about Patrick Grant’s community clothing project? That’s much more mid-market than your brands, but has some interesting new ideas - such as trying to use traditional slow periods at factories.
James: I think it’s very admirable. Anyone that wants to make in the UK, and is open and transparent about it, should be applauded. My only question is whether it’s possible to create any scale and therefore longevity with that approach.
Nick: They’ve got a saying in Wales: sales are vanity, profits are sanity.
Alice: One of the things I think is really valuable in projects like Patrick’s is the public awareness it creates. Although a lot of people are aware of provenance and quality now, it’s still the minority. It's good to push this out into the mainstream.
Simon: Absolutely. It’s so hard to know how broad a trend this is. Lovely as it is to write for an engaged audience on Permanent Style, and to talk to a great audience like we have here, it can also be a bit of an echo chamber where everyone agrees with everyone else.
Tarlach: It’s interesting how Italy has been able to retain far more of its manufacturing, as far as I’m aware, and certainly remain more powerful in marketing and so on. Part of the reason must be that the Italian government helps support factories there through slow times.
Simon: Factories there have certainly been more socially and community-minded over the years, which has helped them a lot. But there are just as many manufacturers there setting up their own brands too - like Marol shirts, or Bresciani socks. They face the same pressures.
Audience member: Why are we so aware of so many Italian brands then, compared to British ones? Why have they survived so much better?
Simon: It’s a complicated picture. To a certain extent, they haven’t. It’s only the top end of the apparel market that has really survived.
But also, what counts as an ‘Italian’ brand is rather different, as the government deliberately makes it easy to put a ‘Made in Italy’ label on a garment. Only a very small proportion of the work has to be done in Italy, the rest can all be done in Romania. Whether that’s a healthy approach for a government to take is another question.
Mike Stoll, Private White VC (from the audience): All most people want is a short cut - a quick indicator that one thing is better than another, which might be a label or might be a British flag.
James: Even then, let’s be clear - most people don’t care about quality. They want to buy five maxi-dresses on a Friday, wear six on a Saturday and return seven on a Sunday!
Audience member: There’s a contrast there with womenswear. It must be so much easier in menswear to produce quality clothing, when men buy less and have styles that stick around longer.
My father used to say: $120 shoes last twice as long as $60 shoes, but $250 shoes last forever. The prices are a little out of date, but the principle’s right.
Alice: I think men really enjoy making educated choices. They like the feeling that they know about the product and can talk about it.
Simon: I remember someone saying to me years ago that men’s number one desire with clothing was not to look stupid - that’s why they rarely wear unusual things, and take the piss out of their friends when they do.
But their number two desire is to feel they’ve made an intelligent choice. Whether it’s because the piece is fashionable, or well made, or rare. It’s that desire to be sitting at the bar and have someone compliment your jacket, and you say ‘Well, let me tell you about this jacket…’ and have a great story to tell.
One thing I think is often not well covered is the day-to-day benefits of making locally. Of making it easier to oversee production, to check quality, to refine design.
Is that something you can reflect on, James?
James: Well first of all, nothing we do at Private White is easy. Trust me. But we also don’t have much to compare to, because so much of our supply chain is in Manchester. Our mills, our weavers, our spinners are all based in local counties. We don’t know any different.
Nick: There’s a new cotton spinner opened up in Manchester as well - the first one to bring it back to the city. Cottonopolis rising from the ashes.
Tarlach: It can’t come soon enough. I met our linen supplier in Paris last week and he said when he started there were 14 linen spinners in Europe. Now there are two. That whole northern Europe linen industry that stretches from Ireland, through northern France to the Netherlands, is now sending its raw material to China to be spun.
If I thought I had enough time left, I’d say I’d like to bring all of that back to Europe. To create such energy with craft and people working with their hands, that all the traditional, specialist industries came back here.
Alice: It must be a big issue that all young people feel they have to get a degree these days - as you did, Tarlach. Rather than training, rather than an apprenticeship.
We work with one place that is the last maker of the hardware for military uniforms in the UK. Their master worker is 75 and he just can’t retire. There’s no one to replace him.
Simon: I’m conscious we’re running a little short of time. Do we have any more questions from the audience?
Audience member: Do the speakers foresee a time when British goods could become more affordable? I work at a bespoke tailor, but my flat in Tooting is too expensive, and I can’t afford any of these things, much as I might appreciate them.
Nick: It will always depend on the costs of what goes into it.
Bespoke tailoring is always going to be expensive, because it’s so labour intensive. But you could have a fully automated shirt process, based in the UK, that would be a lot cheaper because the whole thing was made by machine.
Euan: And if you want handmade, Goodyear-welted shoes, you’ll have to save up I’m afraid!
Audience member: How have you all coped in becoming not just brands, but retailers as well? Is that a harder jump?
James: In many ways yes - you can see it around you now. We’ve had to open our own shops, to be fully vertically integrated.
Tarlach: It’s getting harder all the time - department stores today are little more than landlords. And there is so little training for staff. The only exception for me is Barney’s in New York.
Alice: Independent retailers probably have it hardest of all; harder than most of the brands here. As brands we can do so much more than we used to be able to - tell our own stories through social media and so on. Independents end up competing with everyone, and trying to do most of it face to face.
Simon: The cost of retail is something that even highly engaged consumers have a problem with. Everyone says they support independent shops, but they baulk at rent being part of the cost of what they’re buying.
Audience member: What one thing would each of the panellists like to see the British government doing to support British manufacturing?
James: Training and apprenticeships.
Euan: Negotiating Brexit to avoid hitting us all with new tariffs to trade.
Tarlach: Tariffs too, the prospect of that is pretty frightening.
Simon: I was trying so hard to avoid talking about Brexit. We’ve failed right at the end…
Euan: Also, stopping people putting British tags, flags, or labels suggesting something is made in Britain when it isn’t. It should mean something.
Nick: Absolutely, in the same way as organic food - that requires a Soil Association stamp.
Mike: A Union Jack on a motorcycle jacket, perhaps… Owned in Italy, made in Morocco. That can’t be right.
Simon: Ok, we’ll leave it there before we get into any legal issues! Thank you so much everyone for coming, and to Private White VC for hosting us.
I was wearing:
- Bespoke denim double-breasted jacket by Cifonelli (more on that soon)
- Brushed-cotton blue shirt by Simone Abbarchi
- Grey Crispaire trousers by The Disguisery