Peruse any English history book with a focus north of London and you will discover the major impact clothing manufacturers had on the development of industrial Britain. From the cotton mills of Manchester to the luxury wool trade of Scotland, the U.K. was once an important producer of apparel in Europe, and the industry sustained thousands of families.
But like nearly all Western countries, clothing manufacturing in the U.K. has suffered a sharp decline since the rise of fast fashion and the industry’s subsequent dependence on high-quality factories in China and the Southeast Asia. Unable to compete with their access to cheap, plentiful labor, British factories soon fell into disrepair.
The mass manufacturing of clothing in the U.K. has been in freefall since the mid-1990s, and in 2013, Jeremy Hackett, founder of the menswear brand Hackett, said the industry in the U.K. had “been decimated.” Hackett felt he could no longer make good quality clothes there.
However, as the trend for British-made goods grows, and around the world sourcing starts returning to end-market, the U.K. is slowly finding its manufacturing feet again.
According to the Inter-Departmental Business Register, there has been year on year growth in the number of textile and apparel manufacturing companies in the U.K. since 2014, and even high street retailers like Marks & Spencer have moved toward using some domestic production. On top of that, there has been a 25 percent rise in the export of British-made clothing since 2011, with that rising to 30 percent since Brexit in 2016, as companies attempt to insulate against the coming adverse effects.
Given that these numbers are starting from a low base, it would be incorrect to suggest that apparel manufacturing could see Britain through the trials of Brexit. Particularly since, for the moment, it is very much focused on high-end designer fashion.
The industry can attribute this boom in popularity for luxury ‘Made in Britain’ tags to the rise of an east London aesthetic. Thanks to designers like JW Anderson, Mary Katrantzou, Nicholas Kirkwood and Molly Goddard, Britain’s brand is back with a bang. Established labels like Burberry and Alice Temperley have used the Made in Britain tagline for years, ensuring it’s synonymous with high-end, well-tailored luxury. But with the arrival of east London’s cutting-edge designers, it now has the cool factor, too.
However, while traditional British names like Mulberry, Burberry, John Smedley and Barbour trade on their English heritage, and all make some of their products in the U.K., they still outsource the majority. Burberry still makes raincoats in West Yorkshire, but the rest of its range is made abroad. Mulberry makes 30 percent of its products at The Rookery, its factory near Bath, but the rest in Portugal. And brands are happy with that, as it allows them to market their goods as British wares, while being able to keep costs down with cheap labor elsewhere.
However, in an era of instant gratification and with an industry increasingly dominated by digital influencers, speed to market and customization have become more important for some fashion players than cost alone.
This reluctance to wait is evident when we look at the fashion calendar, with models wearing outfits that, rather than showcasing next season’s look, are immediately ready to buy. The attitude has moved toward ‘see it, like it, buy it’, rather than waiting half a season to see them on the racks. This means retailers need to capitalize on widespread internet coverage by reacting quickly–and the easiest way to do that is to manufacture at home. Or at least close to home.
This is financially viable for luxury labels like Burberry, but mass fashion will need to wait for developments in automation before they can manufacture in the U.K. and keep goods at an affordable price, particularly given that Brexit will cut off the country’s access to cheap Eastern European labor and drive up the price of manufacturing.
“With lead times getting shortened, manufacturing will need to move closer in, but transferring to higher-cost production companies would usually have a direct impact on the price of goods,” says Dr. Achim Berg, senior partner at McKinsey & Company, referring to a renewed focus on proximity sourcing over reshoring. “However, automation could change all that.”
While Brexit is forecast to drive up labor costs, however, its impact on the pound sterling means Britain’s exports are now more attractive overseas. The pound has dropped in value over the last two years and is almost on parity with the euro and at 77 pence to the U.S. dollar. This means British-made goods have become exponentially more affordable to the European and American market.
Despite this, it’s unlikely that mass production will ever return to the U.K. Although, as a new generation focuses more on quality, sustainability and durability than price–and digitization and automation make manufacturing in high-cost countries more affordable–the British apparel industry should remain small but intact.
“The companies that survived and continue to manufacture in the U.K. are the Rolls Royces rather than the British Leylands of this world,” said Tony Lutwyche, a Savile Row suit-maker. “Fashion is the same. We can’t compete on price, but we can compete on quality.”