Still Made in the UK - The Revival of Home Produced Clothing Brands

15 Oct 2015
Sustainability | Made In the UK

It's quite mind boggling to think that just under 50 years ago almost 100% of mens' clothing were made in these isles. Apart from the specialist or exotic items that hailed from across the seas in France or Italy, the coats, jackets, trousers, shirts, socks and underwer were all produced within here. Most UK towns had a specialism: Luton was known for its hats;  Northamptonshire its shoe production;  Hawick, knitwear, Macclesfield, Whitchurch and Spitalfields, silk;  from  Kidderminster and Pembrokeshire were known for their carpets, and Newton survived by its tanning and clog-making expertise. 

The strides made in the UK during the industrial revolution resulted in the UK becoming the fabric manufacturing titan of the age until that is, it was overtaken during the ‘second industrial revolution’ by the strides taking place in the USA. Clothing manufacturing, however, remained strong in the UK until the 1980’s.  Up until that time clothing was coveted, saved for, sourced, bought and cared for.  They were cherished and handed down out of necessity and practicality as well as as treasured heirlooms. It is no coincidence that the rise of the vintage market exploded in the past 35 years as increasing numbers of people have sought out items and outfits from bygone years that possessed qualities of substance, beauty and longevity. It is no coincidence that these were the items that people were seeking out at the same time companies began distributing mass produced, flimsy items at prices that were ever cheaper and cheaper. During the late 80’s American Sportswear look took centre stage as a predominant look. Following the de-regulation of the financial markets 1986 it was also the era of ‘loads of money’ and the cultural icons of the time were clad in bright coloured easy-wear easy-care cottons. The alternative were the power-suits that symbolised the the verve, pep and ambition of the go-getting late ’80’s.  

As post-industrial progress and success became equated with having more and more of everything Baby-Boomers and Generation X became convinced that we should have it all “because I’m worth it”.  We raged as petulant toddlers in our desire to have our own way and have it all:  cheap clothes and lots of them.  Profit was King and so the race to off-shoring began.  The 90’s however became the lean-years for clothing manufacturing firms that had been around for decades, if not hundred’s of years as quality gave way to quantity and the major high street brands looked for opportunities overseas to produce at a cheaper price.  The surviving firms  were those that specialised in getting the fundamentals right: a quality fabric, perfect cutting, subtle detailing and perfect execution of production. The clothing companies that survived the crash of the early 90’s and the more recent recession include the following wellknown behemouth companies:

Crockett & Jones - Makers of fine shoes since 1879
Locke & Co. - Founded in 1676
Pringle - founded in 1815
Paul Smith - opened his first shop in 1970
Liberty - much loved since 1875
Gieves & Hawkes - tracing its roots back to 1771 with Royal Warrants since 1809
Barbour - 5th generation family owned since 1894
Belstaff - founded in Longton in 1924

Thankfully the tide has changed.  With the Great Recession of 2008-2009 and the Recovery Years of 2010-2012 - millions of people across the globe have been forced to question the ideologies and systems of unrelenting growth that were previously bought into.  We have had to learn the hard way, as Japan did between 1991 and 2001.
As growth stagnated, stopped and decreased we have had the opportunity to question what we truly need and desire.   We have tightened our belts, buttoned down the hatches and prepared for a storm during which we have reflected and asked the deep questions about sustainability.  This period of reflection has given birth to a new age where a vision of sustainable living is coming to the fore. It is reflected in the tens of thousands of new brands that have hit the global market as new technology facilities cottage industries. Just as pre the Industrial Revolution we bought locally we are again embracing the provenance of our goods.

And so New Heritage Brands are now establishing themselves, operating on the basis that timelessness and quality will afford them greater longevity. Taking the lessons from the established British heritage brands such as Aquascutum, Burburry and Barbour which were born out of responding to environmental factors such as the weather to produce quality British weather baring products, the New Heritage brands are responding to the changing social needs, the interest placed upon provenance and the importance now placed upon longevity and permanence in a very impermanent  world.  The high quality of British production skills combined with with fabrics and prints is now given greater prominence for labels such as Private White VC,  Crest of a Wave, Common Sons, Huit Denim, Albam and Universal Works.

A similar trend has occurred in the USA.  As the home of workwear, and brands such as Pendleton, Woolwich, LLBean, J Press and Red Wing Shoes, the Industrial Look has become as much a part of the American aesthetic as the Ivy League or Sportswear looks. In the east the renaissance of Japanese textile tradition has raised its own head, no doubt spurned on by its 2 decade long recession which gave it time to have a long hard look at itself and its rich culture and traditions. A little more research into the heritage brands of Germany, Holland, Sweden, France and other developed nations will, no doubt, unearth similar heritage brands that survived the recessions of the 70’s and 80’s.

The 1980’s and 1990’s have gone down in the annals as the period when manufacturing waned and almost died, but from observation and personal experience it very much feels as though a revival is underway. The British textile industry now comprises over 79,000 businesses, employing over 340,000 people with the Gross value added for the sector in the UK estimated at over £11.5 billion. The increasing popularity of UK manufactured goods has meant that factories' order books are increasing, however, there remains an issue that is potentially a time bomb ticking in the corner as the older generation of workers retire.  The need to attract a new generation of skilled production worker is high on the agenda if we are to continue the upward trend.  The manager of one of our factories recently recounted how hard it is for them to recruit and keep younger workers for the years that it takes to become a skilled cutter, sewer or finisher.

On the other side of the equation appreciation for the quality of goods made in the UK and the bigger story around the importance of keeping a manufactoring base on these shores needs to be appreciated by the consumer who has become used to fast throw-away fashions.  We made our committment to making 100% of our collection in the UK because we wanted to be part of an equation that recognises the need to have a balanced economy with both services and manufactoring.  While the sourcing of our fabrics has meant that we have sourced off shore for over 1/2 of our collection for 2016 we will be committing to increasing our sourcing of UK produced (and sustainably made) textiles to 75%.  It is going to be a tall order, but a challenge that we are looking forward to taking on.  Long live UK clothing manufactoring.

"All dress is fancy dress, is it not, except our natural skins?"  ~George Bernard Shaw


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