Say ‘fashion in the UK’ and most people will think of London’s bi-annual fashion week and famous designers, rather than actual garment production. Maddy White reports.
Since the 1970s, the manufacture of clothing in Britain has declined, with retailer seeking out factories abroad to bring their designs to life. However, a slow renaissance in British garment manufacturing has now begun.
We went to Haringey, North London, to visit Jenny Holloway, CEO of Fashion Enter, who is proving that clothes can be successfully made in volume in the UK.
Last September, Caroline Rush, the British Fashion Council’s chief executive, said the value of the fashion industry to the UK’s economy had increased to a record £32bn. The sector’s manufacturing divison must be credited for some of this growth, thanks to a welcome (if gradual) rebirth across the country.
This is partly down to high street retailers speeding up their turnaround requirements – the time from placing an order with a factory, to the delivery of garments to a store. In some cases, this can be as little as a few weeks, timescales that factories outside of the domestic market would struggle to meet.
“I don’t think we ‘re anything special, but I think we are quite gritty,” Jenny Holloway, CEO of Fashion Enter tells me, during a visit to her North London site. Holloway isn’t giving herself enough credit, in the same way that she says manufacturing, particularly in fashion, isn’t acknowledged for the real economic contribution it makes.
Welcome to Fashion Enter
Fashion Enter was established in 2001. It has a factory for large-scale production, and a fashion studio for grading, sampling and smaller productions runs. In 2008, this not-for-profit social enterprise opened a studio and it was at that point that it became clear it was facing a shortage of technical skills and knowledge.
This lead to the opening of a Stitching Academy in 2013, which now forms part of the Fashion Technology Academy (FTA). Next door to the factory, and running at full capacity, the FTA provides accredited qualifications and apprenticeships ranging from level 1-5, and is England’s largest provider of the Fashion and Textiles Apprenticeship programme.
“Customers see a garment, but they have no idea of the complexity involved in making it,” she says. “With the pattern making, cutting, stitching and delivery, there are about 132 operations in total involved in getting a garment into a store.”
Holloway believes that if her team can manufacture garments in Zone 3 in London for retailers like ASOS and M&Co, then brands should be able to make their clothes closer to home. “We’ve just produced a satin zebra skirt. We’ve done 2,500 orders for a major retailer; it has been a bestseller, and now we are doing 10,000 for them.”
Fashion and technology merge seamlessly
The production of clothes is a largely manual process; pattern cutting, stitching and quality checks are all done by hand at Fashion Enter. However, technology is being integrated to aid the workforce.
“In our factory, we not only know who manufactured a particular garment, but also who made every stitch, and for fashion that has to be the way forward,” Holloway says.
This total transparency is enabled by Fashion Enter’s cloud-based Galaxius system, which can trace every operation made on a garment back to the employee who did it. Furthermore, all this traceability can be accessed on a smart phone.
The system handles hundreds of live orders, juggling thousands of data inputs with many garment line productions recorded constantly. And, since Fashion Enter is a social enterprise, Galaxius is available for everyone to use.
It also works as an incentive to drive production upward. The time a particular element of a garment should take to complete is estimated, and then the time an employee takes to complete that step is captured by the system. If a machinist completes the process quicker than the allocated time, they earn a bonus.
“I think the whole industry is ripe for technology. For example, as part of the tailor academy project, which is opening soon, we discovered Optitex. It’s 3D virtual prototyping software, and it’s fantastic, you can design your garment, the system will create the patterns for you, and you can manipulate them on screen.
“A retailer can ping across a garment to be made and the manufacturer can easily produce the sample. Fast fashion is about to get faster, and that’s not a bad thing. It’s wholly positive, as it’s about quality production and not oversupplying. Fashion is at a point that it is ready for applications that embrace lean manufacturing.”
Nominate now for The Manufacturer Top 100!
Jenny Holloway is a judge for The Manufacturer Top 100, a project that celebrates the most inspiring individuals in UK manufacturing.
Now in its sixth year, we are scouring the nation to find 100 unique and uplifting stories – personal tales helping to change popular perceptions of careers in manufacturing and encourage the next generation into the sector. Be sure to nominate your manufacturing heroes now! Nominations close 17 May.
The reality of fast fashion
‘Fast fashion’ continues to be a negative story splashed across the mainstream media, but its actual meaning is a surprisingly positive one. The phrase increasingly refers to the acceleration and compression of the process from design stages to consumers.
“Fast fashion is better, it means reducing the quantities retailers are buying, and selling all of those clothes at full price – it is reacting to consumer demands,” Holloway says.
If customers buy garments at full price, then they are less likely to throw them away, and if the correct amount is bought by the retailer then there is no discounting to perpetuate this cycle.
However, with the rise of online retailers, or ‘e-tailers’, who may not have the clout of a well-known brand, then the market becomes driven by price. “If you are not buying for what a brand stands for then the cheapest price will always win out, and that is not what fashion should be about,” Holloway says.
Another misconception Holloway wants to shatter is that online retailers contribute to unsustainable fashion. Online fashion retailer ASOS, she explains, is leading ethical production in the UK.
“There are bad practices that go on in fashion factories, but it is certainly not just the factories themselves, it is often pressure coming from retailers and e-tailers who are asking for totally unworkable prices. Rather than the factories closing and losing their workforce, they are accepting belowminimum-wage prices.”
In a bid to make the clothing industry more sustainable and counter this shoddy practice, the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) published its Fixing Fashion Report. It has called for retailers to be made to pay a penny surcharge on every garment sold. However, this would surely have a negative impact on an already fragile high street.
“We all know who these e-tailers are – with their bumper quarterly profits they are the current darlings of the Stock Exchange. But please do not tar all retailers and e-tailers with the same brush. This audit fails to credit the ethical retailers and e-tailers that do have a genuine social conscience,” Holloway points out.
“To make a garment takes a quantifiable amount of time – plus or minus a few seconds – and as an industry, we have enough knowledge to know that a particular garment should take, say, 27 minutes. If it is 27 minutes then that time multiplied by minimum pay gives you your cost: it’s not complicated.”
Case study: World’s top fashion CEO embraces ‘fast fashion’
In the Harvard Business Review’s Top 100 Best-Performing CEOs 2018, for the second year in a row Pablo Isla, of the Spanish fashion retail giant Inditex, came top.
Inditex is the biggest fashion group in the world and operates over 7,200 stores globally. The company’s flagship brand is Zara, but it also owns Zara Home, Massimo Dutti, Bershka, Oysho, Pull and Bear, Stradivarius and Uterqüe.
It uses an unusual model in the fashion industry, rather than commit a large amount of production for the next fashion season, it commits a small amount and uses customer feedback and an efficient production network to stock stores with new products weekly.
New styles are prototyped in just five days and this means the majority of manufacturing happens locally. In Zara stores, it can take a new garment as little as two weeks to go from design and production to a customer’s closet.
UK Fashion’s future
The process of garment manufacturing is gaining speed, and that’s just what might be needed if Britain is to see a full revival of its fashion factories. Fast fashion is a good thing for industry, and technology could enhance fashion’s accountability.
Fashion Enter shows that clothes are being made ethically and efficiently in Britain and offers a model example of this, and for others to follow. Holloway says that earlier in the day, the team even confirmed a deal to take over Gloria Fashions in Walthamstow, North East London.
“We have come far in just six months. We are taking over another unit here, bringing our total to three for our new tailoring academy, and we are going to use the same model – live production alongside training and facilitating skills. It’s very exciting.”
Rather than sit back and let their success plateau, Holloway and her team have bigger plans to potentially expand training across the country, as a way to help keep up with changing industry demands.