20 Feb 2012

Topshop boss champions UK manufacturing

As Topshop’s boss champions British designers and manufacturers at London Fashion Week, an industry expert warns Channel 4 News there is a limit to what can be produced on UK soil.

Topshop boss champions UK manufacturing. (Getty)

The British Fashion Council (BFC) and Topshop boss Sir Philip Green say the fashion industry is key to the growth of the UK economy.

Coinciding with London Fashion Week, a new report from the BFC called Future of Fashion – Strategic Considerations for Growth, says the industry is worth £21bn to the UK. That is roughly 1.7 per cent of GDP, and twice as much as publishing or car manufacturing. Fashion’s share of manufacturing output has also grown since 2009.

And its share of manufacturing employment output has grown from 2 per cent to 2.5 per cent between 2009 and 2010, and is estimated to grow further.

Harold Tillman CBE, Chairman of the British Fashion Council, said: “We believe that fashion can do so much to drive growth in Britain. By presenting this opportunity, whilst highlighting the challenges, we hope to unite the industry and government in doing everything possible to drive that growth.”

However, the report warns that with an ageing population, if no action is taken to train and develop people within the sector, growth will be limited and will decline in the long term.

We believe that fashion can do so much to drive growth in Britain. Harold Tillman

Sir Philip Green, who supports the BFC’s report, has announced Topshop will continue to sponsor London Fashion Week’s Newgen initiative. Over the last 10 years, 120 designers have been supported by the scheme. Sir Philip has also made it his personal goal to mentor more British designers, with an emphasis on producing more clothing here in the UK.

“We are ourselves manufacturing more goods in the UK these days, and if we can help get more capacity here, I believe those retailers will tell you there is now the opportunity to be competitive and produce in the United Kingdom,” he said.

Buying British

But can Britain realistically hope to expand manufacturing, when developing countries can arguably do the same thing at a much more competitive rate?

Head of the London College of Fashion, Professor Frances Corner OBE told Channel 4 News we are lucky to have a niche market here in Britain.

“Although it is difficult to compete with countries like India and China in producing cheap high street clothing, Britain can be a world leader in making clothes that require high-end skills. Our reputation for quality is also much higher over here,” she said.

There are plenty of examples of British brands that manufacture on UK soil and there is evidence they are making a comeback. Following the same trajectory as Hunter boots, Barbour is a brand which appears on the must-have lists of celebrities and festival-going teens alike. Its sales rose by more than 30 per cent last year, with many items sold out before Christmas. A fourth-generation family-owned British brand, it continues to manufacture its core waxed-cotton garments in a factory in South Shields, Tyne and Wear, although some of its other products are made elsewhere.

People want to buy British goods because of the history and the heritage. John Miln

The UK Fashion and Textile Association champions British manufacturing and has an online database of UK production units called Let’s Make it Here. Chief Executive John Miln told Channel 4 News he believes people across the world currently have an insatiable need for British goods.

“There is a new wave of desire from buyers and brands to bring manufacturing back to the UK. Everyone seems to want to buy British – even Topshop is selling tweed jackets. People abroad too want to buy British-made goods because of the history and heritage associated with them, and also the quality is very high.”

However, he warned although these sorts of products are in fashion now, they won’t be in vogue forever. “Something might be fashionable now but is a factory going to invest money on expanding when demand might not necessarily remain the same? That means there is currently a finite limit to what can be produced on UK soil.”

John Miln also pointed out there is a lack of people in the UK who possess the skills to produce clothes made of traditional British materials like tweed and wool. “The UK Fashion and Textile Association is working with the government to develop these skills whilst ensuring factories can make a margin”, explained.