I read something the other day that I really disagreed with. It was an article that warned clothing manufacturing in the UK is in decline. The Drapers piece warned increasing numbers of businesses are closing their factories down, and there’s a real risk that others will do the same.
Of course, there’s no denying that the coronavirus pandemic has been a rough ride for the UK’s fashion industry. As I’m writing this, Arcadia Group — which owns the likes of Topshop, Burton and Dorothy Perkins — has announced it is cutting 500 jobs at its head office.
But here’s my point: the future of the clothing industry in this country is bright. Yes, companies will have to change and adapt to a new economic reality, but British businesses have every opportunity to thrive thanks to changing consumer habits and massive advances in technology.
Things to be cheerful about
Bricks-and-mortar retailers have had it tough for a long time — before COVID-19 seeped into the public’s consciousness. High streets and massive malls have struggled to contend with the allure of online shopping. Even without the pandemic, big brands were pushing for discounts on rent from landlords, and contending with stiff competition from agile eTailers.
These eTailers should be a source of excitement for those who are passionate about quality products manufactured in Britain, like me. We’ve witnessed huge advancements in eCommerce in recent years — and platforms such as Shopify make it easy for a start-up fashion brand to start selling to the public with a few clicks of a button.
Sky-high rents in city centres and fledgling market stalls are a thing of the past — nowadays, all it takes is a brilliant entrepreneur with a commanding social media presence to get the ball rolling. Independent designers have a chance to take the world by storm, giving savvy shoppers distinctive garments they would never find in a “stack ‘em high, sell ‘em cheap” chain.
Technology is transforming the UK’s clothing manufacturing in other ways, too. You’ve probably seen in the news that many high street names are drowning in excess stock that they had been hoping to sell in the summer months. None of the options on the table are especially palatable for the Nexts and the Primarks of this world: keeping it in storage, holding a massive sale that dents profits even further, or offloading it to the likes of TK Maxx.
Here’s the problem. Legacy businesses have been struggling to embrace the one thing that could have made COVID-19 far less calamitous: streamlined supply chains that mean products only need to be created after they’ve been bought by a customer. We can be past the point where shoppers need to order an item weeks or months in advance. Thankfully, UK clothing manufacturers are known for speed and agility. The sector has an irresistible opportunity to prevent these stockpiles from happening again — and avoid the risk of mass producing a product that simply doesn’t sell. It’s all about logistics, and this is where British brands can come into their own.
Seizing the opportunity
But perhaps the biggest argument in favour of British clothing manufacturers lies in how consumers and politicians are opening their eyes to current practices. The fashion industry is responsible for 10% of the world’s carbon footprint — not to mention astronomical levels of water use and poor working conditions in far-flung countries. Cheap T-shirts are shipped thousands of miles around the world after being produced by poorly paid workers, only to be worn once. How can we justify producing fabric in China and shipping it to Vietnam, and then to the UK for distribution, even though it can be made locally?
Manufacturers who shun the UK because they think it’s too expensive are overlooking the fact they could avoid devastating write-downs on their stock, and boost their sustainability credentials in the process. And even though Brexit has cast a cloud over British business, a weakened pound against the dollar means that imports have become much more expensive. That’s yet another reason to start making blouses here in Blighty.
Facing up to reality
Lockdown is beginning to ease in many parts of England — with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland set to follow suit. Some shopping centres have even started to reopen, but the customer experience is massively divorced from what we’re all used to. Queues outside shops at a distance of two metres are the norm, fitting rooms are closed, and many Britons are reluctant to set foot on the high street in the first place.
Now is the time for clothing manufacturers to seize the opportunity to embrace radical changes and pave the way for the future of fashion. Bigger retailers are beginning to wake up, with Inditex — the owner of Zara — recently revealing that it plans to close 1,200 physical stores as it places an emphasis on website sales. Clothing hasn’t always been the most popular sector for online shoppers, but attitudes are starting to shift.
The world’s best businesses all have one thing in common: they capitalise on opportunities that arise in the most unexpected of places, and they’re not afraid to go against the grain. UK clothing manufacturers need to lean into this energy right now, because there are a multitude of factors that are in their favour.