At the beginning of September, Justine Tabak launched her first eponymous collection. At 52, with a high-flying career as a designer and creative director with Fendi, Laura Ashley, M&S, Jigsaw, LK Bennett and Boden under her belt, Tabak is treading tentatively with her fledgling label. So why did she walk away from a secure, well-paid and coveted job with a high-profile brand, to risk everything in a highly competitive marketplace?
“Having spent the last decade or so working with factories in China, I felt passionately that I wanted to work more closely with British manufacturers and collaborate with creative communities that I could build relationships with,” explains the entrepreneur, whose label features the tagline: “Inspired, fashioned and made in the British Isles.”
Tabak’s start-up works with a small family-run factory in London that also works with established labels such as Victoria Beckham, Roland Mouret and House of Holland. And they are not alone: a number of smaller enterprises, high street brands and international labels are supporting the resurgence of the UK as a fashion manufacturing hub.
As a fashion consultant and a former head of UK production for Roland Mouret, Daliah Simble-Hearn, explains: “I can remember a time when London was full of pockets of manufacturers, and you could spend a day going from factory to factory.
“Two decades on, while we don’t have the density of those factories, the growth potential is there. Communities are evolving again and interestingly with a new skill-set and dynamic that is fulfilling both the luxury and the high street sectors.”
Just this month, English Fine Cottons, a brand new, state-of-the-art spinning business, opened in a reconditioned mill in Tameside, Greater Manchester, in a bid to satisfy demand for luxury goods with a “Made in Britain” stamp, throughout the supply chain.
According to the UK Fashion and Textile Association, this renewed interest in British-made clothing and textiles has seen the number of people employed in the sector grow by 9% in the past five years, with predictions that up to 20,000 more jobs could be created by 2020.
Ellie Lines, a stylist and designer, launched her label in 2014 and uses a production facility in west London to print her bespoke fabrics and make her collection of dresses and separates. She said the choice of factory was intended “to reduce the carbon footprint of fashion” and was “a reaction to the endless brands that launch with their name and ‘London’ on the label, but who manufacture in China, and that drives me insane. The implication is that it is made here, but it’s not. I am proud of my ‘designed and made with love in London’ stance.”
Nicola Woods’s womenswear label, Beautiful Soul – which was launched five years ago and is worn by the likes of Taylor Swift, Livia Firth and Pippa Middleton – is created in and around London, and Woods aims to open her “own manufacturing unit in England and develop international wholesale distribution”.
When former Gap PR Buffy Reid and her father, Columba, a retired knitwear industry executive, launched their label And Daughter three years ago, they wanted to support the mills and factories in Donegal and Scotland by producing a contemporary collection of timeless knitwear staples. Starting with 10 styles, they have evolved to sell 40 pieces via their website, Selfridges and the Conran Shop in London as well as independent stores in Japan, the US and Europe.
Basing their production in Britain enables those behind the brands to meet face-to-face with fabric producers and printers, cutters, machinists and others involved in the process, giving them more control over the entire process.
“There are definitely some very passionate people putting domestic manufacturing on the road again,” says Tabak, who last week was a keynote speaker at the Make it British forum in Leicester, traditionally the heart of the UK’s garment-making industry. “After years of working with mass producers in far-flung places it’s good to be able to meet people in the UK that can make it happen and fly the flag for homegrown talent and industry.”
Kate Hills, a former designer and buyer for M&S and Burberry, founded Make it British six years ago in response to growing demand for UK manufacturing, and helps match designers and brands to production facilities. “I could see prices in the Far East were going up and wanted to do what I could to help the dwindling supply chain we have in the UK, which is still held in high regard around the world,” says Hills.
“Now, I get around 2,000 businesses a month contact me to try to find manufacturers in the UK. Asos, Jigsaw, Topshop and M&S all still make some of their clothes here and, according to HM Customs and Excise there has been a 25% rise in the export of British-made clothing since 2011.”
And, while the pound is weak and the international luxury goods houses struggle to define what high-spending customers want and to retain the prestige of their labels, the renaissance of craftsmanship seems to be helping the boom in British manufacturing.
Mimi Berry launched her leather accessories brand in London’s East End 15 years ago, and now uses three local factories as well as one in Manchester and another in the west country – staffed by a number of former Clarks shoes workers – to produce around 1,400 handbags and satchels each season.
“We have stockists in Paris who sell our bags alongside Louis Vuitton and YSL, and so we are seen on a par with homegrown French brands,” says Berry of her collection, which exports to Japan, France, Switzerland and the US.
“I think it shows a certain intelligence to be confident about the provenance of your wardrobe. The more I work with our British factories and grow to know the families behind them, I knew I was directly helping the people I could see working there. I feel a certain responsibility to support the British workforce and the great heritage we have.”