By Rachel Sanderson International Herald Tribune
LONDON: As the fashion show cycle continues through Milan and Paris, industry executives here are debating whether Britain’s efforts to grow its own Gucci or Louis Vuitton will require a new industrial revolution.
A decades-long decline in British manufacturing is back in the limelight with the beginning of government-funded research to find out if, despite their acclaim, young designers like Marios Schwab are at a serious disadvantage to French and Italian rivals because they don’t have factories on their doorsteps.
So far one thing is clear: However hot the talent, it is impossible to get ahead if you cannot get your clothes made.
“British designers are not progressing season-on-season because of the manufacturing,” said Wendy Malem, director of the nonprofit Center for Fashion Enterprise, who is leading the Â£100,000, or $194,000, government-sponsored project. “They cannot overcome the manufacturing glass ceiling.”
In the past 40 years, many British factories owned by some of the oldest brand names from Burberry to Barbour have closed as retailers shunned the high cost of “Made in Britain” and shifted manufacturing to cheaper places like China and Turkey. Burberry has kept two factories in Yorkshire but shut one in Wales last year because of expense.
In Manchester, once the center of global coat making, one of the last surviving premium outerwear manufacturers offers a snapshot of British manufacturing’s decline.
Cooper & Stollbrand employs 60 workers, stitching and cutting trench coats, overcoats and bomber jackets often in signature hunting-and-shooting fabrics like tweed and gabardine.
Their staff rosters have fallen sharply – from 200 in 1995 from 450 in 1971, the year when the pound strengthened sharply against the dollar, increasing costs for British exporters and starting retailers’ exit to cheaper sites.
Now, with a renaissance of British luxury under way – thanks to a crop of new talents and booming demand for luxury goods from Chinese and Russian consumers – this manufacturing gap is gaining attention.
Pierre Mallevays, a former LVMH MoÃ«t Hennessy Louis Vuitton executive who is now managing partner of Savigny Partners, a corporate finance and marketing boutique specializing in luxury goods, said British luxury’s renaissance might have come just in time.
“British brands simply cannot emulate the French and Italians – they need to reach back and find their history, but in many cases that history in no longer there,” he said.
“Where the British were very good traditionally was in their own production and their own manufacturing. Once you start dismantling that by selling factories you sell your soul.”
Of course, Britain is not alone in shifting manufacturing offshore. The best-known French and Italian brands can start making a handbag or shoe in China or Turkey and bring it home to be finished and still gain the “Made in France” or “Made in Italy” tag.
But designers in Paris and Milan have the benefit of commercial networks in the luxury goods trade developed over centuries and still-thriving local artisanship that is often protected by the biggest conglomerates. PPR’s Gucci Group, for example, trains the artisans making its Bottega Veneta signature woven-leather bags.
In contrast, designers and luxury industry executives say Britain is jeopardizing its talent because it has taken its manufacturing decline too far.
Among Britain’s most acclaimed young designers, Christopher Kane is one who says he is suffering from the lack of nearby manufacturing capacity. Even with his credentials – he was partially sponsored by Donatella Versace through his master’s degree – Kane said he had difficulty finding anyone willing to make his clothes.
“Especially being a young designer, it’s actually quite hard to source outside Britain because people really don’t want to touch you, you don’t have a brand as such, like Gucci, or huge amount of money behind you,” he said.
In Britain, the few factories left find it inefficient to turn out the small runs that Kane requires or they lack the skill.
Complaints about lack of skill, in a country where a century ago artisans were valued more highly than in Italy, aren’t restricted to fashion newcomers.
Geoffroy de La Bourdonnaye, the new French chief executive of the luxury store Liberty, founded in 1875, told a recent industry meeting how difficult it was to find someone in Britain who can still operate the traditional block printers used for Liberty’s signature fabrics.
The owner of Cooper & Stollbrand, Michael Stoll, said the British had been too short- sighted. “In Britain, loyalty has been to short-term profit, rather than long-term gain,” he said.
At the Center for Fashion Enterprise, Malem, working jointly with the government- sponsored endowment Nestor, plans interviews with 30 designers to provide a snapshot of the Â£800 million British design industry. Her aim is to lobby the European Union for assistance in providing British designers with access to manufacturers equal to that of their Italian and French rivals.
But not all Britain’s luxury designers believe a lack of factories should curb their international ambitions. Anya Hindmarch, creator of the “I’m Not a Plastic Bag” tote and a line of upscale handbags, will have 55 shops by May after openings in Las Vegas, Moscow, Beijing and Japan.
Having started her business at age 19, Hindmarch said that being British was in her products’ DNA but that she would manufacture “all over, wherever we think it is the right thing for that particular bag.”
“It is about being tenacious and getting on with these problems,” she said. “You have to wake up and smell the coffee and get through the tough times.”