Kate Hills: “The biggest problem for British manufacturers is finding skilled staff”

Ahead of the fifth edition of sourcing showcase Make It British Live!, held 23 to 24 May at the Old Truman Brewery in London, FashionUnited catches up with founder and CEO Kate Hills on the success of the event and why she believes that the future is bright for British manufacturing.

When you launched the show back in 2014, did you anticipate that it would be so successful and that there would be so much demand for British made fashion?

I guess I did in a way. Thanks to my background as a buyer, I had attended a lot of trade shows, and I realised that a lot of the mills and factories in the UK had no real place to showcase themselves, unless it was somewhere like fabric show Premier Vision, which is expensive for small companies and also serves a certain sector of the market. A lot of the manufacturers were falling under the radar. So I knew that there was definitely a place for a show that would bring all these wonderful companies together. That said, we have grown significantly, and in this year’s edition we will be taking up 50 000 sqft of exhibition space and bringing together over 200 exhibitors, which is very exciting indeed.

What is driving the demand for British made fashion?

I think we are finally waking up to the huge advantages of re-shoring and manufacturing domestically. Starting with the fact that it is more sustainable, you have shorter lead times, better communication, you’re a lot more in control, you can plan your stock volume much better and react to trends faster etc. etc. – there are so many benefits to producing in the UK. And we are very lucky to have such wonderful quality and diversity of companies, too.

You recently published a study that 93 percent of consumers would be willing to pay more for British made products. So, is the surge in demand not just industry-wide, but also a consumer-led movement? Are consumers becoming more conscious of where their clothes are made?

I think it’s a mixture of both. It started with the food industry, which has meant that we are now much more likely to buy home-grown produce. The fashion industry is just taking longer to adapt. I’d love to say that there is a fundamental shift in consumer mindsets taking place – and I do think that British consumers are getting better – but a lot of shoppers are still driven by price alone. They want cheap and fast fashion, and that is the main consideration. I always say to our exhibitors: ‘Don’t try to compete with China, it’s impossible and just a race to the bottom.’ A lot of the knitwear companies are doing very well, because they are concentrating on the high-quality yarns, the merinos and cashmere, including the likes of Johnstons of Elgin and John Smedley, which are flying the flag for Britain brilliantly. A lot of the growth of these brands is driven by export and their huge success in foreign markets.

Do mainly British companies produce in Britain, or is the UK a viable manufacturing option for foreign brands, too?

Indeed, there is growing interest from foreign companies in Britain as a manufacturing base. At Make It Britain Live! we attract a lot of foreign visitors who are looking to British manufacturers for the quality of production, especially Japanese visitors, for whom the Made in Britain label has huge appeal. It’s certainly something that I feel we will see more of in the future.

Is British manufacturing just viable at the high end of the market, or is it scaleable to volume production, too?

It’s definitely scaleable, as we are already seeing from the likes of Asos and Boohoo, who are successfully manufacturing parts of their clothing in the UK. As I said before, actually being able to deliver product quicker to market and being able to react to trends much faster is such an advantage. You just have to look at the likes of Fashion Enter, who employ lean manufacturing techniques and produce really efficiently, while also being able to pay their staff a good living wage. It can be done.

What about the argument that it’s too expensive to produce in the UK?

I always say: Is it though? When you really break it down and factor in not just the fabric, cutting and stitching of the garment, but also shipping, shipping duties, currency fluctuations, paying all the middle men and agents that are involved, it all quickly adds up. If you then take into account that you have ordered x amount of T-shirts in red six months in advance, but the trend has now changed to pink, and you end up having to mark down on the retail price, it becomes obvious that actually this argument doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. The average sell-through in fashion is 60 per cent, whereas some British-produced brands can have a sell-through as high as 100 per cent, because they can gauge the demand much more accurately and give their customers the product they want, when they want it. David Nieper is one such prime example. They operate completely vertically and their sell-through is 99 per cent.

Do you want to see more brands investing in their own manufacturing sites in the UK?

Definitely. Clarks opening its own factory last year is a great example, and we need more companies to follow suit. The interest is there. I am regularly speaking to brands who are looking to produce in the UK – big ones and small ones – and that’s a really exciting development. It’s a bigger initial investment, but long term it reaps considerable rewards and benefits.

So what do you see as the biggest stumbling block to achieving real growth for the British textile manufacturing industry as a whole?

It’s skills, without a doubt. The biggest problem for manufacturers is not finding customers, but it’s finding skilled staff. Two thirds of UK manufacturers report that the average age of their workforce is over 40 and the biggest challenge is how we can attract more young people into the industry. There is a big emphasis on design in the UK, and we are home to some of the most prestigious design schools in the world, but the technical side is not promoted enough, and technical skills are not endorsed as an appealing profession for young people to get into. It starts at schools, we need to teach our kids textiles at GCSE level and show them that there are many more careers in the clothing industry than just designer. Which is why we are teaming up with the UKFT (UK Fashion and Textile Association) to curate a manufacturing skills exhibition, which features the Made It project, a display of British produced pieces by fashion graduates, as well as a drop-in consultation area where attendees can meet with UKFT’s skills and training specialists. We need to invest in training the next generation, or there is a real threat to the future of British textile manufacturing.

So, this is the 5th annual exhibition you have organised. How do you see the show developing in the future? Are there any other sectors that you would like to expand into in the future?

We’re not at full capacity yet, we could still fill another hall, so there is definitely scope for further growth. We are slowly integrating some beauty products that complement fashion into the show, and this could be something that develops organically over time. Other than that, we are hosting several smaller events throughout the year, so between this and the show, which takes up a huge amount of our time and effort, we are pretty busy. But watch this space!

Photos: Courtesy of Meet the Manufacturer