British designers pin hopes on growing demand for UK-made clothing

By Li-mei Hoang

By Li-mei Hoang

LONDON (Reuters) - When Christian Murphy was looking for a location to build a knitwear manufacturing company a year ago, he decided that London's reputation for building luxury brands made it the ideal place to start his new business.

    The founder of Albion Knitting Company, with clients like LVMH, Gucci and Richemont Group, is back in London after 18 years in China, and aims to offer something different to the plethora of young UK designers: a factory on their doorstep.

"I thought it would be unique to be able to build a knitting company that could be on the doorstep of that creative hub and could give the designers the opportunity to just to get on the tube and be in a first class knitting facility," he told Reuters.

Demand for British-made luxury goods is growing as consumers - particularly the Chinese who account for 30 percent of the global luxury market according to luxury goods consultancy Bain and Company - grow more demanding about the heritage and provenance of products.

Over a quarter of British consumers have also said they prefer buying British brands when purchasing fashion and footwear products, according to a report by research firm Mintel.

Knitwear designer brand John Smedley, which makes all of its clothing in Britain, is another company betting on a resurgence in British textile manufacturing, which has seen output rise in the first half of the year, according to the Office of National Statistics.

It has even relaunched its womenswear collection to build on the success of its British-made clothing.


The textile manufacturing industry had been in steady decline for three decades as firms opted for the competitive pricing of China and India. But it is slowly returning to growth as more businesses start to explore their domestic options.

From a designer's perspective, manufacturing in Britain can be both beneficial and a challenge. British manufacturers can offer shorter lead times on orders as well as cost savings on transportation and materials.

"I think it's important to look at what is already there," Scottish designer Holly Fulton said, speaking backstage after her London Fashion Week show.

"Because we are quite small, we are not doing huge runs of production. It also allows you a value opportunity to work one-on-one with manufacturers which I think gets you to a better end result."

But it can present many challenges as well, from not being able to find specific skills needed for production to a simple lack of investment in machinery.

"It's really hard to find skilled workers in terms of doing the embroidery (in the UK), and that we will have to outsource to China or India," said designer Judy Wu, speaking ahead of a business forum on Shanghai and London.

The British Fashion Council (BFC) runs programmes to encourage their designers to source and manufacture more of their collections in the UK, but CEO Caroline Rush said there was a lack of transparency that made it hard for designers to manufacture in Britain.

"It's a complex part of the industry, said Rush.

The BFC, which provides booklets, reports and guides for designers to learn how to work with manufacturers, is aiming to create a database to help connect the two groups.

Replacing an ageing workforce also remains one of the biggest challenges in helping Britain's textile manufacturing industry regain its former glory.

"You do need that bigger level of support from the government," said Jess McGuire Dudley, Head of Marketing at John Smedley.

"If there was something they could do to help subsidise people while they are on apprenticeships or subsidise companies so that they are able to offer more apprenticeships, I think that would be really helpful."

"There's simply not enough programmers for the work that industry could do or could grow towards," said Murphy, who lost out on hiring one candidate when they were offered twice as much in salary from a manufacturer in Vietnam.

"It is very difficult for us to compete for these kind of skills against big Asian operations."

(Additional reporting by Andy Bruce; Editing by Hugh Lawson)