Made in Britain

10th August 2017

From East End studios, to Manchester mills, the revival of UK fashion manufacturing is gathering pace. Mark Hooper meets the leaders of a very stylish industrial revolution. 

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The fashion industry has always built on traditional skills and techniques, adding cutting-edge technology to knowledge built up over the generations. But in recent years – thanks partly to the long tail of the global recession and a reaction against throwaway culture – a growing interest in provenance, authenticity and passion has taken hold. Led by pioneering craft entrepreneurs, we could even be witnessing a rebirth of the British garment manufacturing industry.

Take Private White VC, a Manchester brand with a proud history of manufacturing. Having made its reputation producing “white label” garments for some of the biggest brands in the UK, it went over the top under its own name in 2008. It is named after a real person, Jack White, who won the Victoria Cross in the Great War before returning to civvy street where he rose from apprentice cloth-cutter to owner of the same Manchester factory used today. 

Kelly Dawson and Scott Ogden of Dawson Denim.

Nick Ashley, creative director of Private White VC (and son of the late designer Laura Ashley) – is unequivocal about his approach. “My mother always used to say that you have to look back before going forward,” he says. “Many contemporary designers overlook the importance of evolution in design – some even think that it is plagiarism to ‘copy’ what’s been done before. The fact is, we are all merely editors, updating what’s been done before.” A keen motor enthusiast, Ashley has a neat, Goodwood- friendly analogy to explain his modus operandi: “To put a young, current F1 driver into an old 250 GTO is a priceless act of research,” he points out.

Private White VC’s success has been in scaling up the business while keeping all elements of the production process under one roof. “My design ethos is focused on making the best-quality clothing possible,” he says. “I start with the raw fibre, design the yarn, design the weave, design the clothes and design the shop. No corners are cut: every process takes place in our own farm, mill, factory and shop... in Britain. That’s my ethos.”

Ashley is wary of the heritage phenomenon becoming just another marketing trend – something big brands can buy into for a few seasons before heading off in new directions. For him, it’s more fundamental than that. “Heritage, like vintage, has been raped and pillaged by the high street,” he says. “We make the same clothes in the same factory that's made clothes for the last 100 years, owned by the same family. It’s no longer heritage, we’re just experts.” 

We cannot afford, as a small brand, to make mistakes. Everything we do is considered

Kelly Dawwson co-founder of Dawson Denim

Talking of expertise, Kelly Dawson is – along with Scott Ogden – the co-founder of Dawson Denim, launched in Brighton in 2012 with the aim of reviving the traditional 1950s style of manufacturing limited-edition handcrafted jeans and workwear. This involved sourcing original machines (including 12 steel-cast industrial sewing machines, all specifically designed for denim manufacture), as well as fabric woven on looms from the period. “It was no small undertaking,” Dawson explains. “We looked to Japan for the denim as the mills of Okayama still use traditional looms and employ the same techniques. We even cut patterns by hand using pencil and paper.”

Like Ashley, Dawson is keen to point out that, while she and Ogden employ original techniques to manufacture their goods, theirs is not a retrospective brand. “We take what we have learned from the past and make each piece relevant for today’s living,” she continues. “Where denim aprons were once used in ‘dry goods’ stores in the 1890s, they are now used by baristas or tattooists, so we need to include functionality for these vocations.”

While Dawson doubts we will ever reach the levels of garment manufacturing Britain could boast of in the past (noting that when she started in the industry, working for a buying office in London in the 1990s, “we still manufactured 70 per cent of our denim in the UK: Levi’s, Wrangler and Lee were all made in Wales and Scotland”), she has noticed a resurgence of late – both in terms of supply and demand. “Our customer is aware that we need to support British- made or handmade goods to survive,” she says. “We simply cannot compete with low-cost goods made abroad on price because of our working standards and ethics. If we have done anything to help spearhead a resurgence, it’s simply that doing what we’ve done makes it possible for others.” 

Nick Ashley at his Manchester factory

Nick Ashley at his Manchester factory. ‘No corners are cut,’ he says

My mother always used to say you have to look back before going forward

Nick Ashley Creative director of Private White VC

Dawson Denim’s USP lies partly in the ability to customise, “which the bigger brands can’t do as often since they don’t own their manufacturing units. We could be described as ‘bespoke’, I suppose,” she continues. “We manufacture pieces individually because we can manage the quality.”

There are extra challenges too. “We cannot afford, as a small brand, to make mistakes,” says Dawson. “So everything we do is considered, from the font on our logo (the 1920s font used on the British railway network) to the 1957 Union Special 43200G chainstitch hemming machine we use on our jeans.”

Lynda Scott has also had to source specialised vintage machines for her business. Having worked as a stylist, photographer and fashion PR, she set up Dlux (, which specialises in high-quality sheepskin and shearling, in 2004. “It’s a real craft industry,” she says. “But we found there were quite a few fur machines used to sew the shearling together in East London, left over from the rag trade.” 

Lynda Scott, whose company, Dlux, specialises in high-quality sheepskin and shearling.
Lynda's design notes

As the industry has shrunk away in this country, so the task of producing entirely in Britain offers an increasing number of challenges for her. “There aren’t many tanneries left in the UK now,” she notes, but she has noticed a shift in attitudes of late. “I think it’s slowly trickling through. People are getting fed up with the consequences of throwaway fashion. Some people don’t ask about provenance, but when I talk about it, they’re pleasantly surprised. I do actually care about what I’m producing!”

Dawson picks up on this theme: “It’s the antithesis of throwaway. By looking back for inspiration, we’re also actually looking forward towards a sustainable planet. It’s our community of makers and revivalists who, through their inclusiveness, have taught us this and kept the cogs of production turning.”

Taking this idea of a network of experts and enthusiasts a step further is Community Clothing, set up by creative director Patrick Grant with the aim of establishing a fair and sustainable model by which the best British cloth and clothing manufacturers – who often struggle with the highs and lows of fashion’s seasonal cycle – are employed to make their garments during the quiet factory periods. 

Nick Ashley at his Manchester factory

Patrick Grant, founder of manufacturing co-operative Community Clothing.

“The big idea of Community Clothing is about getting away from the marginalised cottage-industry model that UK manufacturers are stuck in,” says Grant. “I am delighted that so many of them are finding a market, but we are about something big, and industrial. We can’t create large numbers of sustainable jobs without breaking away from small-scale operations.”

Another cornerstone of their approach is that, as CEO Lucy Clayton points out, “Every factory in our network receives a fair price for its goods, every worker is paid at least the living wage. Our clothes are carefully cost-engineered... and we don't compromise on the strength of our design or the quality of our materials.”

By selling direct to the customer, they cut out wholesale and retail costs – while 75 per cent of their profits go back into community-based projects. “We want to create jobs, make clothes and restore pride,” says Clayton. “We like to think of ourselves as part of a long tradition of great British manufacturing. Many of the clothing and textile factories in our co-operative have been in business since the 1800s: we don't want to see them disappear.”

“We are still a great manufacturing nation,” insists Grant, “but we’re moving almost exclusively towards high-margin, highly technical products. This is of huge importance to our economy, but I believe we have a great opportunity to return to manufacturing more of the things we use or wear every day. But to do this we need to think differently about the business models we operate under.”

This balance of acknowledging and celebrating the industry’s heritage while building for the future is one that chimes with Dawson – who points out that they proudly support brands such as Trickers, who have been making shoes since1829, while noting that “this heritage needs to be protected, but only if the product is of value, quality and relevance”. Looking to Goodwood for an analogy, she adds: “We have a number of old motorbikes and scooters which we show at the Revival that we use daily, that fit into our lifestyle – but that isn’t to say modern life is rubbish!” 

Clayton picks up the theme: “It's not just about saving or sustaining these places; we want to help them thrive. So while we treasure heritage and history, our plans for Community Clothing are expansive, progressive and bold. The model is fundamentally innovative, we're taking advantage of a problem to address a social need, and that means forward thinking is at the core of the business. But we get to do that with skilled workers, in places with a tradition of careful, quality manufacture and attention to detail.”

Of course, this is all well and good, but businesses need to be sustainable in an economic sense too. To survive and thrive you have to satisfy a genuine consumer need. Thankfully, there are encouraging signs of a groundswell in the number of savvy customers who demand more quality for their hard-earned pounds. “People are feeling increasingly alienated by fast fashion,” notes Clayton. “But they need credible, affordable alternatives, and these aren't always easy to find.”

Just as we have seen in the food industry and – latterly – the furniture industry, we now place more emphasis on the provenance of what we buy. “Knowing where something was made and who it was made by is part of that,” agrees Clayton. “But so is knowing that the process is low-impact, that it’s been done with decency. All our clothes are made in Britain, but our customers love the fact that we can be specific about the detail, that we're hyperlocal.” So, just as restaurants now advertise the region or even the specific farm their meat is sourced from, so Community Clothing products will bear a label specifying, for instance: “Made In Blackburn”.

Having tapped into the mood of the moment, Grant notes the way marketing – usually one of the biggest challenges for a nascent business – has been made a lot simpler for them “by our customers doing the job for us. People like our philosophy, and are happily spreading the word.” 

Pattern-cutting at Nick Ashley's Private White VC

Pattern-cutting at Nick Ashley's Private White VC

But, with big brands seeing a trend to jump on the back of homegrown companies, is there a danger of “craft fatigue”? “Our premium-product customer is savvy to provenance,” says Dawson. “Unfortunately, the word ‘artisan’ has been overused to the point of detriment and everyone seems to be jumping on the bandwagon.” The solution lies in the simple fact that authenticity can’t be faked, plus, as Dawson points out, “hard graft and knowledge”.

Which brings us neatly back to Goodwood Revival. The appeal of vintage clothing is in the appreciation of quality – of things done the right way, with no corners cut for the sake of expedience. It points to a wider revival in spending our money more wisely. “It’s encouraging to see people celebrating vintage, wearing clothes that were built to last, because those timeless, exceptional quality pieces are exactly what we’re making today in factories all over the UK,” says Clayton.

Dawson, who has attended Revival since its first year, has witnessed how a “retro industry” has evolved “from a small group of diehard enthusiasts to a broader audience”, with an explosion in recent years of new brands manufacturing in the traditional way.

Nick Ashley, however, is keen to point out the dangers of wallowing in nostalgia unless your focus is on how you use those lessons to move forward. “In Japan I am called ‘Mr Techno-Retro’. I take iconic styles and update them according to modern technology,” he says. Again, he finds a parallel with the classic car- racing scene: “Even an ERA team will be running telemetry,” he says. “This chiselling away at lap times is exactly the same process that we use on our clothes: constant small improvement (Kai-zen) until the product is almost perfect, but perfection is never sought – that's another story!” 

This article is taken from the Goodwood magazine, Summer 2017 issue

Photography Alun Callender 

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