LONDON (Reuters) - As the fashion show cycle heads to a climax in Milan and Paris, in London industry executives are debating if 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 launch of government-funded research to find out if, despite acclaim, young designers like Marios Schwab are at a terminal disadvantage to French and Italian rivals because they don’t have a factory on their doorstep.
So far one problem is clear: however hot the designer talent, it is impossible to get ahead if you can’t get your clothes made.
“British designers are not progressing season-on-season because of the manufacturing,” said Wendy Malem, director for not-for-profit Centre for Fashion Enterprise, who is leading the 100,000 pound government-sponsored project.
“They cannot overcome the manufacturing glass ceiling.”
In the past 40 years, British factories owned by some of the oldest brand names from Burberry to Barbour have closed down and shifted some of their manufacturing to cheaper places such as China and Eastern Europe.
Burberry has kept two factories in Britain, in Yorkshire, but shut one in Wales last year because it was too expensive.
In Manchester — once the locus of global coat making — one of Britain’s last surviving premium outerwear manufacturers offers a snapshot of British manufacturing’s decline.
Cooper & Stollbrand employs 60 workers today, stitching and cutting trench coats, overcoats and bomber jackets often in signature hunting-and-shooting fabrics such as tweed and gabardine.
Their number has fallen from 200 in 1995 and 450 in 1971, a year sterling strengthened sharply against the dollar, increasing costs for British exporters and marking the start of retailers’ exit to cheaper sites.
Now, with a renaissance of British luxury underway — thanks to a crop of new talents and booming new demand for high-end goods from Chinese and Russian consumers — this manufacturing gap is gaining attention.
Pierre Mallevays, a former LVMH executive and now managing partner of Savigny Partners LLP, a corporate finance and M&A boutique specializing in luxury goods, said British luxury’s renaissance may 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 in an interview.
“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 back home to be finished and 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.
By contrast, designers and luxury industry executives say Britain is jeopardizing the growth of its talent by taking the move to offshore too far.
Among Britain’s most acclaimed young designers, Christopher Kane is one who 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 has 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 told Reuters.
At home, the few factories left find it inefficient to turn out the small runs Kane requires, or they do not have the skill.
Complaints about lack of skill, in a country where a century ago artisans were rated more highly than those in Italy, are not just restricted to fashion’s newcomers.
Geoffroy de La Bourdonnaye, the new French chief executive of luxury store Liberty founded in 1875, told a recent industry meeting how difficult it is to find someone in Britain who can still operate the traditional block printers used for its signature fabrics.
Cooper & Stollbrand owner 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 told Reuters.
At the Centre for Fashion Enterprise Malem, working jointly with British-government sponsored endowment Nestor, plans interviews with 30 designers to provide a snapshot of the 800 million pound UK design industry.
Her aim is to lobby the European Union for assistance in providing British designers with equal access to manufacturers as that available to their Italian and French rivals.
But not all Britain’s upcoming luxury designers believe a lack of factories should curb their international ambitions.
Anya Hindmarch, creator of the “I’m Not a Plastic Bag” tote whose high-end handbags have been photographed in the clutches of Hollywood star Reese Witherspoon, will have 55 shops by May after openings in Las Vegas, Moscow, Beijing and Japan.
Having started her business aged 19 after selling bags in Britain that she spotted in Italy, Hindmarch says being British is in her products’ “DNA” but she will 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 told Reuters in an interview. “You have to wake up and smell the coffee and get through the tough times.”
Editing by Sara Ledwith