What does Made in the UK mean for the fashion sector, Nieper asks

What does 'Made in the UK' mean for the fashion sector, Nieper asks

The momentum for 'Made in the UK' products might be growing in popularity - both with retailers and consumers - but a lack of skilled labour and an ageing workforce are weighing on its progress. One company working to reverse this is women's wear and nightwear fashion brand, David Nieper. Managing director Christopher Nieper tells Katie Smith why. 

"Given a choice I believe consumers prefer British-made goods and the will exists amongst retailers to 're-shore' - but the UK skills base is so depleted that it's just not going to happen very quickly," Nieper tells just-style. 

In its heyday, UK manufacturing was responsible for the majority of clothing sold in the country. But as firms moved their production overseas, the UK was left behind and investment in the industry diminished. 

The result today? An ageing workforce and lack of skilled labour. 

But David Nieper is hoping to change this. "The investment in training is so long-term that without security of demand I can't imagine many new companies starting up in fashion manufacturing, which is why I believe the retailers themselves should open their own production plants. This is definitely viable and we are living proof."

The vertically-integrated company produces 5,000 garments a week, employing 240 people at its facility in Derby, including 12 designers and 60 machinists - with the average age being 50.

As well as offering scholarships for higher education, David Nieper is opening its doors to young graduates. By exposing them to the industry, Nieper suggests they will gain direct hands-on experience, allowing them to commercialise their skills. 

The company is also hoping to set up a training academy, and will submit a proposal to the government this year. 

"We do need those graduates when they come out [of college] to be able to have a job in fashion or to create their own label, and we need to get the next generation of David Niepers or Paul Smiths," he says. "Those acorns are never going to be planted if they can't get the opportunity." 

He adds: "We can either say there are no skills, it's not possible to do it - or we can create the skills and get on and do it."

Nieper argues that if the industry waits for the government to provide the skills, and the retailers to submit orders, without input from the manufacturers like David Nieper it would be "too competitive" and "wouldn't be worth doing". 

"The big goal is doing things that are difficult like selling a premium priced product."

Nonetheless, Nieper believes the government can support the industry. "They can't create the sector but they can use the sector that exists to create the next generation of it."

"You've got to start something and then let other things grow from it, then the whole supply chain grows from it. [The] people who have got the money are retailers and they could be doing what we're doing."

Nieper emphasises that putting these skills in place is "quite a challenge", and one that is exacerbated by the industry having evaporated. "It's this handing on the baton to the next generation and education is the key to it all," he suggests. 

It is important for the women's wear and nightwear brand to try to source everything as locally as it can, Nieper stresses. Up until 15 years ago, David Nieper sourced all its knitwear from the UK. But then its suppliers either moved their production overseas or went bust.

But instead of going offshore, the company bought the equipment to manufacture knitwear in-house. Today, David Nieper has only two or three suppliers left in the UK, including one lace producer, with fabrics coming from Austria, Germany, northern Italy, and Switzerland.

"But for a product to be have the 'Made in the UK' status, how far can we go back?" he asks. "We've gone further than most here by knitting our own things. But do we have to grow the cotton here or plant some mulberry trees and have some silkworms? It's not that easy to go right back so the garment is totally English produced."

It's a question of what does 'Made in the UK' actually mean for the fashion sector, he says. Nieper believes at least 50% of the value should be added in that country. 

In David Nieper's case, 85% of the value is added in the UK. Although the brand's fabric may have been sourced in Europe, the design and the manufacturing of the garment, as well as the logistics and retail, are all done in the UK. 

International presence
David Nieper exports its products directly to consumers in France, Germany, Holland and Switzerland through its mail order business or online. It translates all of its catalogues into Dutch, German, Swiss French and Swiss German in local currencies.

Nieper says the company has a strong and growing overseas base, with 36% of its garments being sold in international markets. 

But when asked whether the brand is looking to expand this, Nieper tells just-style: "Yes, but slowly. Export is quite important for us. I guess this is outside [the remit] of retailers as most have shops in the UK, [but] very few have shops in other countries as well."

What retailers do, he explains, is buy their product in the Far East where labour rates are lower and retail it in the UK, hoping the currency is in their favour.

But it's not going to happen forever is it? Nieper adds, highlighting the fact that labour rates in the Far East, although lower than most countries in Europe, are rising. And if currency becomes a problem, it will not benefit retailers any more. 

Today, France is the brand's best export market. Although there is scope to grow the number of markets it exports to, there is a lot more mileage in the countries where David Nieper already has a presence, he says. 

"We're still only a small company and so I think first, I'd like to try and get further. In the UK, we have a good database and quite a good brand awareness amongst our customer type here. 

"We need to get to that sort of level in France and Germany before we go to more countries, otherwise we dilute our management time more and more."

Even though David Nieper has local offices in each of its international markets, the group would prefer to keep its production facilities firmly in the UK. 

"It's more efficient if it's in one place, one warehouse, otherwise you've got to duplicate the skills, duplicate the staff, duplicate the management, duplicate the overheads and all the rest of it."

Nieper says the company is "actively looking to build the brand overseas," by gaining more customers in the four markets where it operates abroad. 

But more importantly, he points to the industry's need to build on its depleting skilled labour force. "The David Nieper academy is high on my priority list.

"In order to fuel growth we must create the future skills base amongst the next generation. The East Midlands was once the heartland of textile production, we've got to re-build it all over again."