"Cheaper than China" was the customer complement relayed by one UK clothing Manufacturer to a business meeting co-organised by the North West Advanced Clothing Web and the Cultural Industries Development Service on Tuesday.

At the event, three senior managers from small clothing companies spoke of their experiences of collaborative design and manufacturing partnerships - and the factors that made the relationship successful.

Design companies are typically strong on creativity and knowing what their customers want to purchase. Manufacturing, however, is often regarded as a necessary element of the business that often consumes far too much time and effort. Manufacturers, on the other hand, are often strong on sourcing materials and putting products together but are typically inexperienced at brand management.

Alan Dingle of Abacus Careerwear spoke as a manufacturer offering an extensive range of services to customers, including design, product development and fabric sourcing. He said a mindset change was needed if companies are to work together, and that products should be costed with the end-consumer in mind, looking at financial margins at each stage of the supply chain.

Zahid Ali spoke of how Goldgem International moved from being a design and sourcing company to one majoring on design innovation and in-house manufacturing. Innovation was perceived as the life-blood of the company, and various initiatives are under way to exploit this strength. Zahid explained the move towards just-in-time manufacturing had been important in reducing risk and delivering a competitive service to customers.

Alistair Kerr said Urban G Ltd started as a design company and a pioneer in streetwear and then added the activity of manufacturing. He felt that today's consumers are switching back to buying a 'look' rather than a brand or 'lifestyle' - and this is an opportunity for small design companies. Urban G has restructured its business to maximise potential with design innovation, and to offer customised manufacturing for it own and customers' brands.

One main discussion point was the extreme shortage of people who want to work in the industry. The workforce in many companies is ageing and the lack of new blood coming in to the business is a significant block to expansion. Companies have the opportunity to grow, but with recruitment problems they have to turn away business.

Another problem mentioned by several companies was the feeling that the UK government has abandoned the industry. "How do we get politicians along to these events?" asked one delegate.

Nevertheless, despite the absence of politicians, the feedback suggested that this networking event had achieved its objectives.

The NW Advanced Clothing Web is based at Manchester Metropolitan University and is part-financed by the EU Regional Development fund. The Cultural Industries Development Service is based at Salford University and is similarly funded.

By David Tyler.