From left to right: Mariel Brown, Seymourpowell; Simon Bennett, Fox Williams; Lord Stone of Blackheath, International Trade Council; Amy Winters, Rainbow Winters; Lasse Wassermann, Google X

From left to right: Mariel Brown, Seymourpowell; Simon Bennett, Fox Williams; Lord Stone of Blackheath, International Trade Council; Amy Winters, Rainbow Winters; Lasse Wassermann, Google X

Another industry event looking at prospects for the British fashion industry has homed in on the need for partnership and collaboration if the sector is to thrive once more. Industry experts suggest working together on domestic manufacturing, rebuilding sector skills and technology trends, reports Katie Smith.

"Many challenges confront us, but they exist as factors today to be either overcome or managed," says John Miln, CEO of the UK Fashion and Textile Association (UKFT).

"Perhaps these are not really new but they're also challenges of recognition and understanding, which we need to address both for those entering the industry, but also for those whose job it is to support UK industry such as government."

He later added: "It's all here in the UK. We need to create the climate where it can thrive."

Domestic manufacturing
Speaking at a Conference on prospects for the British fashion industry organised by the Westminster Media Forum last month, Miln explained that the fashion industry is a "significant" contributor to the UK economy. Today, there are 319,000 people working in the fashion and textile supply sector, covering around 58,000 firms, worth around GBP12bn (US$19.18bn) in gross value added (GVA) to the UK economy.

Domestic manufacturing holds many advantages over outsourcing to Asia, said Kate Hills, founder and editor of Make it British, including producing things much more quickly, with less margin for error, and better communication with factories, she claims.

And these are also the reasons why she believes there is demand for 'Made in the UK' product. According to a survey conducted last year, some 43% of UK shoppers said they would pay more for items manufactured in the UK. "Over the last four years, I've seen a huge increase in demand from brands and retailers that want to make here," Hills added.

Rebuilding skills 
According to Miln, the UK's fashion manufacturing sector now employs just one-tenth of the 1m people it employed some 25 years ago. The industry's production capacity, he says, is "hugely weakened" and "critically, we lack skills", adding: "If we don't have the people trained and competent, it doesn't matter how much capacity you have if you can't recruit to fill it."

A lack of skills within the textile and apparel manufacturing industry is nothing new, as factory work attracts fewer people than it used to, but employers are having to rely on their already ageing workforce. "We need end-to-end thinking," Miln says. "We need companies to engage with schools to explain opportunities and career paths."

"But it requires a very significant effort from the industry at large to shake off the old industry images and provide meaningful and gainful employment. This allows skills to be developed, and for the workforce to be engaged in the quality of the end product, but share in the business success and create a meaningful career and earnings."

He emphasised: "We must continue to work and support this vital area of our industry."

Kate O'Connor, executive director and deputy CEO at Creative Skillset, supports this view. "We have to work in partnership if we're going to address the education and skill needs of the fashion and textile sector."

"We're poised to turn a partnership and a series of conversations and initiatives into a powerful strategy that address all of our skills and education needs across the sector."

Expertise on e-commerce management and 3D printing are, O'Connor says, the skills of "now and the future". But, she adds, the industry needs to be mindful of the challenges such as the lack of teaching capacity in these niche areas.

"Partnership: we need that strategy and we need to work together on it. It's everyone's responsibility to get behind this."

Jenny Holloway, director of Fashion Enter, a not-for-profit social enterprise and garment manufacturer, agrees that there is a lack of specialist skills and training within the industry. But she set up her own fashion and textiles apprenticeship scheme in London to encourage and train the younger generation into manufacturing. "We should be working together," she believes.

"There's a lot of talk in our industry and it's not about talk, it is about doing...We have such great opportunities here and we are going to make it happen."

Technology
In addition, schools, colleges, and universities can help to generate and train the future leaders of the British fashion industry in terms of technology. Professor Frances Corner, head of college at the London College of Fashion says: "There isn't an aspect of manufacturing that isn't put in some way to some of the latest technological developments. And higher education institutions can provide the catalyst in a way that manufacturers can't, but we need to do that in partnership."

She adds: "This idea that we're re-educating and thinking what the textile industry is like, what the fashion industry is like, what it's going to be like way into the future, is the really critical role that I think higher education institutions need to be engaged in."

According to Lasse Wassermann, senior programme manager at Google X, technology is here to make things easier. "Technology integrated into our lives has the power to change our behaviour in a positive way, and we're just at the start of it," he said.

And with wearable technology such as Google Glass growing in popularity, the future could be interesting. Wasserman wants to see devices and everyday items within a household start to collaborate. "I hope to see an eco-system developing, where things work together," he explains. "In my case hopefully develop functionality beyond taking a photo or a dress that changes colour."

In an ideal world, Wassermann says, he would like his T-shirt to be able to tell him when to change it because it's too hot outside.

Industry prospects
According to Miln, the prospects for the industry are good, but he says: "The only thing certain about the future is the uncertainty." 

"We have to live with the variables and challenges and accept them. We have to get used to change. If yesterday was good, today must be better and tomorrow better again. The world in which we live in is changing and we must change with it and be innovative every day to get ahead of the pack."

But the industry, he stressed, "needs to come together", adding: "The more collective we are, the better we are and the stronger we will become."