The sixth ASBCI Conference took apositive look at the way ahead for the British clothing industry

Speaking at this year’s ASBCI Conferencedinner, Mr David Jones, chief executive of Next Plc, reiterated his company’s commitmentto the British clothing industry. “Next needs a strong manufacturing base, and willdo everything it can to help”, he explained. “But manufacturers have to helpthemselves too”.

In fact, he even went as far as explainingwhat Next expects from its suppliers, highlighting a number of key qualities that must bemet if companies are to work successfully with this high street retailer. For example,they must have an in-house design team; be flexible in the manufacturing process; not shutdown in August; have a modern attitude; develop their own fabric sources; have onestandard of make, and not send out faulty merchandise; and have the facilities to producea range of products since “fashions change, and you don’t want to be left in thelurch”.

For existing suppliers, he offered theinvitation to work together to improve lead times. “We have to be in stock of thebest-sellers. This is the life-blood of our business – so we have to get stock in beforeit sells out”.

Turning the tables, suppliers should beaggressive enough to say that they want something in return from Next, including paymenton time and continuity of supply. “We recognise that manufacturers need to makemoney”, observed Mr Jones, “and we want to work in partnership with oursuppliers”.

Positive Look
David Jones’ views closed a day that offered a positive look at the way ahead for Britishmanufacturers under the banner ‘Playing to our strengths’.

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“It’s been quite a year”, saidconference chairman Sue Fairley in reference to the twelve months since the lastConference, “characterised by job losses in manufacturing, slow growth formanufacturers, increased imports, and a strong pound. But there is also a metamorphosisgoing on as far as the British clothing industry is concerned, although there is no onesingle solution”.

And it was this that the speakersaddressed, looking at the various ways in which these dilemmas can – and have – beentackled, be it by building on a brand’s ‘Britishness’ or by exploiting internationalopportunities through a combination of quality, design, logistics and marketing.

Setting the scene was Noel Jervis, managingdirector of Quilmaster, who explained that against a background of greater numbers ofconsumers with increasing disposable incomes, clothing is receiving less and less of thetotal spend. Furthermore, in the current economic climate most of the world is inrecession, which has led to surplus capacity and lower prices. And deflation means thatthe clothing industry must offer better value at a lower price.

Against flat sales overall, retailers areworking harder to achieve profit growth, and for many the short term reaction is to cutcosts and put profit margin pressure on their suppliers. “Suppliers must respond andbe in a position to respond”, said Mr Jervis. “Act to protect your marketposition”, he advised, “take control and play to your strengths – don’t leave itto others. ‘Made in Britain’ on its own is simply not enough: concentrate on design,selling, procurement and logistics”.

A cautionary note was offered to thosebusinesses that might be tempted to source overseas by Gerry Matthews, joint managingdirector of Smith & Brooks. “Be careful, and work with a reliable and honestpartner”, he said. Many companies see off-shore sourcing as the answer to theirproblems, but it can be “an exciting minefield” with its own set of problems,including currency and exchange rates, quotas, logistics, environmental legislation, andenforcing safe factory practices.

“The only way to make off-shoresourcing work is to have an honest and open relationship on both sides. Spend as much timeas possible in finding the right partner to manufacture your products – and invest in thispartner. The days of short-term opportunist sourcing are over”.

Current Reality
As far as Peter Brooks, group quality director at the William Baird Group, is concerned,the current reality is that: “UK Textiles Plc is becoming global. There is also aconstant drive to improve values through design innovation, price and perceivedquality”.

But are we good enough to become global?”We cannot rely on the successful practices of the past to be successful today”,he commented. “You must embrace new technology and make it work for you”. Thisapplies too in delivering and supporting the quality vision, where a company must addressthe gap between the skills it’s got and the skills it wants. “Establishaccountability and expectation; support and educate employees; remove obstacles to movingforward (such as lack of computer technology or skills); visibly promote progress; andrecognise and reward those achievements that take you closer to the vision”.

However, Peter warned: “The quality ofyour products and services will never exceed the quality of your people”, adding:”We must become world-class players. Before you start, look at where you are andwhere you are going. This requires quality time and quality thinking. Communicate andeducate to get everyone on board. Enjoy the journey: the destination is excellence”.

The next presentation, from ProfessorSteven Gray of The Nottingham Trent University and Bob Brash, technical director, Wicks& Wilson, not only looked at the ways in which video links are enabling fast andefficient communications within the industry, but also provided a ‘technical first’ forthe ASBCI with the demonstration of a new full body 3D scanner. The ‘TriForm body scanningbooth’ incorporates technology initially developed for facial scanning in medicalapplications and, by looking at the deflection of horizontal bands of white lightprojected across an image, the 3D surface form can be calculated. The booth itself hasalready been trialled at Marks & Spencer stores across the country, and takes just 16seconds to scan the upper and lower part of the body, front and back.

As well as offering automated measurementfor sizing guidance and custom tailoring, it is expected to bring benefits in fitconsultations, Internet shopping, and supplier communications, as well as giving thecustomer an all-round view of how an outfit actually looks.

Moving On
Moving on to supply chain issues, Bill Howie, managing director of Tibbett & Britten’sSpectrum division, discussed a typical retailers’ supply chain, in which 15 or 16different activities take place. “This is a long pipeline with volatile demand”,he explained, “such as the weather, economy and fashion at the customer end”. Itis also managed by a number of different parties – supplier, buyer, logistics provider,and merchandiser – each of whom has different needs.

The skill of the logistics provider is tocreate a balance between these needs through co-ordination and integration of the supplychain. “Greater co-ordination and co-operation can lead to an integrated supply chainthat matches activity with skill, reduces cost, speeds inventory flow, and improvesquality and accuracy”, Bill added.

His advice: “Stick to what you’re goodat; play to your strengths in the supply chain. Reduce the number of participants in yoursupply chain and extend the spheres of control”.

Service and timely deliveries have animportant role to play in building a brand’s appeal too. One brand that epitomises ‘Bestof British’ is DAKS-Simpson, and licensing development director Otmar Overhoff was on handto explain how the company continues to assert its position around the world.

Product, service and continuity, quality,design, and media promotion are all part of the mix. “We have seasonal themedlaunches and promotions that tie in with special events – all of which underpin DAKS’British image”, Otmar explained. As an example he detailed the recent opening of aboutique in Osaka, Japan where the company’s close relationship with the British Embassyand the British Ambassador was very important in consolidating the image of the brand. Asa result of its promotions in the Far East, DAKS’ sales in Japan have held fast over thepast couple of years, and its market share in South Korea has increased by 7 per cent.

Tricks of the Trade
In the absence of Robert Phillips, founding partner of Jackie Cooper PR, Windsmoor’s groupfabric controller Tony Silverman took to the stage to present his paper. The message:”To develop memorable campaigns you must be faster, cleverer, more cunning andwittier than the competition”.

Having worked on the award-winningWonderbra campaign, Robert is well-placed to comment on how to get consumers talking.”The media has moved forward beyond all recognition over the last 10 years, and youneed to work with the new media marketplace. We have gone from the industrial age to thetechnological age and the information age. Fashion stories are no longer brand stories;they need celebrity, beauty and gossip angles”, he said.

Ren Pearce and Andrew Fionda, partners inPearce Fionda and winners of the 1997 British Fashion Awards ‘Glamour Designers of theYear’, acknowledged that “the high street still rules British fashion, not designerfashion. Why? Because consumers do not value clothes. If they have money to spend, it goeselsewhere, and if they can buy their clothes cheaply then so much the better. So there isalways an on-going battle between designers and the high street. The need to bridge thisgap has never before been more apparent – better design at a more reasonable price”.

The duo are currently signed into a 3-yeardeal with Debenhams to design collections under the Pearce II Fionda label. This has beenextended to include sunglasses and cruisewear; a coat collection is being launched in theautumn; and week-end and bridal ranges are in the pipeline. For the designers, thecontract gives them the financial freedom to develop their mainline brand, and takes theirnames to a new audience without a high price tag.

Looking at the role played by the press inshaping the fashion industry, Sophie Hewitt-Jones, publisher of Drapers Record, made thefollowing observation: “Fashion magazines offer consumers advice on where to shop,what to buy, how to put different looks together.

“Get your brand into a fashionmagazine”, she said, “and sales will increase. That’s a fact”.

Fabric Innovation
The increasingly important role being played by textile converters was outlined by OsamuMorimoto, Socio division manager for Japanese company Shinko Sangyo. The Japanese apparelmarket has suffered a severe blow as a result of the recession, and innovation in fabricsand garments is one way of stimulating demand.

Osamu said that the latest trend is forclimate control shirts that can reduce body temperature by 2-3°; although he firmlybelieves that machine washable garments are “going to be the future”. Hiscompany has developed a new non-shrink, non-iron, easy-care linen composite fabric(polyester/rayon/linen) called Socio Silbera which uses the “Manard” spinningprocess whereby the polyester filament is “electrocuted” with 2000V to open itup so that the linen/rayon is held within this polyester “frame”.

Also selling well, he reported, is a 100per cent techno cotton with good drape and a permanent 15-20 per cent stretch.

For Rowland Hill, environmental affairsofficer, Marks & Spencer, the European Waste Packaging directive which was introducedin 1994 to harmonise national measures, encourage a reduction in packaging, promoterecycling and re-use, and measure packaging waste has simply caused a range of problems inthe UK whilst the rest of Europe is moving ahead.

Marks & Spencer, claimed Rowland, ishelping to develop constructive responses to these regulations, including setting up theRecycle UK compliance scheme in 1998 with a number of its garment suppliers; and isworking alongside local authorities to collect and recycle packaging.

Multi-brand Challenges
The challenges faced by a multi-brand company were outlined by Jacques Boon, director ofproduct development and quality integrity at VF Europe. Describing VF as “the world’slargest publicly owned apparel manufacturer with annual sales in 1998 of $5.5billion”, he explained: “The consumer is the focus of everything we do”.

The company has recently repositioned itsjeanswear brands – including Lee, Wrangler, Vanity Fair, Maverick and Oldaxe – so thatrather than competing with each other they now target a range of consumer segments.”Up until two years ago, manufacturing was brand specific; now all manufacturingunits are set up for multi-brand production which gives us flexibility and uniformity onquality workmanship”, Jacques said. All technical services are shared too, includingfabric/finishing development, style development and quality integrity. Planning andpurchasing is set up for a portfolio of brands, which means that buying can be betterconcentrated, “and it also gives us tremendous buying power”. Customer servicesare geared to the consumer rather than the brand; there are joint marketing efforts; allsystems have been developed to run on the same platform (JBA); and multi-branddistribution centres are concentrated by geographical area.

“Personnel have to adapt formulti-brand rather than one brand, and it’s a complex, continuously changingenvironment”, concluded Jacques.

With a portfolio that includes names suchas Ben Sherman, Slix and Hard Yakka, Bill Walker, chief executive of Sherman Cooper,advised: “Before you can take a brand globally you have to be a success in your ownmarket”.

To achieve this, he identified supplier andretailer partnerships, market responsiveness, supply chain management and continuouschange as being essential. “We have over 500 employees in the UK and Ireland”,he noted, “but global sourcing is key to the success of the business, along withcontinuous product development and flexible manufacturing”.

The Ben Sherman shirt brand doubled itsshare of the market between December 96 and 97 due to the endorsement of several BritPopstars, and advertising campaigns based on humour and attitude. As the business has movedinto Europe the campaign imagery has softened, and another change will be required for itssuccess in the USA.

“The brand will travel but it has tobe different”, Bill explained.

And this, to a certain extent, summed upthe message that delegates took away with them, and one that ASBCI chairman Len Rosereaffirmed. “With the approach of the millennium it is clear that the UK clothing andtextile industry will find it more and more difficult to compete with the very low labourcost manufacturing countries. However, there will still be a good future for thosemanufacturing companies in the UK who are hi-tech and flexible, and who can offer theircustomers good quality products with quick response deliveries”.