UK-based clothing manufacturers are taking steps to shore up their businesses as orders slump amid the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic – including repurposing production, working from home where possible, and embracing digital technologies. But they are also optimistic the crisis might also lead to lasting change.
There was initially optimism that manufacturing shutdowns in China, where the coronavirus first took hold, might lead to a resurgence in orders for UK-based suppliers. But as domestic retailers shutter stores, temporarily lay off workers, cut costs and cancel orders amid a nationwide lockdown, British clothing manufacturers are looking for new ways to navigate the crisis.
Speaking to just-style, Kate Hills, founder of Make it British, a platform promoting UK manufacturers and British-made brands, says the retail shutdown is “very quickly” having a knock-on effect with a lot of manufacturers.
As ‘goods in-goods out’ businesses, manufacturers typically don’t have great cash flows and rely on a constant stream of orders. And “because there’s no commitment from the retailers to the manufacturers, or very little, it’s left the manufacturers high and dry. It’s very easy for retailers to switch off all those orders, but that has a big impact on a manufacturer, particularly UK manufacturers which typically employ less than ten people.”
What might be “a really minuscule order” for a big retailer is not only a huge order to a manufacturer in the UK, but a lifeline too. “Those ten jobs or so would all be lost if those orders dry up, so we’re now trying to find other things that they can do.”
On the agenda for some suppliers is a shift in production to help tackle shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE).
“Because manufacturers are losing orders from the retailers, can we deploy them to make the much-needed protective equipment? We haven’t got face masks, but we’ve got loads of factories that can stitch. We’ve got great technical textile weavers in the UK,” says Hills, who is trying to coordinate efforts with manufacturers and the government so they can switch production.
“People are linking a lot of it to the Second World War, and in that case, it is” – Kate Hills
A similar situation arose during the Second World War, when “a lot of sewing factories got switched over to making parachutes and uniforms. I think we will see manufacturers redeployed to make something different.”
A number of firms worldwide are joining the charge, while British clothing manufacturer David Nieper has told just-style it is in talks with the government about producing gowns for healthcare workers.
Homeworking and outworkers
With measures in place in the UK to slow the spread of the virus including the closure of non-essential shops, a ban on social gatherings, and restrictions on going outside, some manufacturers are also assessing what portion of production could be done by workers in their own homes.
“A solution for factories currently is ‘Can I pick up this machine and move it into someone’s own home and can they work from home?'” Hills says.
“I think we’ll see more of that because big factories are very convenient when everyone’s all in the same space, but they don’t necessarily fit with a lot of people’s modern lifestyles if they want to work flexibly. So I wonder if this might be the start of a lot of factories thinking more about how much of their manufacturing can be done by employees working in their own premises.”
While such a shift would depend on a case-by-case basis, Hills suggests that for a knitwear factory, the knitwear would still need to be made on the machines in the factory, but there’s “no reason why technicians doing the linking and stitching can’t have an overlocker and a linking machine at home.”
Hills notes, however: “It is about how you monitor that and make sure it’s not open to any abuse. There’s been a tradition of thinking of outworkers being poorly paid, treated really badly…how do you make sure you’ve got all those same measures in place that you would have in the factory if there’s any working remotely?”
It’s a mode of working that’s proved successful for Amy Fettis, founder of AIM Athleisure and sample room Studio 54.
Her team of seven is able to continue product development thanks to home studios, with Fettis performing doorstop deliveries of essential items that can’t go through the post, such as large rolls of fabric. “That’s how we’re managing to operate at the moment,” she tells just-style.
Fettis was already offering the option of working from home before Covid-19. She sets guidelines at the start of any project outlining how many hours are allocated for each phase and monitoring output.
When asked if this is a model others in the industry could adopt, Fettis says the pandemic has highlighted a need for businesses to be more agile and innovative in the way that they work.
“I know there are other people in the industry that have an outsourced working model, but I definitely think it’s one that the industry as a whole could be adopting because skills are thin on the ground. I think it’s important that we find a way that works for the team that doesn’t just work for us. As a business it’s really easy to say ‘No, I want you in the sample room’ – but do they actually need to be there, can they do it from home?”
Meanwhile, Hills says businesses struggling the least during the pandemic are those using the most local raw materials as their supply chains are not as disrupted.
“Hopefully, going forward, that will start making companies think, ‘How much of this could I source locally and therefore spread the risk?’ rather than making everything in China, for instance. Or everything just in one factory.”
An example is Something Wicked, an online independent luxury lingerie brand based on the outskirts of Leeds city centre. All of the products are hand cut and hand made in its factory, not on a production line, with the company sourcing from the UK “as much as possible.”
“For us, the Covid situation has made us really grateful that we don’t rely on oversea production” – Steff McGrath
“For us, the Covid situation has made us really grateful that we don’t rely on overseas production,” says managing partner Steff McGrath.
She adds one supplier in France has shut down for a week – noting it would be a major concern if that happened to all suppliers. “We’re really grateful that the majority of our suppliers and our manufacturers are in this country, so while it has affected us, we can still operate and produce, just on a slower scale.”
The ‘feel-good factor’
In terms of orders, McGrath says after a “great” November, in the first two weeks of March, “overnight, it just stopped.”
“I was really panicking and feeling anxious but because we manufacture in the UK, a lot of our orders are overseas. One really interesting thing to come out of the Covid situation is we’re starting now to see orders come out of the US, just in the last few days.
“They’ve been on lockdown for a couple of weeks now and it’s almost as if they’re thinking ‘Even though I’m at home on my own, I can’t go anywhere, I can’t meet anyone but I’m actually still going to treat myself.’ I’m predicting that in a couple of weeks, maybe, retail will start picking up when people think ‘I’m here, I’m at home I’ve got nothing else to do, I’m looking to treat myself.”
Hills echoes the sentiment: “That ‘feel-good factor’ of buying fashion and textiles will come again in a few weeks’ time when people suddenly think, ‘Well, I’m going to treat myself to something special. I’ve not been out of the house for weeks.'”
The pandemic is also leading to a shakeup of the industry’s events calendar and how buyers communicate with suppliers.
Make it British is among those planning a virtual event to replace its ‘Make it British Live!’ sourcing show. “The industry is about making connections and bringing the supply chain back together and we can do that just as easily virtually as we can all together in a great big venue,” Hills says.
“There’s the software and the ability to do it now. It’s about face-to-face meetings, so you can do that via webcam just as easily as you can standing next to each other.”
And it’s a trend she believes will continue.
“Those people who maybe weren’t embracing technology within their manufacturing business are now going to have to” – Kate Hills
“Those people who maybe weren’t embracing technology within their manufacturing business are now going to have to. If everyone’s working remotely and they don’t want to work in their own little silo, then they need technology and to be able to embrace that.
“I see no reason why you couldn’t have a meeting via video-conferencing software with your manufacturer and talk through a product. Okay, you don’t have the touchy-feely side to it that you would have if you’re going to the factory, but you can certainly go through a lot of what is said in those product development meetings via video-conferencing. So I think things like that will shake some of them up.”
UK fashion and homewares retailer Next Plc is one company looking at different scenarios to make up for the lack of face-to-face contact, including video conferencing.
Hills adds she is also seeing more brands, particularly start-ups, taking control and doing their own manufacturing. These, she says, may be among those least affected by the impact of Covid-19 because they can switch production on and off according to demand.
“Those manufacturers that are relying on orders from retailers, especially if they’re relying on orders from just a few retailers, and they’ve not spread their risk, then they are unfortunately going to be in trouble.”
As the pandemic continues to wreak havoc on the industry, Hills believes there will be dire consequences for many players. “Sadly, I do think we’re going to see a lot of casualties out of this.”
She questions, however: “Is it going to be a good thing in some ways, in that the strongest will survive? When everything comes back again, those companies that have weathered the storm will come back better, stronger and more flexible.”
It could also trigger a new approach to consumerism.
“I think the time off will cause a lot of people to think a bit more about how they consume things” – Kate Hills
“I think the time off will cause a lot of people to think a bit more about how they consume things,” Hills adds, saying this, in turn, would have a knock-on effect for a lot of manufacturers.
“Will it mean people start thinking, ‘Okay, I don’t need so many things, so I’ll buy things of better quality that are made locally?'”
In addition, she hopes the situation will lead to greater support at government level for local manufacturers, especially as the UK moves to leave the EU.
“I think now, if ever, is the time to definitely favour local businesses and look after your own because the economy is going to be in a really bad way and we’re going to need manufacturing.”
Indeed, McGrath tells just-style “it’s not necessarily all doom and gloom” with Something Wicked having received inquiries from interested parties regarding manufacturing.
The company, which McGrath says is “happy to manufacture for other people,” can handle steps from sampling, grading, and initial design as a flexible way of helping brands get started.
“I think it’s a bit of post-Brexit climate as in ‘Maybe we should look for manufacturers in this country’ and also because of the Covid situation – so we’ve started to get people contacting us to say they’re thinking of starting up a brand, we want to manufacture.”
She adds that a lot more prospecting has started as more people are now working from home, and those who have been contemplating a project can now start the process with a view to being up-and-running when it’s over.
Meanwhile, Hills notes the UK government’s scheme to help businesses cope with the implications of Covid-19 by paying 80% of staff salaries may lead to the eradication of any firms that don’t operate above board.
“Any business that wasn’t doing things by the book and paying their staff through PAYE, is now going to lose out massively – which is a really good thing. I hope that means that we will lose some of these businesses because they’re not able to claim. Maybe some will just get stamped out for good.”