British clothing factories and stately homes have more in common than one may think. Historically these giant edifices both provided labour for local communities – but while some have fallen into disrepair or struggle for survival, others are adapting to the 21st century through a new entrepreneurial spirit. In the case of the factories, this turnaround reflects a honing of specialist skills that can hold their own on the world stage. And a handful of key menswear brands are providing the muscle for their transformation.
But why now? Although the 1940s and 1950s saw booming business for UK clothing manufacturers, the 1960s marked a new dawn of both Italian luxury and competitively priced Asian manufacturing. By the late 1980s, hundreds of UK factories had been forced to close as high-street chains moved manufacturing to Asia and luxury production migrated to the Mediterranean. Now, a band of British factories remain and the challenge is to modernise and specialise for a 21st-century global market.
Leading the way is Private White VC, a Manchester-based brand producing casualwear almost entirely sourced and crafted in Britain – from sheep to shop, effectively. In 2010, when James Eden decided to revitalise his war-hero great-grandfather’s factory in Salford, he knew it would require both design kudos and solid business acumen. Enter Nick Ashley, the son of womenswear designer Laura, who has a palpable passion for all things sartorial and UK made.
Together they’ve struck the perfect balance between made-in-Britain buzz and brilliant product that focuses on beautifully designed and immaculately made casual menswear. Suppliers are established and trusted: the wool comes from Lancashire, jersey from Nottingham, knitwear from Scotland, shoes from Northampton and sheepskin from Somerset, while the cotton is woven in Private White VC’s own Yorkshire mill. Though its labels say “Made in England”, studs inscribed “Made in Manchester” emphasise county over country of origin. Inside the factory itself, there’s a shop with a large window that looks directly into the workshops, so visitors can see the clothes being made before buying.
“What’s changed since I’ve joined is that the company has gone from being just CMT [cut, make and trim] for other brands, and making clothes for a particular price, to creating clothes for its own label,” says Ashley. “I came along and said, ‘It’s already ridiculously expensive to make in Britain. We may as well cut into the finest cloth known to mankind and create our own higher-end clothing line.’”
Ashley’s enthusiasm was initially met with trepidation from some of the factory workers. It’s clear that today, however, his blue-sky thinking has paid off. A luxury masterpiece such as the double-faced navy wool Venetian overcoat (£1,200), made from a twill and high-twist yarn with a compact weave and lined in navy satin, is so expertly crafted that it’s practically showerproof. The style went out of fashion in the 1950s, but is now appreciated by those in the know. “When we took it to [men’s fashion show] Pitti, two immaculately dressed elderly Italian tailors came up and said, ‘My God, is that a Venetian weave? This is done in England? Why?!’ I replied: ‘Because we can.’”
Other highlights include a lightweight ventilated suede bomber jacket (£1,250) in brown, navy or black with silk lining (goat suede from Yorkshire, silk from Suffolk) and a seven-piece suit, which includes a blazer (£380), shirt (£165), waistcoat (£250), trousers (£180), tie (£59) and shorts (£145), all crafted from stone-coloured cotton, as well as matching perforated suede Oxfords (£350) made in collaboration with Grenson. Each item employs the environmentally friendly Ecoseam technique developed by the label last year, which uses lasers to synthesise cotton with gases that give it the water- and stain-resistant qualities of coated cotton, but avoids the use of harmful chemicals or unyielding wax. The finish is soft, machine-washable and crease preventing.
Further north, across the Scottish border, is Johnstons of Elgin, one of Scotland’s oldest cashmere mills, which sits on the banks of the River Lossie. The mill is a hub of activity, with almost 1,000 employees, many of whose families have worked there for generations. Large tubs being wheeled around are filled with brown and white clouds of soft, raw cashmere and vicuña, which will be transformed into the finest clothing for countless luxury brands, including Hermès and Gieves & Hawkes, as well as Johnstons’ own collection of knitwear (cardigan, £375), scarves (£70), estate tweeds (£355) and accessories (from £29), which can all be found in its first London shop, which opened on New Bond Street in December. Inside the workshops, surrounded by stacks of blankets, each metre of cashmere is meticulously checked at various stages and brushed by hand with dried teasel to fluff and thicken. “There’s a genuine difference between cashmere made in Scotland and cashmere made elsewhere,” says Simon Cotton, chief executive of Johnstons. “Powering the mill is fresh spring water, and the old wooden machines are perfect for cashmere – metal is a much harsher treatment.” Cloth design manager Louise Sullivan also points out that the weight of the cloth is the biggest thing to change in recent times. “Our 370g cloth for jackets used to be most popular, but now it’s the 280g jackets that are doing well,” she says.
Burberry’s checked cashmere scarves are produced in Scotland, but such UK provenance only forms a relatively small portion of the London-based brand’s output. It’s surprising, considering that it is one of the most British of British brands. Indeed, you’d be hard pressed to find more than a handful of names on the London Collections Men fashion-show schedule that offer clothes entirely sourced and crafted in Britain – something that seems bizarre, since in Milan or Florence there’d be public outcry if most home-grown brands were to manufacture anywhere other than Italy. Two names that stand out, however, are E Tautz and Margaret Howell.
Patrick Grant, the owner and creative director of E Tautz, bought Blackburn-based factory Cookson & Clegg – a former specialist manufacturer of military uniforms and technical fabrications – last year. Grant is aiming to centralise all of his production at the factory, as well as persuade other brands to get on board. It’s here that the London-based firm makes its bestselling wide-leg trousers, available in five durable fabrics, and up to 70 per cent of every season’s ready-to-wear collection, which currently includes cotton Harrington jackets (£550), gingham suiting (jacket, £595) and the cotton Whitby shirt (£295).
One long-time client of Cookson & Clegg has been Margaret Howell, whose eponymous brand offers wardrobe staples in classic fabrics, such as Scottish cashmere jumpers (from £365), Edmonton linen shirts (£245), Northampton leather brogues (from £495) and hand-loomed silk scarves (£65). “I’ve always been attracted to the British character in objects,” she says. “When I started my business, it was a one-man band, so I would seek out British companies, like a small tailor in Northampton or [Midlands leathermakers] Whitehouse Cox & Co. I still have leather holdalls made there and, over time, have developed bags out of fabric that they would never have used. Those kinds of companies stand for tradition in the best sense of the word and I’ve benefited from their expertise.”
As the son of a tiemaker and the great-grandson of a shirtmaker, Michael Hill – the creative director of London-based Drake’s – has British craftsmanship in his blood, and it is these two items that have become the focal point of the brand’s offering. “I remember visiting my father’s factory in the East End every Saturday and noticing the smell of silk bolts in the boot of his Volvo,” recalls Hill. The Drake’s factory is on Haberdasher Street, not far from London’s silk-weaving roots in Spitalfields, and makes silk ties (£125) and pocket squares (£60).
Hill credits the resurgence of British manufacturing to the reach of the internet. “In the past, businesses like ours didn’t need or want a public profile. It was a big change from being purely a manufacturer to becoming our own label – and bloggers keen to get to the source of the product helped to put us on the map. As a result, we now have people coming to see the factory.”
Just as Scotland’s access to fresh spring water and the East End’s proximity to the silk-generating Essex/Suffolk border informed their local craft industries, so Northampton’s oak forests provided the bark that was once considered the best leather-tanning material, while the River Nene provided the necessary water. “There were once hundreds of shoe factories here, the peak of which was during the second world war, when we were making boots for soldiers. After that, factory numbers went downhill and now virtually all of the tanneries have disappeared,” says Tim Little, owner of shoemakers Grenson, which was founded in 1866 and whose ethos for the brand is “An old company with a young heart”. The region is also home to other British firms such as Cheaney, Crockett & Jones and Gaziano & Girling, as well as John Lobb (now owned by Hermès) and Church’s (now owned by Prada), all of whom are keen to preserve local values and expand the size of workshops.
Defining the region’s approach to shoes is Goodyear welting, which was invented in 1869 by Charles Goodyear Jr and allows for a thin strip of leather or rubber to be stitched between the outer sole and upper as a way of making the shoes sturdier and longer lasting. Grenson styles range from traditional tanned Stanley brogues (£210) to hybrid styles with thick rubber soles (£250) and a unique triple-welted sole (£395).
It’s the passing down of these skills that is central to innovative developments, and Little is keen to prioritise these over-romantic notions of British craftsmanship. “The old factory was past its sell-by date in terms of its Victorian design,” he says. “A car factory’s big, open space on one floor makes for a better product. We want our factory to be really efficient – which is why we built a new one in 2013.” Grenson’s redevelopment not only provided proper amenities for the workers – showers, a locker room and a canteen – it also enabled the firm to offer apprenticeships. “They’re not factory workers; they’re craftsmen. What they do is very special, and the skills take five years to learn and that should be recognised. If you buy a pair of shoes made in Northampton, educated consumers around the world will know they are well made. There are very few products that have that kind of instant global recognition when it comes to quality.”