Patrick Grant, who revived Savile Row tailor Norton & Sons and is the man behind British menswear label E Tautz, is a designer’s designer, and we are told that his appearances as a judge on the BBC’s The Great British Sewing Bee have made him a housewives’ favourite.
He is now taking on the challenge of reframing how we produce clothing in the UK. His new project Community Clothing, who are raising funds via the crowdfunding website Kickstarter, is finding a way to tackle one of the major challenges that British clothing manufacturing faces, that being seasonality of demand. For several months of every year even the very best British factories are nowhere near full. This can lead to seasonal hiring and firing, or worse still to factory closures. Community Clothing will use this spare capacity to make great clothes, and then sell these clothes directly to the consumer, cutting out the usual wholesale and retail mark-ups. We sat down with Patrick to find out more about his new project.
We at The Holborn have an almost daily conflict: that being between our extremely modest wages and our love of quality British-made goods. The Community Clothing model bypasses this conflict, so before we hug you with joy, can you tell us when and where you had that eureka moment?
It all started when we received an email from one of our suppliers, Cookson & Clegg in Blackburn, they said they were closing after more than 150 years of business and would fulfil just one last order. Having assembled this fantastic network of suppliers it was heartbreaking to know that one of them was having to close as it was losing too much money. So I started looking into the possibility of buying them and in the process we started looking at their business and the underlying trends in their business and it was really clear that one of the reasons that they weren’t making profit was down to the seasonality of demand. Now most businesses have seasonality of demand but most business are able to predict ahead, now fashion is different because you start afresh every six months, you can’t even out your production as you have to wait to find out what you are making. Looking at the market it was clear that there is this demand for British made clothing, and people are prepared to pay more for it but they aren’t prepared to pay twice the price. It was clear if you could marry together the lower price with utilising the gaps in production it could work. By producing direct from the factory we could cut the usual retail mark up and then make that affordable British made clothing.
You talk about the importance of designing with simple manufacturing in mind as part of the whole manufacturing and pricing process, though it creates a from what we can see a range of classic and minimalist designs – I imagine this is no happy coincidence?
It isn’t no, my approach to design has always been well-engineered, non-fussy clothing. But again to bring the cost down and to make everything work efficiently we have cost-engineered the clothes, we’ve designed them to have as few sewing operations as possible, using Brisbane Moss cloth we’ve standardised everything. We just use navy and beige cotton and linings, and by standardising everything and using classic designs like the Harrington jacket that don’t need to be re-designed we can create these staple well-made items that are affordable. You get a classic item with premium material which are used by premium brands. You get a premium product at a very affordable price. The only ‘issue’ is that they may not be available all year round, once they are gone, they are gone.
You are not only feeding our hunger for affordable quality but you are also creating jobs and helping factories to thrive. What has the process been like pitching the idea to and working with these manufacturers?
We’ve spoken to a number of factories we know, we were looking for people for all the main categories of clothing we want to make. But since we’ve launched we have a number of other manufacturers approach us and say that they love this idea. The only category of clothing manufacturing in the UK that doesn’t seem to be affected by this seasonality problem is shirt making. But everything else is, and if it is bad for most categories of clothing manufacturing, it is three times as worse for the knitwear industry. If we can bring volume back to our UK factories then the level of efficiency we get increases massively and you can very quickly get up to halving the cost of a product.
You’ve said that Community Clothing isn’t just about producing affordable clothing in the UK but also about addressing structural issues in the fashion industry. What do you mean by that?
The fashion industry is difficult, we as consumers have created the fashion industry, we have decided that we want faster, cheaper products, we’ve created the situation we are now in. We now have to think of the future if we want it to change. We need to think if we want disposable items, and then we have to pick and choose the brands that we want to buy. If we want to create jobs in the UK then we need to buy from Brands that make in the UK. You can make the choice that you are not going to buy ten things from Primark, but save and buy one quality item from a brand whose values you admire. We need to back brands that are doing things differently and back brands that one trusts to do the right thing.
Interview by Morgan Hamilton-Griffin