Are we stitching up the next generation of local workers?
It’s 2005 and Mulberry, which has been bubbling at the brink of iconic status since the seventies, has broken as a household name and secured the title of first ever British ‘It bag’. It’s factory, set against the rolling hills of the English countryside, is home to a happy family of experts which have grown with the business over the decades.
Cara delevigne in mulberry's shepton mallet factory. The model and actress put her name to a line of 'it' bags for the british label.
How lovely, the sentimental amongst you may think, after all the toil they get to enjoy their moment in the sun. For the more pragmatic, including Mulberry’s new owner “Queen of Bond Street” Christina Ong, it signals a headache. If this moment paid off, Mulberry could grow to be one of the best loved British fashion names, but with more than half the company’s employees over the age of 50 and 13% over traditional retirement age, there was a looming skills gaps. Who will fulfil the escalating waiting lists? How do you replace expertise accumulated over a lifetime? How do you convince the country's most talented leather craft professionals to uproot from their homes and relocate to the peaceful Somerset countryside en masse? The brand found itself in a precarious position, potentially unable to capitalise on its success and retain its heritage locality, even ‘business as usual’ over the coming decade would prove hard - the skills just didn’t exist locally, even nationally.
The conversation about the skills gap within North America and Europe’s textile and fashion industry has found increasing momentum over the past decade and has exploded under the scrutiny of sustainable consumerism. In the 60’s 95% of America’s clothing was made domestically, in contrast to only 3% today. Most of us are smart enough to understand the short-term business incentives for shipping out your production to a region in which the average wage is US $723 and you don’t get free tea, coffee or basic health and safety provisions, but questions of ethics and economic sustainability has encouraged a change in the choices of consumers and business leaders when it comes to the locality of garment and textile production. Enter an army of skilled expert workers to save the day! Errr… no. We took away those jobs and gave them to the lowest bidder remember? In fact, the USA has lost just over 900,000 jobs since the 1980’s, the UK 700,000.
The current challenges facing the US and Europe’s industries are often focused within technical areas such as tailors, cutters, seamstresses and textile technicians. Many brands report a desire to expand local production but struggle to successfully meet their ambitions due to a lack of available skilled workers. Jeremy Hackett, the owner of Hackett London, a leading British menswear brand which retails internationally, caused controversy when he recently claimed, “The UK do not have the ability to deliver the quality level we require at the volumes we require as a global brand.” His comments are just one example in a long line of public figures expressing frustration at skills shortages, including Christopher Bailey and Mary Katrantzou.
It poses the question, with who does the buck stop? Perhaps Hackett, instead of stitching up the industry, should take his responsibility as profitable brand empowered to create change more seriously. Mulberry took the challenge of a skills shortage head on, launching an award-winning apprenticeship scheme offering traditional ‘craftmanship’ training with experts and the offer of long-term job security. For them, it was a business imperative that their brand could live or die by, so they made their own fate. Yet, perhaps Hackett has a point, are there other places to point the finger of responsibility for rebuilding our traditional skills and empowering local production?
Imtaz Khaliq, tailor and UAL lecturer, believes that universities are not fulfilling their part in building the next generations of fashion and textile workers. She comments, “Competitiveness requires highly skilled people with a broad range of practical talents, but the education and training system just isn't delivering enough of them.” This sentiment is backed by a recent report, which revealed that despite 87% of US graduates feeling they have the appropriate skills to enter their chosen profession, only 50% of managers agreed. Khaliq adds, “With the tuition fees you're paying, the universities should teach you what you need to know." For Kate Berry of textile industry consultants QHQ Ltd, graduates understanding of different positions is one of the most significant barriers, noting “Junior Designers often apply for Junior Garment Technologist roles – sometimes with the misconception that they have the same skills, but that’s not really the case, they are two separate skill sets.”
A saturated labour market of under-skilled workers presents a complex conundrum for brands with the ambition of developing their operations locally, requiring strategy, investment and, for many larger brands, an overhaul of their business model; but there is one silver lining within the resurgence of interest in sustainable, local production. Many smaller businesses have strengthened, with outsourcing better suiting economies of scale and, often operating on the expectation of lower margins, a business model which is forgiving of training less experienced staff. The UK fashion and textile industry has seen 2.5% growth in 24 months, most of which represents micro-businesses rather than large scale production. As the industry continues to overcome that challenges presented by skills shortages and the desire for local production grows, exciting new businesses are in prime position to capitalise on that success.