British manufacturers thrive in competitive market

Friday 12th June, 2015

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Across the country, small UK manufacturers are thriving in the garment industry

Caught in fierce competition with cheaper Asian manufacturers, Meet the Manufacturer cast a light on how British competitors are still surviving - by going upmarket.

The event, held at Tobacco Dock in East London, drew some 80 garment manufacturers to a two-day show.

Among those carving out their own niches within the market are leather makers Bliss of London, who believe that they can retain business by selling a high-end product.

It’s price-sensitive now. Rather than trying to be cheap, we can produce the quality that people are looking for

“It’s price-sensitive now. Rather than trying to be cheap, we can produce the quality that people are looking for,” says Ian Rea, one of the founders who has immersed himself in leather making. "We keep it quite tight, everything is handmade."

With 14 staff members, Rea says that his company aims to “make small things beautiful” whereas larger high-end firms such as Gucci have begun contracting Asian factories into a global manufacturing line.

But British manufacturing is not just limited to the very high-end. Another tactic to keep the industry alive has been the removal of minimum quantities in specialised industries.

One company doing just this is Deptford-based Insley & Nash, a screen and digital printing company whose clients include Disney and L’Oréal.

“Digital printing is a more modern technique that lets you print as much colour as you want, while with screen printing there's limited colours to choose from but it stands out for its layered texture, ” says founder Gavin Insley.

He says that where factories in Asia would require large volumes to screen print, Insley & Nash have a competitive advantage as they are able to print single products, such as those used in promotional materials.

But cheap manufacturing is not just about the money.

Handmade Alliance is a social enterprise whose reformative role is as valuable as its commercial one – giving prisoners training and work when on day-release.

“The company really helped me, letting me go to college and learning to be a teacher,” says Chris. Although he is not paid for his work, his training, transport and meals are subsidised.

Ellie Cooke, the project’s coordinator says that “all prisoners [who go through the programme] learn to use machines and gain skills up to an industrial standard”.

The Alliance has five full-time members of staff and more volunteers.

“We are going to get another six to 10 prisoners working in the following training session,” says Cooke.