"‘Made in the UK’ is rapidly becoming more commercially important – globally, it’s a positive marketing message.”Richard GrayCommercial CEO, Grays
The past year has seen the global fashion industry undergo a seismic shift, with demand migrating online and the realisation that many supply chains simply can’t keep up with the needs of fast fashion.
As they recover from the pandemic’s impact, many businesses are looking to establish smarter, more cost-effective supply chains – often by bringing the means of production closer to their target markets.
With overall retail sales close to £4bn, the UK represents a huge opportunity for clothing brands, and its manufacturing industry has grown steadily to match demand.
Alongside the rise of native businesses, international suppliers are cutting through the red tape and long lead times by establishing UK-based operations – while meeting growing consumer demand for ethically and sustainably produced clothing.
Clothing manufacture has long been part of the fabric in East Sussex, in south-east England. Good air, rail and road links enable swift access to the rest of the UK and Europe, making it the perfect stepping stone for businesses wishing to enter the market with a minimal carbon footprint.
The region’s Green Growth Platform has helped businesses raise over £2m in R&D funding. As the regional delivery partner for the Low Carbon Across the South East (LoCASE) funding and support programme, the platform is attuned to the conscious consumer – while the locally based Future Fashion Project encourages positive change in the sector, echoing activist Greta Thunberg’s sentiment: “You cannot mass produce fashion or consume 'sustainably' as the world is shaped today. That is one of the many reasons why we will need a system change."
In Hastings, Superstitch 86, which delivers personalised garments, school uniforms and promotional items, is co-located with an outlet for premium Italian technical sportswear brand, Macron – and Grays International, which has produced sporting goods since 1855, embroiders, manages and distributes high-performance sportswear from Hastings and nearby Robertsbridge.
Grays’ Commercial CEO Richard Gray says:
“The sites offer good access to Gatwick, the European markets and London, whilst providing a pleasant setting for our skilled local workforce. “As the costs of imported goods and transportation rise rapidly, due to Brexit and the effects of the pandemic, ‘Made in the UK’ is rapidly becoming more commercially important – globally, it’s a positive marketing message.”
Inland, milliner Jonathan Kelly distributes handmade classic English hats under the Sussex Tweed brand, using cloth made in his micro mill in Ashdown Forest. “It’s a wonderful area of natural beauty – you couldn’t ask for a nicer place to work,” he says.
Jonathan is a passionate advocate of local manufacture.
“It just makes sense to have everything near you,” he says. “And there’s a real appetite for it – people trust the Made in Britain brand, and are prepared to pay for it. Yes, it’d be cheaper to make in China, but you can’t always guarantee the quality. Here, you can see people and materials – and deal with any problems – in person. UK manufacturers have a dedicated right of way to the market, and will win through because of it. Ultimately, we want Sussex Tweed to be wholly derived from Sussex – sheared, spun, and woven here."
In Lewes, a team of sewing machinists create women’s fashion with an ethical focus. Alie Mackintosh, the CEO and founder of AYM Studio, explains why East Sussex is the perfect base for clothing design, manufacture, shipping and marketing: “Our facility’s a real creative hub, with a team of highly skilled local people. East Sussex is a great place to base a business due to the close connections to large cities, transport links such as Newhaven port and Gatwick (great for shipping parcels), and the network of local business support."
“The business has grown organically through harnessing social media and word of mouth, and our location has really helped. We’ve worked with local influencers, and grown by leaning into the creative networks that exist here. That’s part of our brand’s story – locally produced clothing, worn by celebrities. Locally, we’ve worked Nelly London and Grace Beverley. Globally, we’ve also partnered with Kim Kardashian, Kylie Jenner and Hailey Bieber."
“Meanwhile, access to creative hubs in Brighton and Lewes keeps me inspired, while the networks of creative individuals and businesses can lead to exciting collaborative opportunities."
“To me, ‘ethical’ means doing the right thing, and we feel this is serving our customers with products that are well thought through, from their environmental impact, caring for the people who make them, and ensuring the consumer’s experience of them is maximised – including versatile design that allows clothes to be worn over and over again. “Being UK based, we’re able to keep control over our supply chain, have regular visits to our partner factories and keep our carbon footprint small.”
Suzie Carley, whose“conscientiously fashioned sleepwear” brand has its sights set firmly on East Sussex due to the high number of environmentally aware consumers living there, agrees. “It’s easier to trust a manufacturer, meet them, visit the factory and ascertain their certifications,” she says. “With a good understanding of what ‘sustainable’ business practice means, I’m sticking to the UK. I believe this is the moment for UK manufacturing and new jobs.”
Thanks to its accessibility, affordability and cultural and natural attractions, East Sussex has become a popular location for clothing manufacturers and distributors, and its appeal is growing.
Meanwhile, British-made luxury goods continue to boast significant appeal overseas, while the emergence of innovative smart fabrics and digital technologies ensures the UK stays ahead of global competition.
It may be cheaper to manufacture clothing elsewhere, but once shipping, import duties and agent fees are deducted, the margin might not look so attractive. Factor in quality control issues and likely markdowns on the fast fashion lines which don’t reach the market in time, and a UK operation becomes an even more viable option.
As consumers increasingly choose quality over quantity, and goods made with conscience, the market, too, has spoken – and East Sussex is ready to answer the call.
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