In The Name of Industry: “Made in Britain”
By Yasmin Jones-Henry
We are on the cusp of a revolution folks. Call me patriotic but there are so many reasons to take pride in being British. For me, the most important trait that defines this isle is the spirit of enterprise and industry that has made this nation so great. Now I am not about to break out into song, I will refrain from serenading you with ‘Land of Hope and Glory…’. What I will do, is reveal that in spite of the uncertainty and the fear of what lies ahead in a post-Brexit world, there are some things that will not change. Be of good cheer, its not all bad news.
Recent figures have shown that since the Brexit result of June last year, the British economy has consistently grown with each financial quarter. In fact, we won’t boast, but Britain seems to have shaken off its economic slumber and is now arguably one of the fastest growing economies in the western world. There are several reasons why this statistic needs to be celebrated and lauded from every rooftop – not just in London. With the recent plunge in sterling – every cloud has emerged with a silver lining. Our exports are cheaper, we have suddenly become more competitive, and the summer saw a huge spike in demand for British made goods. Britain is indeed ‘Open for Business’. In the fashion and luxury sector, “Made In Britain” has become a synonym for ‘quality’, ‘ethical’, ‘luxury’ and ‘well made’. This championing and global preference for quality goods that are not made cheaply in unethical conditions is the reason why I am so excited.
History has illustrated that in the western world, developed economies of former empires have not adapted well in the post-colonial era. France, Spain, Portugal, Greece and Italy share in the misery that is a bloated public sector and astronomical sovereign debt. Britain is not exempt from this list, it too found post-war that it could no longer rely on cheap/free/subsidised goods from the likes of Jamaica, India or many of its African colonies. A quick comparison between GDP figures will show post-war Britain started to wane under the strain of having to pay its own bills. Inflation, unemployment and multiple recessions followed suit.
The Thatcher era is often fondly remembered as the moment in history that Britain got its economic ‘mojo’ back. However, if one looks at her reign objectively, the sectors that benefited excessively were the financial services and real estate. For most parts of the United Kingdom outside of London, British manufacturing continued to take a global beating when it came to productivity, competitiveness and profits. Now in 2017, on our balance of payments the financial services sector makes up for almost 80% of GDP. For a nation that once prided itself on manufacturing AND banking excellence this imbalance is a tragedy.
Why the brief history lesson? Well, the first industrial revolution that is taught in every school and championed as the pinnacle of British greatness, is in my view deeply tainted. As the grandchild of West Indian immigrants, I know only too well that the sudden appearance of cotton mills, ceramic factories, steelworks, the advent of the railways and the expansion of the City, were all funded by the capital produced on the sugar plantations in the Caribbean. In short –300 years of slavery made that first revolution bittersweet.
But alas, Brexit – might not be as bad as some have suggested. These last few months since the result have undoubtedly been uncomfortable and worrying for many. The ‘unknown’ always is. However, it has produced some vital introspective activity amongst many businesses both locally and internationally. The result, has been unanimously regarded as being a symptom of a national identity crisis. Many people who voted to Leave did so out of a nostalgia for ‘Britishness’ and a contempt for the homogenous ideals of the European Union. But the simple fact is, we as a nation cannot return to the age of Empire and exploitation. The new incarnation of ‘Britain’ – as Theresa May put it, ‘A Global Britain’, must be one that is built on enterprise that is entirely ethical.
This is the moment where fashion and economics collide – and I get to do my ‘happy dance’ – its more of a two-step but is brimmed with excitement nonetheless. Unlike the sordid recent history of the banking sector the British manufacturing industry, in particular the textiles sector, is being offered a new lease of life. A Renaissance if you will. Buying cheap goods from China and India – has had its moment in the sun. In my earlier article ‘Fast Fashion: You Buy Cheap, You Buy Twice’ I illustrate just how distasteful cheap, poorly made clothes can be, especially when they are made in unethical conditions. The ‘fun’ in fashion, comes from knowing that the item you are wearing is a work of art. It is special – only when it is the result of careful forethought, meticulous engineering and exquisite craftsmanship. That is what the British do best.
Earlier this week, our Prime Minister made a point of taking her cabinet on a school trip to the Midlands, the manufacturing heartlands of the UK in order to launch her new education initiative. Instead of the increasingly inflated University-degree process that has almost consumed the ‘graduate market’ she has expressed a fervent desire to reinvest in the apprenticeship schemes that offer young people an alternative to the 9-5 in a navy blue suit. Skilled labour is bang on trend. Manufacturing is back in fashion. The focus from some of the ministers who basked in their moment in front of the cameras, suggested that there would be closer attention to the investment in training for the technology and IT sectors.
So now I must I climb on top of my soap box and raise my placard. ‘What about the Textiles Industry Mr. Minister?’ Have you seen the figures recently?’ According to the British Fashion Council, in 2015 womenswear alone in the UK brought in £27billion worth of sales and is predicted to grow by 23% by 2020 (Mintel 2016). £26 billion of said revenue was a direct contribution to the UK economy (British Fashion Council , 2016). At least 797,000 jobs are supported by the UK fashion industry (Oxford Economics, 2014). The car industry? Computers? Yes they are all important concerns. But these figures are big, juicy and easy to digest. In short, fashion and the UK clothing industry ought not to be ignored.
To put it in simple terms, anyone who dismisses fashion in the discussion of the state of the UK economy is an idiot. Alright, not an idiot, an imbecile. Before the British workforce can even sit down at their desks or work stations, there is one vital part of the morning ritual that everyone must go through… yep unless you are ‘liberated’ in every sense of the word, you will need to put on some clothes before you head out to work. The fashion industry, and as a result, the textiles industry – if properly utilised, has what is referred to as ‘inelastic demand’. A permanent customer base and a universal need. Irrespective of trends, the unpredictability of British weather has ensured that British people will always need a variety of clothes.
I haven’t even touched on the foreign interest in British fashion. Recent figures provided by fDi Markets highlight a sprinkling of foreign direct investment in the textiles industry from firms in the European Union, but do not be perturbed by our departure from the EU. The domestic demand, and the consumer driven demand from the Middle East, the Far East, and the newly emerging middle classes from African countries such as Ghana, Nigeria, Botswana and Angola, are ensuring the tills on our high streets will keep on ringing.
Perhaps the exclusive and elitist nature of the fashion industry has made some MPs too nervous in the past to dip their toes into the haute-couture waters. But in Theresa May, we have already found a woman whose sense of fashion can only be described as ‘fearless’. Long before it was fashionable to do so, a simple Google search will show the former Home Secretary quietly championing British brands at past Tory Conferences. Russell & Bromley shoes, LK Bennett pumps – the list goes on. You can call me an optimist, but the writing is on the wall. I am just here to lay it out – and hope that you all see it.
There are some industries the UK does not – and will never have a comparative advantage in. That is a reality some parts of the manufacturing industry will just have to face. But there is ample evidence to support and show that the seamstresses, the milliners, the cobblers and the designers that are currently generating these billions with little attention from the government by way of investment, could do so much more, if they are given a larger slice of the budget for skills based training. Working with your hands – the art of creativity is not a flighty high minded ideal. Given the right resources and investment, the textiles industry could once again become a shining jewel in the British crown of GDP. Why should the bankers take all of the credit all of the time?
I will forever be an advocate of fair and ethical trade. Just as Britain abolished the slave trade in 1808 and slavery in 1848, and then led the world with political and ethical movements such as Chartism and the Suffragist movement (setting the blueprint for working conditions and human rights worldwide) I believe we stand at a similar junction here in 2017. I know I am not alone when I say I suffer from ‘fast-fashion-fatigue’. Mass produced, poor quality items have become nauseating as they continue to flood the high street. As the British people continue this moment of introspection and analysis I hope they take a moment to thoroughly examine what traits they would like to see as a defining feature in their future.
In my first article Functionality vs The Aesthetic, I explain that when you take the etymology of the word ‘fashion’ back to its Latin roots, the word ‘facere – to make’ is found. Making things is what we do. Making things well is what makes us British. I hope that as our politicians assemble to negotiate the best possible deals for our future, that they will recognise this fact. I’m sure I will return to this topic in the future. But until next time…
Work In Fashion
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