The middle market in British clothing is a dangerous No Man's Land

EDITOR'S BLOG: High end is the only way to go for UK clothing manufacturers.

by Matthew Gwyther
Last Updated: 05 Nov 2015

Two announcements from different sectors of the clothing game yesterday. Firstly, the middle market and M&S, where good news about its clobber is pretty rare these days. Although margins are up, the like-for-like numbers in clothing and homewear in stores fell 6% in the first half. Three executives in as many years have tried in vain to turn around the M&S clothing business without much visible success. Everyone has an opinion about M&S clothing and, unfortunately, not enough of them are currently terribly encouraging.

Secondly, on a brighter note at the upper end of the market, Burberry said it was planning a new £50m investment in a brand factory in Yorkshire as it seeks to ensure that its gabardine trench coat will continue to be made in Britain. This is what it terms ‘investing in the heritage of the future.’

A guy or a gal can spend well over a grand on a Burberry trench coat. In contrast, there are currently ten versions on the M&S website nearly all on sale with massive discounts, the cheapest at £55.20. I know which game I’d rather be in. (Primark probably does one for £19.99.)

I used to buy some clothes from M&S and not just the legendary boxers about which Jeremy Paxman got his knickers in such a twist.  Ten years back I got an Autograph suit and used to have a go at their knitwear. But now I just buy their sandwiches if a Pret is unavailable. As far as everyday utilitarian clothing goes  now I visit Uniqlo or Muji - turning Japanese without realising it - although for some bizarre reason moths seem to regard the former’s knitwear as Beluga caviar. Can’t stuff their greedy faces with enough of it.

It’s an understatement to remark that our textile industry isn’t what it was. Vast quantities of M&S gear used to be made in the North and Northern Ireland but not any more. At the lower end of the market the sweatshops of Bangladesh, Cambodia and Vietnam have grabbed the lot.

If we’re going to get anywhere making clothes in Britain it has to be with the likes of the thousand quid trenchcoat. One area in which we still excel, though, is proper men’s shoes, benchmade in Northampton. Decent shoes are just about the one thing I’m willing to spend serious money on in the clothing department. I first bought a pair of Cheaney shoes for the appalling sum of about £130 more than twenty years ago. I still have them.

Now I’ve got Grensons, Church’s - which is owned by Prada, incidentally - and even Crockett & Jones, although not the showy model worn by James Bond.  One day I will treat myself to a pair of Lobbs, the Bugatti of the shoe world. One day.

Before you write me off as some sad, male Imedla Marcos, these shoes are not only smart, but also durable and very eco because they are built to be repaired. The best ones are made with Goodyear welted soles, a process that involves approximately 75 components and 200 separate operations. The whole thing, from start to finish, takes eight weeks to complete. The main benefit of the Victorian Goodyear technique is that the welted construction can be pulled off and then resoled repeatedly, giving the shoe a longer lifespan.

Vast quantities of cheap clothing winds up in landfill every year and cheap, foreign-made shoes are no exception. A good shoe can change your life. Just ask Cinderella.

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