To the untrained eye, it may look like a bunch of under-nourished teenagers prancing around in expensive dresses. But, as this year’s London Fashion Week gets underway, fashion has never been more serious business. And as the UK’s flagship brands go from strength to strength, despite the downturn, is Made in Britain about to stage a dramatic return to the catwalk?
We’ll start with the numbers: the British Fashion Council reckons LFW contributed £21bn a year directly to the economy - £37bn indirectly. The industry supports 816,000 jobs and accounts for 1.7% of GDP – which makes it twice as big as the publishing and chemical industries, and about the same size as the telecoms industry. Each season, over £100m worth of orders are placed – and most crucially of all, £74bn of those come from abroad.
That popularity overseas is reflected in the results of British flag-fliers like Mulberry, which in December reported recession-busting profits of £15.6m, more than three times the figure from the previous year. The brand maintained that that was down to its popularity in Asia, where it had signed a 10-year deal with distributor Club 21. And it’s the same story for British brand Burberry, which posted a 21% rise in fourth-quarter sales last month – again, because of its operations in Asia.
But while British brands are reaping the rewards of their popularity among Asia’s increasingly wealthy middle classes, the benefits to the wider UK economy aren’t quite as good as they could be. Because although they’re based in the UK, the majority of their products are still made in – you guessed it – China (including MT’s £600 Mulberry handbag. But we won’t go on about that...). And while the Government desperately trying to promote export as the key to recovery (not least among fashion brands – Jimmy Choo co-founder Tamara Mellon is one of David Cameron’s export ambassadors), we’re still missing out on the jobs and other financial benefits we’d be reaping if the clothes were manufactured here.
But that could all be about to change. Having cut the ribbon, Sir Philip Green – Topshop owner and LFW’s ‘gruff sugar daddy’ told the FT that, with wages in China rising, it’s increasingly making business sense to bring manufacturing back to the UK. ‘We ourselves are manufacturing more goods in the UK,’ he said. ‘If we can help get more capacity here, I believe most retailers would tell you there is now the opportunity to be more competitive and produce in the UK.’ It’s a similar story elsewhere: Mulberry, for example, received a £2.5m grant from the regional growth fund late last year to build a new factory in Somerset, creating 250 skilled jobs in the process.
So the tides, they are a-changing. Which means with any luck, the next time MT scrapes together enough cash to return to Mulberry’s hallowed halls, the fruits of its labour will bear that increasingly coveted ‘Made in Britain’ label...
As an example of the challenges faced by British fashion exporters, here's a look at label Fyodor Golan: