The UK boasts a world class fashion education system and is undoubtedly the centre of creativity, yet fashion and accessory designers face a high failure rate, and in many cases, never even manage to get their brands off the ground. So why is this?
One of the key barriers to success is the difficulty they have in finding manufacturers prepared to produce small quantities for them. This is something I hear time and time again, particularly from those attending our popular ‘Getting it Made’ workshops, which aim to help designers develop production management skills.
When mentoring fashion start-ups, we impress upon them the importance of adopting an MPV (Minimum Product Viability) strategy, so they can test the market to minimise the financial risk. In addition the traditional fashion buying cycle is being disrupted and consumer buying patterns are changing. The wholesale model is also becoming increasingly difficult and not a viable sales channel for a micro or small and medium enterprises. As a result, a brand’s main route to market is often selling direct to the consumer, and therefore not producing on the back of confirmed orders from retailers.
This change does provide a welcome opportunity, and providing the designer has a good collection and a strong marketing strategy, technology allows them to set up quickly without incurring big overheads. It’s now very possible to become a global brand from your kitchen table! However this model can only work if they can get small quantities made, gauge what’s selling, and replenish stock accordingly.
There is also a growing market for customisation of clothing and accessories, as consumers look to buy unique product. This enables a fashion brand to differentiate themselves from their competition, but again it means they need to find manufacturers prepared to be responsive to new forms of flexible production, and be willing to keep up to date and engage with new technologies.
Another challenge is that designers are often keen to produce close to home, for both practical and ethical reasons. They want to be sure that their garments are produced under fair conditions and with minimal environmental impact. Consumers increasingly want to buy fewer, but higher quality products, and expect transparency of supply chain. Even small scale manufactures need to be prepared to be audited, to confirm their compliance to satisfy the core values of both brand and consumer.
Taking London as an example, it holds a high concentration of fashion manufacturers in a small geographical area, many of whom are small and medium enterprises delivering high quality services to high end luxury brands. You would think therefore it would be relatively easy for a London based designer to find a manufacturing partner. Unfortunately, although there are many examples of manufacturers working successfully with designer and meeting their requirements, overall there is a big gap in provision.
Of course manufactures have their own challenges as they struggle to increase their capacity with a lack of highly skilled sample and production machinists, as well as the finance needed to investment in technology. They can also find it difficult working with small and medium enterprises – time consuming as designers don’t always have the necessary skills to communicate effectively with them.
The good news is there is some light at the end of the tunnel. It’s encouraging seeing a growing number of UK manufacturers set up (as seen at the recent Meet the Manufacturer exhibition in London) and the UKFT (UK Fashion and Textile Association) has launched a skills and training division to tackle the skills shortage and offer support to manufacturers.
The increasing availability of open access work spaces such as Makeversity and Building Bloqs with specialist equipment and the latest technology are seeing a new generation of fashion-start-ups using 3D printing/scanning, as well as laser cutting to produce samples and small runs of products themselves, and thus take control.
There are also a number of innovative online platforms recently launched, and more in development (including the TCBL project), aiming to match small fashion brands with suitable suppliers and manufacturers.
These developments, along with more manufacturers prepared to be flexible and embrace change, will hopefully become valuable sourcing tools for designers and offer solutions that will help them start- up, and then grow, in to successful brands.