Fox Brothers has been unusually busy of late; the company has become a destination for what it does and it is known throughout the fashion industry. Perhaps unexpectedly, it is not a fashion brand but a manufacturer of woollen and worsted cloths – and usually exists in the shadows. ‘We’ve had both individuals and fashion companies come here because of real interest in quality that can be traced back to an individual maker,’ says Douglas Cordeaux, owner of Fox, which was established in 1772 in Wellington, Somerset, in the south-west of England.
Old meets new
This growing interest in provenance as a benchmark of quality means purchasers want to know not just what a garment or accessory is made from, but by whom and where – and Fox has parlayed provenance into its own brand, the Merchant Fox, which offers products that include bags and ties; clothing will be added in September. Young British fashion brands such as Private White VC and CroJack are also the products of generations-old manufacturers.
‘British manufacturers are becoming brands in their own right,’ says Cordeaux, who is now also working with other little-known British manufacturers, such as Dawes, from Nelson, Lancashire, in the north west, on the development of cotton cloths. ‘Look at the rise of Harris Tweed. The British have long made niche products beautifully. That gives an added appeal to many of these British makers – to own their products is like owning a piece of history.’
Crafted to perfection
Many British manufacturers have an unrivalled reputation for expertise in a certain specialism, one which perhaps draws Chanel to British makers. Underwear brand Sunspel makes garments for a number of well-known companies, and Mackintosh produces its famous macs not just under its own name but also for Louis Vuitton, Balenciaga and Yohji Yamamoto. At Johnstons of Elgin’s mill, founded in 1797 and located near Inverness in Scotland, wool and cashmere pieces are crafted for some of fashion’s biggest names, from Chanel and Louis Vuitton to Christopher Kane and Louise Gray. ‘You feel well taken care of at somewhere like Johnstons,’ says Kane. ‘You’re in safe hands.’
John Smedley, established in 1784 and based at Lea Mills in Derbyshire in the UK’s East Midlands, has a global reputation for its lightweight merino and Sea Island cotton knitwear, which it makes for the likes of Paul Smith and Margaret Howell. ‘One Mr Bertelli recently told his team to find the world’s best-makers of polo shirts, so we suddenly had an entourage from Prada at our door,’ says managing director Ian Maclean. ‘There may be not as many British manufacturers as there were 50 years ago, but those that are left have an amazing reputation for what they do.’
Attitudes have also changed, he notes. ‘Just 10 years ago it was all about the brand or logo. Now people want what they buy to feel as though it is located in the heart of somewhere. It works for other countries and other products: for cars it’s Germany, for watches it’s Switzerland. But for clothing there is prestige in that heartland being in Britain.’
History, specialism, the ‘patriotic purchase’ led by country of origin, are playing well with growing companies and much smaller designer-makers as well as brand giants.
Making Britain great
Christopher Kane makes much of his collections in the UK, as does designer Oliver Spencer, around 40% of whose collection is British-made, with his Favourbrook tailoring brand made entirely in Britain. ‘There is a pride to making here, of course,’ says Spencer. ‘And if you can make it work, why not do it here and not in Hong Kong? In cloths and outwear especially, British making still leads the way. And more shoppers are asking for British-made products.’
Shoe designer Rachel Jones of Rae Jones shoes will later this year launch her new leather bag brand Buckitt, made in the Manchester factory where, until recently, Mulberry made some of its bags. ‘In part that’s about helping sustain home-grown industry,’ she explains. ‘But it’s also about utilising the years of technical expertise here, which have given Britain a world-class crafts base.’
Mark Henderson, chairman of Savile Row tailors Gieves & Hawkes, last December co-founded the New Craftsmen, which promotes craftsmanship from the British Isles, arranging bespoke commissions and small-batch production. The new organisation touches on furniture and ceramics but also jewellery and textiles. Its chosen craftspeople include embroidery designer Aimee Betts, who uses digital and laser-cutting techniques to make her pieces, some of which take up to 100 hours to produce, including those in a recent collaboration for Daks.
Print designer Charlotte Linton, whose printed scarves are made at the Glasgow School of Art, is also on the New Craftsmen roster. ‘One great thing about making here is that a lot of older manufacturers are still up with the latest technology too,’ says Linton. ‘Manufacturing here may have a long tradition but we’re not stuck in the past.’