The term 'fast fashion' might conjure up factories in low-cost countries churning out 100’s of product lines to customers on the other side of world, only for the items to be worn once and destined for landfill; but the phrase increasingly refers to the acceleration and compression of the process from design to consumer.
With this in mind, The Manufacturer explores whether fast fashion represents the future for British textile manufacturing?
Less than half a century ago, clothing manufacture in the UK employed 900,000 people; by 1999 this was down to 130,000.
A century ago there were more than 2,000 textile mills in the North of England, but now only a handful remain.
In the 1950s, there were 80 footwear factories in Northamptonshire producing 20 million pairs of shoes annually; now, there are fewer than a dozen.
The most recent figures (via Fashion United) puts the current UK apparel manufacturing workforce at 34,000 (with a further 5,000 employed in the manufacturing of footwear).
How can we fix the industry which Britain once championed?
Kate Hills, founder of Make it British – a company dedicated to linking up British textile manufacturers to potential retailers, spoke to The Manufacturer about fast fashion.
Hills said: “I hear of brands going into manufacturers and taking a model with them, trying on various samples that have been made at the factory, taking photographs of the model in those samples, getting them on social media and then seeing which one gets the best reaction.”
The items with the best reactions, the most likes and engagements at that time, are ordered immediately for the factory to make, with the turnaround measured in weeks, not months, Hill explained.
This speed of delivery is all thanks to the adoption of digital production lines, which connect designers, manufacturers, retailers and consumers in one unified value chain – this is ‘fast fashion’, said Hill.
A faster turn around could revive the sector
In an era of online fashion giants such as Boohoo, Missguided and Forever21, digital shopping is booming; hundreds of styles are uploaded every day to websites and just as many are discontinued and sent to the sales page.
Founded in Manchester in 2006, Boohoo continues to grow rapidly. More than 100 new styles are uploaded daily and the site in 2017 had 5.2 million users; this figure is up by a staggering 29% on the previous year.
The company reportedly sources 50% of its production from UK factories and distribute these garments from a central warehouse in Burnley, enabling the company to react to trends impressively quickly.
Speaking to The Manufacturer, Boohoo’s Katie Curran said: “We have a great manufacturing base that means we can deliver products with a short turnaround.
“In addition, we source our products from the UK which means that we can dramatically reduce transportation times and of course, this means we are not air-freighting or shipping these particular items into market.”
Being able to respond to trends faster enables the customer to have the product they want, when they want it, something that could only be done via locally-based supply chains.
Furthermore, the immediacy of feedback offered through social media and photo sharing sites such as Instagram has become increasingly central to produce styles quicker than ever, as the retailer knows from user engagement and faster digital feedback loops whether the product is popular.
Hills, of Make it British, commented that in her previous experience, retailers would develop their clothing from design to store, which could take up to a year. By which time, she added: “If a customer wanted pink bikinis but the retailers only had blue ones, you were kind of stuffed.”
This resulted in many products being discounted and too often ending up in the bin.
Hills commented on how the industry has changed since she began her career as a fashion buyer: “We moved everything overseas, this was 15 or 20 years ago, and we have been making things offshore instead of locally, which meant prices have risen dramatically. If that carried on for another 20 years, there would be no resources left.”
Skills gap looms for textiles manufacturing
Hills said that lack of skills remains a major issue: “The problem is, brands like Zara have been able to make a lot locally in Spain, because they have a lot of the skills there, we have less of the skills in the UK now.
“Brexit has brought an extra dimension to the skills gap. Eastern Europe, for example, has previously been a very good source for machinists because they still teach it in universities. However, they are less likely to come to the UK now, because they don’t know what is happening over the long-term.”
Jenny Holloway is CEO of Fashion Enter, a centre of excellence for sampling, grading, production and development of skills within the fashion and textiles industry.
She told The Manufacturer: “The time has come to recognise the importance of technical skills, making sure garments fit properly, that they are merchantable quality and that the bulk corresponds with the sample.”
Curran added: “The industry will need to invest in technology, further up-skilling the workforce and, of course, manufacturers reinvesting back into their people.”
Boohoo, however, remains positive about its future in fast fashion. Curran said: “It is an extremely exciting time for the UK textile industry and fast fashion can act as the catalyst for future opportunities.”
Holloway also noted: “I think quality fast fashion that is ethically sourced is the way forward. If we can make it work, and we are based in London with our renting rate, without a doubt it should be a policy that flows through to the rest of the country.”
With the UK scheduled to depart the European Union in less than eight months, and concerns over the availability of skills and potential tariffs on trade escalating, reshoring production and investing to create a skilled domestic workforce could further fuel the textiles industry’s British revival.
Fast fashion doesn’t necessarily mean cheap, and it shouldn’t mean throwaway.
Rather, it represents agility and reacting swiftly to trends, tapping into “digital hangouts” via social media, leveraging eCommerce platforms, placing orders quickly and shipping products to consumers in a timely (yet sustainable) manner.
It also means ensuring that products are ordered in the correct amounts, one which satisfies demand without creating excess waste.
Curran commented on Boohoo’s attitude: “As with many other retailers, we have a part to play in ensuring there is not unnecessary waste. As a brand, we do stock a large amount of lines but initially we buy shallow depths and see how the sales of that item performs before doing rebuys.”
She added: “Just because we produce it quickly, doesn’t make it throwaway.”