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New Labour

Posted by Gary Newbold on 30th Sep 2021

The title of this article suggests I was about to write or rant a political viewpoint but no. For want of a better heading, I wanted to describe how we make things.

In 2018, I decided that the strategy and direction of the brand needed to change. I had started out in 2012 and had used a conventional business model of making a collection, forecasting sales and then using overseas factories to make our production. If you are a small brand like us, this is fraught with difficulties. Your orders are small and so you pay more, you often get pushed to the back of the queue by factories and often you are forced to buy more than you actually need to meet production minimums, which then results in stock issues for which the only remedy is to have massive discount sales. Nothing wrong with sales because only the consumer benefits, but it is a terrible waste and often the consumer that purchased at full price has technically paid the profit for the person that buys at sale price as well. 

I wasn't really happy with this business model and in hindsight it's surprising that I allowed myself to slip into it. Following my six years as head of designer Barbour, I somehow blanked it from my mind that actually I knew how to design, make patterns and cut and prepare fabric for product to be made. I had slipped into a world of conceptually designing on paper and then giving it to others to put into a spreadsheet and send on to a factory. Then it was this light bulb moment that I experienced in 2018 and remembered I could do all of this and so why the heck wasn't I?!

What's more, the brand is called English Utopia and it seemed increasingly obvious that we should be making our own products as collectively we possess the know-how to do it. I was also becoming uneasy about fast fashion so-called and the breathtaking mileages and fuel used to ship  goods all over the world from factories in the Far East, over to Europe and America and in some cases back again!

So at this time the brand was kind of reborn. I rented a small workshop here in York (we are now onto our second workshop) and then got cracking with making my own patterns again. A bit rusty to start with but it soon came back. The second thing I wanted to address was at what niche or level I really wanted the brand to be at and as I have only enjoyed working with the worlds best fabrics all of my life, it is being at the high end that really interests me. Small but beautiful mills who allow to buy from their stock and don't try and overburden you with more yards or metres than you need. This was the second part of the jigsaw.

Thirdly I needed to address how I was going to make my own products. I had the workshop, the designs, the patterns and access to the best fabrics. I knew that there were a lot of extremely skilled machinists, tailors and technicians out there that had become disenchanted with our industry. Less than ideal factory conditions with low pay that didn't really reflect their abilities. I spoke to several to find out why they had left the industry and these are the things that I was told.

I suggested that if they possessed an industrial sewing machine at home and that they could work the hours they preferred and of course, the pay reflected the high skills that they possess, would it be something they could be interested in? Many of them said yes and this is how we have now built up an army of skilled labour to make our products. They are spread across the whole country and each week they receive a bundle of carefully cut and prepared work to make and return the following week so that it can be inspected before sending out. Everybody works to the same standard using the same specifications. Then we also have a small amount of labour in house for anything urgent that may be required. 

For many skilled machinists, it has given them a new lease of life. They can work in an environment where they are happy without a grumpy supervisor breathing down their neck, verbally whipping them to work faster and of course, if they have other commitments such as children, even other jobs, they can organise their own time. This model also became extremely good form during lockdown.

From a financial perspective they are better off and it means that we can survive by only offering product at the high end of the market. Our machinists are paid per jacket and fortunately we have enough work to keep them going. Some weeks they can only make one and some weeks they can make ten, but it is up to them. The beautiful thing for us, is that we don't need to create volume sales just to feed the insatiable appetite of a big business with factory overheads. The only way to create volume realistically, is to cheapen quality and price so that the numbers increase but to what end I ask?

So whilst I entitled the article 'New Labour', it is actually a very old-fashioned way of working and many of the luxury high-end brands that we know today started out in this way. With a commitment to high-quality and no compromise on raw materials and price. Not making it cheaper just to feed the machine.

So that's English Utopia and how we do it.