In 2009 Dragon’s Den entrepreneur Deborah Meaden, along with business partner and former design director at Pepe Jeans Douglas Cordeaux, rescued the fortunes of a 240 year old Somerset textiles company. Fox Brothers holds a hugely important place in the story of British fabric production: they invented suiting flannel and developed the fabric we now know as khaki, a cloth that ultimately enabled the decommissioning of the British Army’s traditional red coats, the bright colour of which proved so deadly to soldiers in the first Boer war.
By 2009 Fox Brothers still occupied a niche market supplying high quality woollen cloth to Saville Row but the company was in trouble. It was hemorrhaging cash and its workforce had diminished from five thousand employees at its peak in the 1920s to just fifteen. Today, three years after Meaden’s and Cordeaux’s intervention, the company is flourishing and has planted itself firmly back in the centre of the community in the small town of Wellington, Somerset, a town that can now boast that it produces cloth for, amongst other companies, Louis Vuitton.
Meaden’s and Cordeaux’s purchase of Fox Brothers represents an increasing trend in British entrepreneurs investing in and creating businesses where the preservation of British design heritage is a core and inextricable value.
In stark contrast to Clarks, who felt that they had no choice but to move manufacturing to Asia in the 1990s, the other famous West Country leatherworkers, Mulberry, understand the importance of local craftsmanship and British production to their brand authenticity, identity and placement. Mulberry is now the only leather goods factory of its size in the UK and to say it is thriving is a huge understatement. Currently around 30% of their bags are made at their Somerset factory and the percentage is increasing year by year.
The forward thinking and entrepreneurial nature of Mulberry has ensured leather making skills in the West Country have survived. A new wave of entrepreneurs are seeking out defunct and dying industries specifically in order to breathe life back into them. Huit Denim has got the denim industry of Cardigan back up and running. Until the main factory closed down a few years ago, Cardigan was the home of British denim manufacture, producing 35,000 pairs of jeans a week. It is estimated that one in ten of the town’s population can make a decent pair of jeans.
But ensuring our skilled craftspeople remain employed isn’t enough, we need to pass the skills on to future generations. Mulberry has an award winning apprenticeship programme, a responsibility Clarks relinquished when it moved its manufacturing abroad. Fox Brothers have recently recruited two apprentices for its Somerset factory with help from ‘university outfitters’ Jack Wills.
Craftsmanship is just one part of the story. Sufficiently preserving our design heritage is also about architecture and machinery. Original BTC owner Peter Bowles and potter Emma Bridgewater both saved entire Staffordshire factories from disappearing and Fox Brothers is moving operations back to its original Victorian dye works and wet finishing mill. MYB Textiles in Scotland is now the only company in the world producing lace on original Nottingham Lace looms, having purchased them in 1913. The importance of preserving these historical machines and premises cannot be over-emphasised.
Entrepreneurial design companies are working hand in hand with traditional manufacturers ensuring they continue to thrive and remain relevant. Jack Wills produce their fresh, youthful spin on traditional British tailoring using Fox Flannel, taking the high quality cloth away from the stuffiness of Saville Row and introducing it to a new generation of devotees.
The lace used by Scottish design company Timorous Beasties is manufactured by MYB Textiles and two companies collaborated to create wallpaper for use in the film Sex And The City 2. The motif for the lace design wallpapers were taken from the 109-year-old lace company’s archive of 60,000 patterns and the laces were woven on the only 12 metre cast iron loom left in the world.
Companies such as Timorous Beasties and Jack Wills are not supporting traditional manufacturers out of philanthropy. Preserving design heritage is a core value of both companies and really it is just good business sense. By helping traditional manufacturers remain in business, they are ensuring they have access to the exceptionally high quality fabrics that make their products. Simply put, it is a case of ‘use it or lose it’. If traditional manufacturers do not survive, the design companies cannot use their products. The quality of their output will suffer and that affects all of us.
As consumers and designers our role is to passionately and wholeheartedly support our traditional manufacturers and the design companies that use them. We need to buy their products and spread the word and do our bit to make sure our design heritage is preserved. But not because of nostalgia, but because it will mean our homes and shops will be stocked with relevant, high quality, British made goods that represent our country and the heritage of which we are all so proud. For there is no distinction between what is good for us, good for local economies and good for our country as a whole.
Annabel Bird is an interior designer and student at KLC School of Design. Annabel writes the London lifestyle and design blog insideology (http://insideology.com). Follow her on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr or Pinterest.
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