Many years ago garment manufacturers could be found in abundance in Wales. One by one they have closed up shop, as the work has been taken overseas. Now only one corporatewear manufacturer remains. P&P editor Melanie Attlesey reports.
It makes for sorry listening, when MD of First Corporate Clothing, Mal Davies, begins to list all of the garment manufacturers that have left Wales in recent years.
Dewhirst, which once boasted five plants in Wales, shut its last factory in 2002 resulting in the loss of 168 jobs and more than 1,400 in total. Dewhirst was badly affected when their major customer from the high street withdrew its orders, taking the work overseas instead.
In February 2009, women’s clothing manufacturer Alexon shut its doors for the last time. All manufacturing at the site was moved overseas in 2003 with the loss of 190 jobs, but around 35 staff were kept on to run a fabric warehousing and storage facility, testing laboratory and a clearance shop on site until it closed eight years ago.
The most recent garment manufacturer to leave Wales was Robinson Webster Production, which once manufactured clothing for high-end fashion brands such as Jigsaw. The Neath factory was closed in 2014, resulting in the loss of 34 jobs.
Bucking the trend
However, Port Talbot-based First Corporate Clothing is bucking the trend and has remained true to its UK manufacturing heritage.
Formed in 1998 by Mal, whose background lies in high street fashion, First Corporate Clothing employs 20 machinists who manufacture everything from a ladies blouse, to a shirt or jacket through to bespoke pieces of corporatewear. The level and the skill of these workers is extremely high, and Mal says it can take six months to train someone to learn how to sew together a blouse, before even learning how to sew a pair of trousers.
However, it is a skill set which Mal says is declining among the youth of the UK as many school leavers do not see this line of work as a viable career path. “It’s not like Coronation Street, where you can take someone from the café to work straight away in the factory. These machinists are highly skilled professionals,” he adds.
To stress the benefits that companies can expect when working with UK garment manufacturers, Mal refers to a blouse made for a prominent high street retailer that he says around 15 years ago could be seen at every Christmas party up and down the country. Given the popularity of the garment, local factories could turn it around really quickly to replenish stock, something which an overseas factory would now struggle to do.
Mal explains: “Now retailers have to predict fashions and commit to stock well in advance. When you take manufacturing overseas response times go down and these days factories in the Far East are no longer price competitive.”
A true corporatewear specialist
As the name suggests First Corporate Clothing is a specialist in the manufacture of corporatewear. Clients include those in the hospitality, banking and front of house sectors. At present the company is working with the Royal Albert Hall for a complete uniform redesign.
Over the years the company has become an expert in its field and manages well the hurdles that come with manufacturing corporatewear, for it is a whole different ball game to manufacturing for the high street.
When manufacturing for the high street factories are only required to consider garments, generally speaking, for one gender or age bracket. However, for the corporatewear market a designer has to consider making a stock range that is flexible for all ages, genders and sizes.
The fabrics used are also completely different. Garments on the high street are not designed for longevity, whereas a corporate uniform needs to have both washability and durability.
This is where First Corporate Clothing comes into its own. Mal says that his company’s USP is the design team. This small, but highly skilled team has decades of experience. They have created a stock range of corporate clothing that not only meets the demands of wearers, but is stylish too. The design team will also work on a one-to-one basis with clients to either bespoke the stock range to suit or to redesign a new uniform from scratch.
Once a design has been confirmed, it moves into the factory to come to fruition. First the roll of chosen fabric is laid out in layers on a table, depending upon how many of each size are to be made. Then a paper template of each segment of the garment is pinned on top of the layers of fabric and then cut out by hand.
The pieces of cut out fabric are then passed through several machinists, who sew the garment together, with each machinist adding another piece to the jigsaw puzzle before the final garment is complete. It is then labelled proudly with a Designed and Made in Great Britain swing ticket tag.
On an average week, the machinists can manufacturer around 600-800 garments.
To keep up with the changing corporatewear market, First Corporate Clothing has had to alter what products it manufactures. Until five years ago the company only specialised in ladies wear. “We underwent a huge retraining programme with our staff so they could manufacture menswear as well. We saw an opening in the UK market and decided to take it. Needless to say I wasn’t very popular for a few months! But the end result is that we have a team of multi-skilled machinists who can put their hand to anything. It also gives us complete flexibility as a business, after all why would you source uniforms for your female staff from one manufacturer and uniforms for your male staff from another?” says Mal.
Around 70% of the fabrics that are used in the factory are sourced from UK fabric houses, and this is because the business has to ensure a constant and seamless supply of fabric to ensure quick turnaround times. The remaining 30% of fabrics are imported from Sri Lanka.
It is this process of importing from overseas that worried many UK businesses, when the result of the Brexit referendum was announced in June last year. The only effect on business that First Corporate Clothing has seen since the vote, was the immediate fluctuation in prices.
General manger, Kirstee David, explains: “The garments that we import are bought in US dollars or the Euro. We saw an instant 10% increase in prices the night of Brexit. In some cases since we have seen a 15-20% increase in prices from our suppliers who manufacture overseas.
“As we agree long-term contracts in advance based on price, we have had to take a bit of a hit or spend a long time renegotiating on price to hit a certain price point. For our customers our main catalogue prices haven’t altered.”
It is this great level of service that First Corporate Clothing provides for its customers, that lies behind the success of the business.
Some clients have been working with First Corporate Clothing for as long as 10 years and highly rate the dedicated service that the company provides. Each client is allocated a dedicated account manager, who becomes their main point of contact throughout the manufacturing process.
“The set-up that we have in our factory, gives a better service. We don’t gain contracts purely on the basis that we are a UK manufacturer, we gain them because of the excellent level of service we can offer. Companies like the comfort factor of working with us,” says Mal.
He continues: “Companies that have taken their manufacturing offshore have lost their flexibility. They receive a poor service after the initial roll-out, they are put off by large order quantities and how difficult it is to reorder stock. These are not issues they face when working with us.”
Let’s hope that many more retailers and businesses realise the benefits of working with UK garment manufacturers and the industry begins to see a resurgence in skills and work.