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Suits you? Industry Trends in Contemporary Tailoring
Feature: 27/10/2011

Speakers from Savile Row and the UK high street joined forces with some of the tailoring industry’s foremost specialists at the ASBCI tailoring seminar ‘Suits you? Industry trends in contemporary tailoring’ to share their vision, innovations and concerns with nearly 100 delegates from across the sector. Delegates heard that while the top end of the ‘Savile Row’ tailoring world and ‘Made in Britain’ quality labels are thriving, the mass market is facing an off-shore sourcing crisis as China’s tailored exports drop from 70 to 30 per cent as they seek to meet the demands of its increasingly affluent and aspirational indigenous consumers. Combined with increased labour and freight costs, China and other off-shore sourcing hot spots, such as India and Bangladesh, are becoming less attractive and some tailoring suppliers are starting to look at bringing production back-shore to the UK.

Julie King, head of department fashion & textiles at De Montfort University opened the seminar in her capacity as ASBCI event director and welcomed the keynote speaker David Ward, head cutter at Huntsman bespoke tailoring on Savile Row. He explained how an uncompromising attention to detail and “clothing excellence” has helped Huntsman retain its position as one of Britain’s best bespoke tailors.

While it continually adapts to customers’ requirements it does not follow the dictates of trends: “When it comes to Savile Row, Darwin’s theory of evolution doesn’t apply”, he said. In 2002, Huntsman did enter into a design partnership with Alexander McQueen in an attempt to: “get hip”, but it was short lived. Indeed in subsequent years McQueen returned as a customer: “He came back to be influenced, not the influencer”. David Ward believes the future of Savile Row tailors depends on their being: “Cutting edge not Dickensian and dowdy.” To perpetuate the skills base and core values of tailoring Savile Row Bespoke, SRB, was established in 2004. It set up an academy to run two vocational tailoring apprenticeships; an 18 and a 32 week apprenticeship run in conjunction with London College of Fashion, where young tailors can learn their craft from the masters. He believes this will help tailors succeed regardless of recessions by: “Maintaining the very high standards of craftsmanship that we are famous for.”

Ed Gribbin, president of apparel fit expert, Alvanon Inc showed how he helped Umberto Angeloni, founder and chairman of Uman, the Italian menswear tailor, turn his vision of a men’s premium off-the-peg tailored clothing line into a commercial and hugely successful reality. Umberto Angeloni knew he wanted to make his clothes for the wealthy, self-made, 30 to 45 year old, fit but not athletic man but he: “didn’t have the first idea how to fit this man.” Alvanon drew on its database of over 300,000 3D consumer body scans and identified some 3,000 shapes from London, Milan and Paris that “matched” Uman’s target consumer profile. From the average shape data Alvanon generated a 3D profile of the ‘Uman’ man and a physical ‘fit’ mannequin. The mannequin was such a powerful image that it became the centre piece of Uman’s showroom in Milan and its stores around the world. Despite its premium price points Uman has grown “by triple digits in its first three years.”

Sandra Hill, creative design director consultant to such labels as Paul Smith and Christopher Kane agreed that: “you have to start with a clearly defined vision” and this can come from an “alchemy of different influences”. Drawing on her experience as design director with Paul Smith she took delegates through the process of establishing a successful new collection within a brand. Inspired by a 1950’s tailored riding jacket found in a market, Sandra Hill set about developing an identity for a new Paul Smith ladies wear collection. The original owner’s name, Lady Leigh, was sewn into the jacket and the name of the new Paul Smith collection was born. The design team tracked down the ancestral home, Stoneleigh Abbey in Warwickshire, of the original ‘Lady Leigh’ who became the muse for the entire collection. Family photographs helped inform the designs and Lady Leigh’s own signature was replicated on the collection’s label. A 1950’s silk scarf bought in a vintage shop in Paris then inspired the colour palette for the collection.


Inspiration and vision are also the drivers for some of the most beautiful super-fine suit fabrics in the world made by Bower Roebuck, part of the Scabal Group. Raymond Ellis, head of design at Bower Roebuck has to design two new fabric collections a year and two new cloth innovations each season. He explained: “In 1997 when I joined the company I was asked to produce a range of fabrics based on 12 original paintings by Salvador Dali hanging in Scabal’s showroom in Brussels.” Some years later Scabal’s chief executive officer came across diamond dust as a by-product of diamond cutting – he instructed the spinners to incorporate the diamond dust into a super-fine luxury fabric. Most recently Bower Roebuck produced a fabric containing Lapis Lasuli, a gemstone famed for its healing and stress relieving properties and a new range of 80 percent Mohair and 20 percent silk blend fabric. The latter is enjoying its second season with Prada. He concluded: “Things are always changing. Go for it and try something different!”


Paula Cannon, head of design & technical manager, Incorporatewear knows all about adapting to change. As she explained: “Changes in corporate clothing are driven by numerous external influences such as equality, the environment, practicability, modesty, safety, fit for purpose and textile development…We must get it right as errors could result in staff walk outs.” In addition to feedback from wearer focus group, online forums such as cabincrew.com and facebook/twitter and intranet sites to inform its design decisions, Incorporatewear is constantly looking for fabric innovations that could improve its garments. “Such fabric innovations as nano, non-crease, multi-functional and easy care have had a massive impact on our designs,” she explained. In particular the ‘second skin dress’ that emits scents, ‘bamboo charcoal’ fabrics that energise, ‘light emitting textiles’ for night and safety wear and ‘integrated technology’ textiles with audio and other systems embedded into garments are all finding applications in the corporate and workwear arena.


Jaspal Calotier, managing director of Wensum Tailoring also tackled change with a chilling message to any company in the tailoring supply chain who fails to adapt quickly enough to new operating challenges; specifically in their sourcing strategies. Wensum resisted moving its Norwich-based manufacturing site off-shore to China, the centre for mass market tailoring, until 2005 and initially reaped the benefits of low cost labour. “In the early days we were welcomed by the Chinese with open arms...we were the rich uncles and they responded quickly and flexibly.”

 

However, that is all changing. Whereas China was exporting 70 per cent of its tailored product to the EU, US and Japan this has now dramatically dropped to 30 per cent. As the Chinese consumer has become more aspirational so domestic production has adapted to meeting its indigenous consumer needs.

 

 

This has driven up-front payments to guarantee production space and quality issues as production is outsourced to anonymous, inferior factories and excessive reliance on overtime. Brands and retailers are losing control of the process. Furthermore the aspirations of Chinese parents are seeing children being directed to the service, technology and automotive industries as: “the garment industry is a long way down the pecking order of desirable occupations.” The result is forcing up wages in the garment sector. The obvious step is to look elsewhere but even in countries such as Bangladesh there are labour shortages and labour costs have risen by 87 per cent as a result while India has employment legislation issues and the economy “doesn’t make it easy” for western businesses. Combined with spiralling freight costs and fluctuations in global economies, any company still operating off-shore would be well advised to consider the alternatives. Wensum is looking to bring its production capability back to the UK where it still has its production equipment. The allure of shorter lead times, better quality product, transparency in the supply-chain and the kudos of a ‘made in England’ label are driving its ambitions for the company back-shore. To this end over a two to three year period it is looking at attracting its former workforce back and establishing an apprentice scheme.


Nathan Helfgott, managing director, AAK Limited, men’s tailoring and outerwear manufacturer gave a presentation on behalf of Marks & Spencer, which sells more than 20 per cent of all off-the-peg tailored suits sold in the UK. M&S is at the forefront of innovation for the tailoring sector. In 2001 it launched the first washable wool blend suit which was followed in 2004 by the first crease resistant, quick recover travel suit. More recently it added the water repellent Stormwear™ suit. Recent increases in the price of raw materials, especially wool, have driven suit suppliers to experiment with new blends. The result is a resurgence in poly/viscose blends which have helped brands and retailers keep their price points low. Nathan Helfgott is optimistic about the future. The recession he argued has put the emphasis back on “looking smart” with dress down Friday’s less popular while celebrities sporting designer suits are influencing a nation of tailoring consumers. He concluded: “Value for quality, not cheap, is the key driver in the retail world of tailoring.”


First of the seminar’s technical presentations came from Eddie Jones, UK nomination manager for Kufner Textil GmbH, a leading global producer of interlinings. He observed: “As the quality of fabrics used to make some mass market suits gets worse the role of the interlining becomes ever more crucial.” In addition to giving tailored garments their shape and stability, Kufner’s interlining innovations, made from renewable, natural or recycled fibres, are beginning to add value to the physical appearance of clothing. New on the market is the ‘colour-up’ visible interlining that is designed to be seen. It is available with a selection of pre-printed colourful designs or they can be printed with a bespoke design. There is also X-Shield, an interlining that gives 99.9999 per cent shielding efficiency from the electromagnetic radiation associated with mobile phones. There are also technical, ultra-light haute couture and outdoor interlinings.


Continuing the technical theme, Edgar Hartmann, sales manager with Dürkopp Adler AG talked delegates through some of the fastest, most flexible and reliable automated sewing machine systems in the world. With a range comprising everything from a programmable run stitching machine for small parts such as garment flaps and waistbands that can sew up to 2,400 seams in 480 minutes to a machine that automatically closes up to 450 trousers side and in-seams in 480 minutes, Dürkopp Adler has a machine for every function. Its sewing systems require low to medium operator skill, short training periods while optimising productivity, uniform seam quality and flexibility through its pre-programmable seam parameters.


Bill Reece, director of textile development, Macpi UK and Stefano Singuaroli, area sales manager, Macpi Group, gave delegates the edited highlights of automated and semi-automated pressing systems that can be adapted to over 3,500 garment pressing permutations by using the correct pressing accessories. Macpi, celebrating its 50th anniversary, cautioned that the consistency achieved by its pressing systems is: “Better than the best human presser where fatigue has a significant impact on the quality of garment pressing in the space of a few hours.” They also highlighted the crucial importance of under pressing at the preparation stage of garment assembly which must be done properly or the final pressing will be severely compromised. They concluded that by using the correct pressing solutions for specific garment areas, users can achieve: “accurate pressing not crushing!”


The seminar concluded with Tim Grice, director, Johnson Cleaners, a division of JSG plc. As the UK’s largest commercial after care garment cleaner, Johnson’s cleans over 1.3 million suits a year. He explained how changes in consumer lifestyles have impacted the garment aftercare sector. Although: “Pale ale and brown sauce has been replaced by Merlot and Mayonnaise – C&A by Hugo Boss and Paul Smith,” most stains are still water based and require simple cleaning processes.

Johnson’s cleaning preference is ‘Green Earth’ – a process exclusive to them in the UK with no impact on the environment and with a major benefit for brands, retailers and consumers alike: it will clean garments that have a mix and match of fabrics and accessories. “Green Earth is so gentle it will look after the family heirlooms” said Tim Grice. The future is all about making ‘suit’ cleaning more accessible to the consumer. Johnson’s is currently investing in ‘modular cleaning units’ located in easy access retail car parks and ‘Drive-thru’ stay-in-your-car cleaning outlets located in former petrol forecourts.

 

Author: Catherine Christie
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