Monday, 29 November 2021

Focus on Kate Hills Founder of Make It British

 

As we all navigate our way to more sustainable, ethical and environmentally friendly ways of living one of the ways we can do this is to buy local. We can all see on our food packaging where is it is being shipped in from and know the environmental impacts of that. But what about our clothing? Clothes made here like food grown here obviously have much less environmental impact. The Made in Britain label used to be cool (and it still is in some parts of the world) and it is Kate’s from Make it British mission to bring that back and at the same time to save UK manufacturing.

As we started our interview she said ‘I was flattered I was included in women working in sustainable fashion because there is a very strong link between manufacturing locally and it being sustainable.’

 

D: As with everyone I start asking, where did you grow up? Did you grow up in London?

 

K: Essex, Romford in Essex, I was there until I was 12 and then my parents moved to Croydon. So, all the classy places, laughs, not.

 

D: Do you have brothers and sisters?

 

K: I have one sister who is 2 years younger.

 

D: Was fashion something you were always interested in?

 

K: I was interested in fashion from when I was about 11 or 12 that’s when I first wanted to use a sewing machine and wanted to make my own clothes, being a New Romantic in the early 80’s was all about what you were wearing. That’s where I first got my interest in fashion, from Adam Ant.

 

D: He was great all the frills and swashbuckling.

 

K: He went to University at Middlesex university which is where I eventually went as well.

 

D: So you were making clothes before you went to Uni.

 

K: Gosh yeah, from about the age of 12 I had a sewing machine and was making clothes at home, and then at school. Dad was quite traditional, he was a bank manager, I wanted to do fashion, needlework as it was called at the time, needlework O’Level, this was before GCSE’s but it clashed on the time table with Physics. Dad made me do Physics O’Level saying said if I passed all of my O’Levels including my Physics I would be allowed to do needlework in the 6th form. So in the 6th form I went straight for Needlework A’level, Art and Maths because I also liked numbers, but I didn’t like Physics, (laughs).

I studied Fashion and Textiles for A’Level, they called it Textiles and dress back then. We properly learnt dressmaking, as part of the A’Level. I remember making a tailored suit out of Viella woollen cloth with a liberty print blouse. I’ve still got it somewhere, fully lined, beautifully tailored. We also learnt all about textile science. Then I went on to do a foundation course in Art and Design at Croydon College and a 3 year Fashion degree at Middlesex Poly.

 

D: Did you pattern cutting as well?

 

K: When I studied in the late 80’s, the first thing you did when you started whether you had ever made a garment before or not was to sew a waistcoat, a fully bagged out, satin backed waistcoat. It is one of the most complicated things to make. They give you the patterns, and we worked with a technician and got to use the industrial sewing machines. I could have left and got a job straight away in a factory because I was really good on the machines. They taught us pattern cutting, but it wasn’t one of my biggest strengths.

My final degree collection was childrenswear.

 

D: When you left University, you worked as a designer for a while.

 


K: When I left University in 1991, there was a recession. At the time I had a boyfriend who had been in the year above, he already had his own business making t-shirts, but wasn’t doing very well. I had gone for a few interviews, mainly for kids suppliers, for the high street, and realised I didn’t want to do that, as I had only finished studying fashion I really didn’t want to go work for some company doing someone else’s designs. So instead we started one of the UK’s first recycled clothing brands. We rather stupidly called it Catweasel Recycled Clothing. We used to buy old materials like blankets and curtains that sort of thing and sew up the clothes from them. At time I had an industrial sewing machine and had taught the boyfriend how to sew. We sold on Camden Market and it took off really, really quickly, then we had a shop in Portobello Green Arcade. To think that was 30 years ago and today here we were talking about the importance of recycling fabrics. I think the only other people at the time were Sarah Ratty who now does Ciel and has a label called Conscious Earth Wear she was more interested in the sustainable fabric side, while we were recycling, and Orsola de Castro was recycling out of cashmere. We had tonnes of press because it was a novel interesting idea. To think we were in Vogue back in 1992 and they were talking about recycling, now nearly 30 years on and the industry hasn’t achieved much, there are more people doing it now, but it was hard back then. We used to go to all the rag merchants who knew us very well. We would turn up in our Morris Minor van, and collect the best fabrics, we could see which designs were going to sell well, each one was a one off. As we grew we had a warehouse in Shoreditch that was our factory. We did our own laundering, had a gas-powered tumble drier and washing machine we had to wash all the fabric first and we had our own machinists on site too.

Back then it was easy to go to the local job centre in Islington put up a sign saying machinists needed. There were plenty of machinists then and we paid piece rate, which was quite a good wage then. We did that for about 3 or 4 years. Then my boyfriend and I split so it became more complicated to run the company. It was time to do something new.

 

So, I went and did the complete opposite, and got a job at Tammy Girl as their designer.

I went from having my own company with my own shop, appearing in Vogue and selling to celebrities to working as a designer for Tammy Girl, (laughs). The thing is I loved it, because it was a proper salary for once and we had buying and design trips all over the world. I had not been anywhere in my life before that, I think, maybe I had only flown to Paris once. It all seemed very glamourous. When I was at Tammy Girl the in-house design department worked directly with UK factories to supply the stores. I went from running my own factory to working with lots of other factories in the UK. I remember, if ever there was a problem with any of the designs or the patterns, I could pop on a bus up to Hackney to the factories that we worked with there. We had knitwear factories in Leicester and Manchester. We had tailoring and soft separates factories in North London and Hackney and if ever there was a problem I nipped straight into the factory and could quickly sort it out. The patterns were cut and graded in house at Tammy Girl. As a designer that was brilliant, I was really used to working with factories, going in there and seeing things being made. When the buying department would say we loved that suit, (at the time Tammy Girl had a real trend, everyone was buying these double breasted short sleeved funny little suits in pastel colours, they were really revolting, but they were an ongoing thing we would keep redoing in slightly different fabrics, different buttons and collar), but ‘we need it 20% cheaper”, because I had cut the pattern and because I was working directly with the factory, working out the lay of the pattern and how they were constructing it, it was really easy to negotiate with them and work out what we could do in the manufacturing process to achieve the desired cost. That is something I think is missing a lot these days with people who work in the big high street retailers, there is too much of a disconnect between the buying department and the manufacturer.  After a couple of years at Tammy I went to work for a company in Italy, in Como, called DC Shoes, they made shoes out of recycled materials. The soles of the shoes were from old tyres. It was good to go and work and experience working in another country, particularly because it was accessories and at the time that was new to me. The majority of the factories they worked with were in Italy, so I got to see how a lot of Italian factories worked too.

 

D: How did they compare to the UK?

 

K: The Italians take quality really seriously. They appreciate good quality leathers. It’s almost in their blood. And they do appreciate local manufacturing more, I certainly noticed that. The Italians are much more likely to seek out something with Made in Italy on the label, than Brits are to seek out something with Made In Britain on. I am hope that I am changing mindsets on that. Made in Italy, the Italians are great at saying we make in Italy and our quality is beautiful. The British are not so good at blowing their own trumpet.

The Italians are confident about their industry we have had it all beaten out of us in the UK. 


 


 

D: When you came back from Italy what was next?

 

K: I then went to Burberry. I worked in the accessories department. We made all our cashmere scarves at Johnsons of Elgin. We made belts with belt companies in the UK. Quite a lot of the bags were made in Italy. The famous Burberry checked bags. I remember designing millions of those, slightly tweaking them. At that point though Burberry was starting to make stuff in Hong Kong. That was the first time really, I was aware of people making in the Far East and that was because it was on the Thomas Burberry brand.

 

D: What year was that?

 

K: 1996 I reckon, 95/96 when I was working in Burberry at their offices in Hackney the factory was in the same building. So they were making the raincoats in the building were the designers and the buying team were working.

 

D: That makes sense.

 

K: They had a few others, the one in London, a factory in Wales, a factory in Castleford.

 

K: From Burberry I went to work for M&S. Designing accessories, specifically handbags. Again, I was at Marks and Spencer’s when everything started going offshore too.

D: Were you buying as well as designing there?

 

K: When I first started at Marks and Spencer’s I was working as an accessories designer for handbags. I had always really enjoyed the buying side, because I had, had my own business I understood the commercials probably more than a lot of the designers there. Suddenly, the buyer for bags didn’t come in one day, she had been demoted and then resigned. No one else knew what was going on in the bag department, so I took over the buying and design for a while.

 

I think that part of the problem with retail at the moment and the way that buyers are buying product, is that you’ve got junior buyers negotiating prices who don’t understand the whole construction process. They don’t understand that if they suddenly add on a pocket how much extra time it takes a factory to sew that. I am amazed how many young designers get in touch with me and say they are looking for a dress manufacturer in the UK and then when you say to them what’s your planned retail price for these dresses and they give you a price. The price for a dress that might take 2 hours to make, they want to buy for a tenner (£10) from the factory, but the minimum wage in the UK is around £9 per hour. So, I ask them ‘how do you think a factory is going to do that and cover a minimum wage ethically?’ That is the problem, especially with fast fashion retail and their buyers, they must know how long those clothes really take to make.

 

D: If you are coming out of university you have been making them yourself.

 

K: But they don’t make them as much at university anymore and they don’t go to factories, I have certainly noticed that. I worked for M&S for 10 years I then moved to Debenhams and budgets were really tight. To make maximum amount of profit it meant the buying team, except the very senior buyers, didn’t travel. They had junior buyers negotiating prices but had never ever visited a factory. Never seen how something is made. Not even seen how a production line is set up.

 

D: Or seeing the people working or the conditions they are working in.

 

K: Also, not seeing are they happy in that factory. It could be a total shit hole, they don’t know, they have not been there. I am still amazed when people ask me to recommend them factories in the UK and then they ring back and make some sort of complaint about the factory and saying “there was an issue with the sample.” And would I say “well did you go and visit them?” “Oh well no I didn’t, because I am in London and they are in Birmingham.” What! They are only 2 hours away, that is one of the advantages of making here you can go see. This is where making in the UK and being sustainable very closely link up because that relationship with a factory is so important and I think too much of fashion, clothing and product manufacturing in general has become too far removed from the making.

 

D: That needs to change educationally, doesn’t it?

 

K: Yes, there are too many layers involved. Stores are so big and have massive teams and so many people on the team do not have that direct relationship with the person that is making the product. I think it’s important to keep the skills we have got here in the UK.

 


 

D: After Debenhams you started a blog or did you start it while you were still there? It was through the blog that Make It British was born.

 

K: When I was a Debenhams, one of the main areas I was buying was swimwear. It was very seasonal. It has to fit very well, and the majority of the product was made in China.

We had one supplier in Portugal. Everything they made was made beautifully, it all fitted perfectly. It fitted first time. They are a similar shape to the UK so they could fit it on their models, and it all fitted beautifully. The fabrics were lovely quality and the sell through, (that is the amount of the product we used to sell), when it hit the shops was 100%. It was lovely. Yet we would sit in meetings with the directors and the CEO or whoever was at the top at the time, all the senior leading team, with a spreadsheet for buying reviews and they would literally skim down the margin column and go “Why is this supplier here?” “Why is their margin 15% lower?” I explained all the advantages with the Portuguese supplier that being in Portugal they are closer and the benefits of making with them, it gets here quicker, we are buying swimwear so it’s better to have it in the store to buy closer to the season because that way we know what colours everyone’s going to want, it fits really beautifully, they are really easy to work with. The response, “Get rid of them. We don’t need any supplier on that margin.” I was furious.

Then my Mum died about the same time and I just thought you know what, life’s too short to be working with you lot with that attitude. The thing is had they actually had a way of calculating how many buying trips we would have to make to China and the costs associated with that. The meals out, the 1st class travel all that sort of stuff and then the samples going backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards after, plus, the amount of people who sat in meetings trying to get this stuff from China to fit and sometimes 10 times, 10 lots of samples, there would be a whole year’s worth of development and compare all of that to the swimwear from Portugal which was right first time and could pretty much be put into stores straightaway. But because they are such a great big store, they don’t have a way of directly calculating what the TRUE COST is of making everything is. They only look at the intake margin. The swimwear from Portugal was 100% profitable as we sold all of it. Whereas all the Chinese stuff ends up in the sale because it either doesn’t fit or it comes back as a return. Or it ends up being the wrong colour because we’ve bought orange and everyone this season wants pink. Nowhere is it more apparent than a seasonal product like swimwear that there are more benefits in making it closer to home. Especially at the moment (Covid) I mean I dread to think. When you are doing a swimwear department you rely on the majority of it selling before the 1st of May that’s when you get your 1st indications of how profitable the season is going to pan out  and if it’s going to be a cold summer certain things are not going to sell, how quickly can you cancel out stuff and minimise mark down. (Debenhams has folded since our conversation).

 

Anyway, I got so frustrated with the place that I went in one day and handed my notice in without telling my husband what I planned to do. I gave in notice on my really lucrative buying job, I didn’t know how I was going to pay the mortgage, I was on a 3 months’ notice and in those 3 months I knew I wanted to do something. I knew I wanted to work for myself and I knew I wanted to do something which would contribute to helping local manufacturing in some way. This was in 2009. My plan was to set up an Amazon style marketplace selling only British made products. Not On The High Street had just launched and I liked what they were doing with handmade products, Amazon of course and eBay but apart from that there wasn’t a marketplace for Made In The UK and I felt that people were going to want to buy locally made products soon, I felt sure of it. So, I hatched a business plan and left Debenhams on Christmas Eve. Then on New Year’s Eve I found out I was pregnant with my second child, so the business idea was put on hold for a bit and of course no maternity pay, as I had chucked in my job…(laughs) and I had lost my bonus too for goodness sake (laughing) I really had shot myself in the foot.

It did give me more time to do research my business idea though. I realised I knew nothing about selling online having come from a very bricks and mortar retail background. I thought, to keep myself busy on maternity leave or while I am looking after my small baby, I’m going to do a master’s degree on internet retailing and digital marketing, as you do (laughs). It was at Manchester Uni. I live in London, so I was commuting part-time and distance learning over 3 years. While I was doing the degree and researching it became apparent that it was very difficult to set up a huge marketplace unless you have an infinite bottomless pit of cash to spend on google ad words. There was no social media at the time, just about Facebook and no Facebook advertising, I didn’t have the budget anyway. One of my modules in the degree was digital marketing so I thought, OK I know what I am going to do as I can’t afford Ad words, I’m going to set up a blog first and drive traffic to that.

So, I got the blog going, writing about the brands and factories that were making in the UK and that is where Make It British started. It grew organically without much of a business plan because the original plan had been to create a marketplace. Because I had set up the website with good SEO, about all these factories, local businesses were finding us when they were googling things like UK clothing manufacture, UK bag factory. I became a little bit of a consultancy service helping people to find factories. Then in 2013 I was approached by a couple of guys in the events business, doing some random event, software or something, who said “we are thinking of doing an event all about British manufacturing we found you No.1 on google and you seem to know everyone, why don’t we do the event together?” I had been thinking that there was the potential to do a conference or something for all the people who were looking for UK manufacturers and for the manufacturers themselves, like a networking event. So, we signed a partnership agreement with these guys, and we booked The Truman Brewery as a venue for the event, I had to pay the deposit as they had said they had no money, but had all the business ideas. Then they pulled out of the event, 5 months before the show. So I was left, having never run an event before, having spent 10k on booking the space out of my own money, thinking ‘right what am I going to do? Either I loose 10 grand or I cobble this together somehow.’ We cobbled it together amazingly. The plan for the event was to be a conference with a few stalls around the edge. We would sell the conference tickets and charge manufacturers to have a little bit of space around the edge. It was so successful however that it ended up as a 1/3rd conference space and 2/3rds stands. Carry Somers from Fashion Revolution was a visitor at the first one and Orsola de Castro from Fashion Revolution was a speaker at the second show the following year.

That was 2014. It was so successful we had a queue right around the block with people wanting to get in. 

 


 

D: You had obviously tapped into something that was needed.

 

K: We had people coming from department stores, brands, Burberry my old employer, to start ups, it was a good spread of people that wanted to make in the UK. The other thing I noticed after doing Make It British for a few years was that the garment manufacturers didn’t necessarily know where the fabric people were, they had their own little bubble often it was local. They would know where the other suppliers were locally but didn’t necessarily know where all the other people where in the industry across the UK. So, the plan with the show was to bring it all together.

 

D: Have you done that yearly since?

 

K: Yes, until Covid. We have been on hold since. But I hadn’t  set out to be an event’s organiser and there has been such an increase in interest from people wanting to buy locally recently.

 

D: That was my next question. But before I ask that, what sort of growth have you seen since you started championing British industry?

 

K: Phenomenal really the whole thing has always developed organically rather than being a plan. There has been so much more interest in making and manufacturing locally especially recently. There was a big pivotal point in 2013 when we had the Queens Jubilee and the Olympics, a lot of that was focused on Britain is great again. So, there was a spike then. And then Mary Portas had her programme about Kinky Knickers which revived interest in UK factories. I still think we have such a long way to go though. A lot of UK Made businesses are much more successful overseas than they are in their own country, which is crazy. There is still a big proportion of the UK population who would choose quantity and price over quality and longevity.

 

D: I am hoping this will change.

 

K: So am I.

 

D: Everyone says that Covid will change things. The question is can we build quickly enough to cover the demand we would need here? Are there enough people here, with the proper skills to physically make the clothes? I know Tamara from Fashion Roundtable has been working to put people from overseas who make up 50% of the garment makers here, the seamstress and machinists, pattern cutters etc, on the post Brexit list of skills welcome in the country.

 

K: It’s a multi-pronged attack. We need children in schools to be taught by teachers that there is value in working in manufacturing, and that there is long term potential for it. When manufacturing was massively on the decline it wasn’t something any teacher would encourage children to do. It was seen as a last-ditch attempt at getting a job. They were told if you want to work in fashion “why don’t you go and be a designer.” Then you’ve got universities who are churning out far too many designers that aren’t practical designers, and who don’t have any practical skills. Then there is the fact that there aren’t enough people here with the skills we need in this country currently, while we train up the younger generation, there is a skills gap. Which is why what Tamara is doing with the shortage occupation list is so important. We have to continue to allow people who come from other countries, where, they are have had arguably much better training in manufacturing and garment making than we do now.

 

D: We also need legislation here to ensure the minimum wage, actually I don’t think there should be a minimum wage I think there should be an actual living wage for everyone. Why would you pay someone a wage which means they have to go to a food bank to eat? The stories we have heard during the pandemic regarding Leicester and Boohoo will not incentivise young people to go and work there….

 

 


 

K: Everything we heard about the Boohoo factories in Leicester, we all knew it was a timebomb waiting to happen. As soon as I had heard that Leicester had gone into lock down again, I already knew Leicester had been running at full pelt constantly through lockdown in certain factories, it’s got to be connected. Well done to Labour Behind The Label for doing that report.

I think there needs to be another programme on the telly you know that shows inside a good working studio like Diana has at Maes London and there are other places like hers too who are making designer clothes. There is a job to work in fashion that is not a model or a designer but is just as rewarding if not more so really.

 

D: Exactly, you are actually creating something, but it still has to be paid enough so people can feel inspired to do it.

 

K: A lot of brands now are setting up their own factories and I would say to everyone “if you are looking for a manufacturer contact me for a manufacturer. But if there isn’t one locally and you have the sewing skills to do it yourself, machines are cheap to hire and you can set up a simple small factory for a thousand pounds, make your first few orders and try it out that way. Then you can get more people in to help you when you grow. Cut out all the middlemen and train people up to help you. There are more people doing that.

I am hoping that all those people who were sewing scrubs are now going get work in a design studio, making, next.

 

D: That’s the first time I felt really bad that I have no sewing machine skills. When everybody started sewing scrubs, I wished I could sew. The other side of that is of course that, there are not as many youngsters in this country who are sewing, or are there?

 

K: I think it’s more a question of, are they teaching themselves again, or they may have gone to a university were they are taught to sew to some extent. I am hearing of more people buying industrial knitting machines.

 

D: That of course is the other thing, when everyone went to the Far East to make clothing did all our machinery go there too?

 

K: Yes, and that keeps happening. Factories closing down and where did the machines go? Offshore. Or worse still, a Chinese company buying out a UK manufacturer just for the machinery, buying it and disbanding it. Putting it into administration and sending the machines overseas, which is really sad.

 

D: Is it only fashion that you are dealing with? Are you looking at manufacture for other things, obviously we will need to make the machines again.

 

K: We have other types of businesses outside of our website and we are expanding on that. We have a live chat on our website now that is really handy because we know exactly what someone wants when they come on our website and we can see the sorts of things that people are asking for. “Can you get this made in the UK?” “Can you get that……” so we are expanding into other areas outside of fashion.

 

D: How do we incentivise people to buy British? How do we make the label cool again for British people?

 

K: Make sure the label is visible for a start. There are a lot of companies that make in the UK that don’t tell everyone enough about it and more importantly they don’t show the stories and people behind the product. That’s why Fashion Revolution has been amazing, so many manufacturers in the UK are getting involved with that and with “Who Made Your Clothes”. We need more of an awareness of that. With everyone really, asking, “where is this actually made?” We do get people coming to Make it British and saying, “I am horrified, I have just bought this, it came in a box with a Union Jack on it and when I opened it up it says Made In The Peoples Republic of China.” It happens all the time. It’s what I call Fake it British. We need more of the media focusing on where something is made and who has made it. What we do at Make It British is to shine a light on those people who do genuinely make here and the value that, that adds to the manufacturers in the UK and keeps those skills alive.

 

D: So, Brexit and Covid has been a double hit.

 

K: Yes, I would love to think that our government are actually practicing what it preaches. I have been very disillusioned with what happened with the sourcing of PPE it was a golden opportunity they had to support local manufacturing especially as we were about to Brexit, or coming out of the EU and giving the business to companies in the UK, so we can keep people in the UK employed. But still they sourced a lot of stuff from the outside and importing. Why? Why? It makes no sense. It might seem to cost a bit more, I guess the government are just as short sighted as the buyers at Debenhams, yes it might cost a bit more to buy PPE in the UK, however you are then not paying the unemployment benefit of those people because you are employing them and then they are getting money in their pockets to go and spend in local restaurants and local shops, Mmmm. But no, we will just go and import from overseas. Also, the worst thing is that PPE, the majority of it, is disposable. You can make it reusable though. A few manufacturers in the UK have the resources, the fabric, the dyeing, the finishing, to make reusable gowns for instance. We haven’t seized that opportunity as much as we should have done. All the news about the masks ending up in the ocean because they are all plastic or burnt.

In 2018 the Environmental committee that the MP Mary Creagh set up on sustainable fashion what did the government do with that? Bugger all, it all just got thrown out and ignored.

 

D: You have created a directory of manufacturers on your site.

 

K: We have a directory of Brands that manufacture in the UK and a directory of manufacturers and we are growing that all the time.

 


 

D: How do you see for the future?

 

K: In the terms of UK manufacture and sustainable fashion I think manufacture will continue to come back to the UK. I think it will should speed up now after Brexit because we won’t be so restrained by various rules from the EU. I think more people will set up their own factories, I think we will see much more of that. I think we will see a return to more cottage industry type manufacturing where women, perhaps those that have been making the scrubs can actually work from home doing flexible work, making something for other brands. I think we will see a lot more of that going on.

 

D: I guess the lockdowns has allowed that to happen more.

 

K: Yes, working from home, just as we saw more people doing office work from home, I think we will see more manufacturing from home.

As we know some well-known names have disappeared from the high street. I feel what the pandemic has done, is sped up what would have happened anyway. We don’t need all of those same old same old stores on the high street and it may open up spaces where pop up shops can happen with more sustainable brands with brands that manufacture locally and care about their community. So, I think it is a really interesting and exciting time.

I really think people are changing their mindsets, about how they are spending their money and how that directly relates to their community and whether they are happy with their money being spent in unethical places.

 

 

Links  

Website: Make it British

Insta: Make it British

Podcast: Make it British

 


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