Heritage meets Innovation at Meet the Manufacturer

An interesting discussion at Meet the Manufacturer was chaired by Peter Marsh, ex-manufacturing editor of the Financial Times and recent founder of the MadeHereNow website that aims to champion UK manufacturing.  On the panel were Guy Hills from Dashing Tweeds, Ian MacLean of John Smedley and Tim Walker, fashion industry consultant working with brands such as Norman Walsh & Blackhorse Lane Denim.

Whilst the debate was framed in the title as being around heritage vs innovation, Peter Marsh rightly made it clear these were not exclusive given technology was a driving force enabling heritage production within the sector.  Each of the panel gave their considered views on this subject from their own unique perspective that did indeed show how both were working hand in hand within UK fashion and textiles manufacturing.

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Ian Walker talked about the importance of collaboration, citing the Norman Walsh fell-running shoe that began fusing fashion with performance as an early example of this in the 1970s.  The question was also addressed by Ian by looking at innovation as not just about the product, but how you legitimately present the product.  To highlight this, Ian cited the recent collaborations between Walsh and McCann London who have recently used the agencies art-deco building as both the inspiration for a new Walsh trainer design but also as the focal point for an exhibition celebrating the Walsh brand.

Guy Hills talked about the Dashing Tweeds brand and how their production ethos was to take the best of the past and make it relevant to today.  To this extent, Guy showcased a number of products, (amongst which was a reflective Glen Check suit) that demonstrated how heritage can be fused with modern innovation and adapted for today’s lifestyles and be successful.  More so, this approach has allowed Dashing Tweeds to rediscover a number of traditional tweed patterns that had been lost or discontinued to be repurposed for modern use.

Finally, Ian McClean from John Smedley shared with the audience how the challenge for his family firm (in existence since 1784 and manufacturing garments since 1825) has been to move on with technology from how garments are produced to how they are sold.  A fascinating pictorial history of the firm from the company archives was showcased demonstrating this, such as early examples of this that included continual investment in machinery such as twinning yarn machines in 1929 that revolutionised production, to disrupting the distributer model of sales in the 1930s by John Smedley putting their own salesmen on the road.   Modern day innovations such as investments in whole garment machinery and 3D design through to Smedley’s embrace of e-commerce and continuingly evolving design ranges all painted a picture of how a heritage brand is enabling innovation to play its role in its success today.

So to future challenges…the panel gave their insights that a number of issues persist that are difficulties to ensuring innovation moving forward and that UK manufacturing can take advantage.  Interestingly, a major problem that ran through the discussion was identified as recruitment and skills.  This covered a large number of concerns; from how to get people to understand the properties of the materials and production process through to the lack of technical skills available coming out of education that were desperately needed.  Lack of innovation in technology within some processes was also cited with processes such as seaming and linking not moving on despite other processes within manufacturing changing significantly.  Changes to retail models with a sales model driven by access to online meaning prices have become globalised,  flattening  out prices whereas that were traditionally set on a country by country basis previously and is proving a challenge to set in this terms.

The final word though came from Guy Hills, who challenged the audience to see heritage as a fluid term (citing the Victorians themselves as the greatest innovators) that cannot stand still.  Technology is needed all the time to create products that are world class and in many respects, all three panellists presented how their experiences have seen this operate in practice.


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