Fashion’s plain truth

Fashion designer and star of the Great British Sewing Bee, Patrick Grant has left Savile Row behind to begin a textiles revolution from Blackburn

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Telegenic, suave and well turned out, Patrick Grant looks like the poster boy for British style, but his mission isn’t to flaunt fashion’s fancies, rather to turn over the tables in the temple.

Community Clothing products are staple items like jeans and t-shirts, mostly fussy and unbranded

“There’s so much over-production in fashion, and so much is sold on sale,” he says. “We need to use materials far better for the sake of the planet, and manufacture in a way that isn’t harmful and allows us to afford to give the people who make it a good rate of pay.

“We can create happy workplaces, we can help rebuild communities and make customers happy, because they can feel good that their money is making opportunities for people where they live.”

As the star judge of BBC’s The Great British Sewing Bee since 2013, Grant may appear to have carefully choreographed his own personal brand, but he insists his ambitions and interests are greater and far more important.

It’s time for an awakening in the North, he says, to make industry a compelling career option, to celebrate making things, and for consumers to make decisions – not just in fashion, but household goods too.“So many household goods are just so badly made. How have we got to a point where so much of our stuff is just landfill waiting to happen. We should have quality products that last.

“I have a vision of a different kind of manufacturing industry in this country which makes the things we need. It does it in an efficient and modern way. Why does making cups and saucers have to be done somewhere cheap?

“Use state of the art digital management techniques and use automated processes to make world-class factories. Then you could make all these things quite efficiently.”

He’s no less scathing about the fashion business.

“There’s an awful lot that goes on in the clothing industry right now that nobody can possibly feel proud of as a consumer. We know there’s awful shit happening up and down the supply chain. There’s harm to people – through extremely low wages that mean that people can never build a good life for themselves if they’re working in some of the garment factories in parts of Asia,” he says. And there’s harm to the planet. “Clothes are being made in places where there is no adherence to rules on dumping of toxic materials – chemicals which are by-products of the textiles manufacturing industry.”

In many ways Grant is an unlikely saviour for British manufacturing. An Edinburgh native, his rugby career was cut short by a shoulder injury before he went on to study material science at Leeds University and took jobs in industrial marketing.

Then, in 2005, with no prior experience in the textiles sector, he was working for an industrial components business when he saw an advert for stressed businesses for sale and made moves to acquire Savile Row tailors Norton & Sons, which had a history stretching back to 1821 and made suits for kings and prime ministers. He took voluntary redundancy, completed his MBA at Oxford, funded by his previous employers, and threw everything at helping his new baby grow.

Next, in 2009, he acquired E Tautz & Sons – a men’s clothing brand founded in London in 1867. It now focuses on sportswear and casualwear, manufacturing many of its products in the UK. He also built up another brand from the same stable, Hammond and Co, that was stocked in Debenhams.

His fast-growing portfolio soon positioned him as an advocate for British fashion, his personal charisma and style appealing to the fashion press and TV audiences, but the real gamechanger came in 2016 when Grant founded Community Clothing.

The collective, co-operative and brand allowed him to utilise Cookson and Clegg, a factory in Blackburn that supplied E Tautz but was on the brink of going bust. Grant bought it in 2015 and saw how difficult life was at that end of the supply chain, right around the country. It’s OK when you get a contract to supply a big line, but when that’s gone, so are the jobs. It’s unsustainable.

That’s why so many of the Community Clothing products aren’t seasonal, but staple items like jeans, t-shirts and sweatshirts, for the most part unfussy and unbranded, which can be worn all year round and made in downtimes too. It’s also about stripping out wasteful practices and providing an antidote to disposable fast fashion.

“The whole idea is to shift the distribution of financial reward – how the money is shared in the fashion industry.

“If you spent £100 on a coat, then probably only £25 of that goes to the people who make it, or for the textiles that are used to produce the garment. The rest goes on marketing, packaging, influencers.”

In contrast, if you buy a pair of jeans, a sweatshirt, or a coat from the Community Clothing website, it has the functional and smart CC branding on it, but Grant doesn’t have a marketing budget or an advertising campaign. Endorsements on social media are welcomed but they aren’t bought and paid for, as are many in the vapid world of fashion.

Case in point: a pair of denim jeans from the Community Clothing site, made in Blackburn from 100 per cent organic premium cotton, are £81. The equivalent from Levi’s cost much more, with all the branding and packaging that go with wearing the Levi’s brand.

For Grant the challenge goes way beyond his own brands of casual clothes. He’s working for nothing less than a revolution.

Manufacturing at Cookson and Clegg in Blackburn, rescued from collapse by Patrick Grant

“Community Clothing was borne out of everything I’d done in everything else. We were efficient and I got to know the factories around the country. We were also conscious about the prices that people would pay for staple items from our partnership with Debenhams.”

The manufacturing philosophy is simple. “We work with one great UK factory for each product and material that we need in long-term mutually beneficial partnerships. Today we work with 28 partner factories, including spinners, weavers, knitters, dyers, finishers, embroiderers, textile printers and garment makers, mostly in Lancashire, Yorkshire, the East Midlands, Scotland and South Wales.

“Most of these factories are family owned – one is in its seventh generation – and most have well over a century in existence, the oldest dating back to 1776,” says the 49 year old, whose own family were hill farmers generations ago. “All are businesses with deep roots in their communities, and all have fantastic dedicated and highly skilled staff, many with a lifetime of service.”

His approach stresses the importance of supplying and supporting the social infrastructure. If there’s anywhere that represents the epicentre of Grant’s plans, it’s Blackburn, where he recently relocated from London. Home to the Textiles Biennial, it’s become a source of ideas and inspiration. One plot of land has been growing flax that will produce the jeans. He’s opened a repair and swap café, an idea that’s becoming more mainstream.

“Blackburn was at the centre of the first textiles revolution which transformed Britain in the 18th century,” Grant says in support of the town’s current bid for city status. “With its unique blend of can-do spirit and legacy of innovation it is uniquely positioned to play a pivotal role in a new textiles revolution for the 21st century – one focused this time on sustaining and regenerating both our natural world and local communities.”

Through Covid, which his own father sadly died of in 2020, Grant was one of a number of textiles entrepreneurs who stepped up to the plate at the beginning of the pandemic and turned over factory capacity to make personal protective equipment and scrubs for frontline healthcare workers.

But one of the biggest structural problems in the garment industry is instability. The grip held by major retailers and fashion houses over the factories that actually make the clothes is choking the life out of them, he says.

“We know our supply chain is super local. We can check that all our suppliers follow the rules, people can buy clothes from us with total confidence that they are not doing any harm. In fact they are doing good – the total opposite of what is going on in the rest of the fashion industry.”

For his dreams to come true though, there needs to be a mindshift in how the whole industry is perceived by young people who want a career in fashion, and those growing up in former industrial towns.

“A certain amount of increased manufacturing capacity can come from near-shoring jobs, and partly that’s an opportunity that could arise from Brexit,” he says. “But the impetus needs to come from the government of the day. If the education system doesn’t prepare people to work in manufacturing or engineering jobs then it’s going to be very difficult.”

But he thinks the tides of history are turning. He admits that when he started his career on London’s Saville Row 16 years ago, no one wanted to be a tailor, but a growing unease at jobs that seemed to serve no purpose has meant that, steadily, an interest in craft-related jobs that “make you feel proud that you’ve created something and give you an enormous sense of personal achievement and pride” has grown and now such professions are coveted.

But he adds it’s not been as easy to build the workforce to create a manufacturing shift. The next challenge, he says, is how to help the network of factories find the staff.

“We are finding that we are growing and other manufacturers are growing, but they are finding it hard to fill the roles that they need. The planet-friendly solution is to create jobs in Lancashire, South Yorkshire and Scotland. There’s a strong feeling that manufacturing jobs aren’t jobs for the future. It’s a terrible message in so many ways.

“The biggest challenge we face is overcoming 25 years of people saying that manufacturing jobs are second class, when in fact every state-of-the art factory I go to, people absolutely love it.

“Staff feel valued, they like the work and they have long-term opportunities to develop.”

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