As the first designs appeared on Community Clothing’s eBay store last month (jeans, sweatshirts, cardigans and jackets for men and women), you’d have been forgiven for not recognising the brand’s direct link to Savile Row, that bastion of British tailoring. Yet the company’s founder, Patrick Grant, has taken much from his experience of running bespoke tailors Norton & Sons (est. 1821) and ready-to-wear line E Tautz (est. 1867) in establishing a radical new model for the production of stylish – and affordable – British-made clothes. What also links these three very distinct brands is Grant’s determination to combat the wastefulness of ‘fast fashion’ and develop a socially-minded business, while helping to support some of the UK’s longest-established textile manufacturers.
In the fashion world, the philosophy behind Community Clothing certainly represents a new way of doing things; or, at least, a new way of making the old ways work again. Put simply, the company makes use of British textile factories’ spare capacity (the times in the year where they aren’t producing ‘seasonal’ lines) and ensures that, by providing them with extra work b to fill these gaps, they can stay open. In what once would have been a long spell of down-time, the seven factories currently in the Community Clothing network can be busy on a set of standardised pieces for the new brand. It is hoped that by transforming these places of industry, most of which have a deep historic connection to UK manufacturing, the communities and towns in which they’re based will start to see the benefits as well.
Having acquired Norton & Sons in 2005 (by chance Grant saw an ad in the Financial Times saying that the company was for sale), he later restarted the E Tautz line that Norton owned as a ready-to-wear house where over 90% of its range is made in the UK. And, while it clearly produces exclusive garments, in its own way Norton represents one of the most sustainable business models in clothing. Everything is made to order in the shop (they only make what they need), while the fabrics, woollens and worsteds are manufactured (and the cloth is spun) in Britain, Grant explains. “In some instances we’re making [clothes] with fabrics where the sheep are in this country,” says Grant, who admits that certain elements, namely linens and high quality cottons, still have to be brought in from Europe.
This whole process makes the clothes expensive – and it’s one of the main reasons that consumers who would readily buy British-made garments are forced to look elsewhere for cheaper alternatives. Yet, while the lack of affordable clothing made in the UK is a real problem, in early 2015 some sad news from Blackburn gave Grant the chance to try and fix the system. The Cookson & Clegg factory called him to announce that they were closing, having been in business for 160 years. Grant asked what they could do to help and “about eight weeks later we bought the factory,” he says. “The seasonality thing was clearly a big issue for them,” but more so, compared to a city like London where, Grant says, a sense of progress is evident, “go to where these factories are – it feels desperately unlike that. The government – and us as citizens – need to think of ways to reverse that so that people growing up there feel that a positive future exists for them.”
In setting up Community Clothing and issuing a set of standardised designs, Grant is attempting to counter the problems many factories have been facing with the desire for affordable British-made garments. (Community Clothing’s successful Kickstarter campaign earlier this year saw £88k pledged under the banner of ‘Making Clothes; Creating Jobs; Restoring Pride’.) “I just put the two together and decided that we could start a business that just supplied really simple basics,” he says. “The whole reason you can’t fill the gaps in fashion is because you don’t know what you’re going to be making in six months’ time – the product is only being designed and shown now.” Grant’s solution is to produce clothes that use very standardised materials. “Most of it’s in navy blue and khaki, there’s one standard waterproof fabric that goes across Harrington, bomber, trench, mac, field jacket – some of this is still being developed – but the idea is we always have a stock of this fabric. So whenever the factories are quiet, they make this.” The designs are set, the patterns are on-site, the makers can even have fabric already cut to shape, “ready to be moved out down to the line whenever they have spare capacity”.
The whole point of Community Clothing is that it’s sustaining and creating jobs. That’s it
Community Clothing is essentially a ‘manufacturer’s cooperative’ and manages the production, marketing and selling of the goods. “We take an absolutely minimal mark-up,” says Grant. “We take enough that we know we’re going to make an economic surplus at the end – because we can’t run it any other way – but at the same time we’re not seeking to generate a profit. The whole point of Community Clothing is that it’s sustaining and creating jobs. That’s it.” Grant says that, if it works, the process can kickstart a whole cycle: the factories will have more work so can employ more people, apprenticeships can be established alongside b
the retraining of former machinists and the plants will invest in new machinery. As Community Clothing generates a surplus, this money can be ploughed back into other projects, such as a centralised sewing apprenticeship programme, which will serve the factories. “Within Lancashire there are still multiple sewing businesses – two are already signed up to the Community Clothing network,” says Grant. “If we can provide partly-trained apprenticeships into those businesses, then it helps create the sense that there are long-term prospects. Nobody wants a career where they can only go and work in one factory and then that’s it. If we can help foster the sense of buoyancy within the industry as a whole then I think it helps with recruiting new people.”
While Grant’s ten years-plus in tailoring has earned him a considerable reputation, his background marks him out as something of an anomaly in the fashion world, having studied material science and engineering at university, followed by taking an MBA in his early 30s. Yet it’s this connection to the making of things, testing their use, that filters through into the clothes. Community Clothing’s designs are cost-engineered, with no superfluous buttons or flaps. “I just like well-made stuff,” he says, “properly engineered, [using] materials that you know will age well, serve their purpose, be robust and durable for a good length of time”. Grant recalls that, at the Norton & Sons shop, “a lot of the conversations we had centred around provenance – where does the cloth come from, where does the wool that goes into the yarn come from, who’s spinning the yarn, what difference does this fabric structure make to my suit compared to that one? At the back of our brain somewhere there’s a kind of mechanical engineer lurking that wants to understand the nuts and bolts of things. In us all there’s an innate interest in how things are made.”
I just like well-made stuff, properly engineered, using materials that you know will age well
This is reflected in the aesthetic of Community Clothing, too – particularly in the identity for the brand that Grant has brought back into use. The double ‘C’ of its logo was originally used in the labelling of the British government’s CC41 brand, the range of utility wear produced during the Second World War to combat the shortage of affordable cloth. The clothes – and there are distinct parallels here – minimised fabric use (trousers were made without turn-ups, jackets without pocket flaps) and were launched as a quality product that was within the reach of all. While Grant had registered the Community Clothing name a few years ago, he then began to think of what might work as an identity – the two Cs of CC41 seemed ideal. The original logo, two Pac Men-like solid ‘C’ shapes and a ‘41 for 1941, was designed by commercial artist Reginald Shipp – Grant checked it out and its trademark had long since lapsed. He promptly registered it. “People make reference to it, that it was obviously born out of a very clear social need – and we hope, if we are successful, we can provide some form of social benefit from doing this.”
As much as this attitude harks back to a bygone age, Grant is aware that for Community Clothing to be successful, it needs to be online – both as a way to tell the story of the brand via its website (designed by Source) and social channels, but also in order to minimise its costs in doing away with any retail mark-up. “The digital side of what we do is the only way we can make it work financially,” he says. “If we had to do it traditionally we’d be chucking another huge wedge of overheads that would need to be covered in the price of the clothes – and it would take longer to get it going.” Choosing eBay makes a lot of sense as well. “Everybody knows and, I think, trusts eBay,” says Grant. “It has quite a community-minded feel, it’s a community marketplace.”
This doesn’t preclude the existence of a physical site, however, and in Lord Street in Blackburn, the first Community Clothing store has just opened in an old cotton storage warehouse, refitted at a cost of just £6,000. “That whole part of town has just been allocated a Heritage Lottery grant [and] the regeneration team at Blackburn Council are very forward-thinking,” says Grant. “They have a brilliant attitude towards getting things moving and we have a very favourable deal from them.” To build the shop, local people donated their time (and materials), while an agency called Bootstrap, who help the long-term unemployed back into work, is helping to staff the store two days a week. This is where the ‘community’ aspect of Grant’s new venture really comes into its own. While it has international reach through the web, its success will be evident at a local level. Factories that were once a part of a thriving textiles industry can, he hopes, start to define those places once again. “Many [of them] are in towns where that industry was so central, not just to people’s livelihoods [but] for the whole identity of the community,” says Grant. “Hawick is a knitwear town; Blackburn is a cotton town; Leicester is a hosiery town. The history of families and whole communities are woven into the story of these businesses.”
Just as it’s the same factories making the clothes for each of Grant’s various fashion enterprises, it’s revealing that the tailoring world he comes from continues to have influence over his new social model. “Many brands try to be too many things to too many people – I think that’s a mistake,” he says. “Most of the people we sell to want to go to the best person. Those brands that people really love – they’re the ones that stand for one thing and do them really well.” The great thing about Community Clothing is that, if it is successful, then what it stands for has the potential to directly benefit a huge amount of people.