Patrick Grant is wearing a navy woollen jumper that he thinks he has worn more than 1,000 times. He doesn’t know exactly how many clothes he owns. It’s a lot, but they’ve accumulated, and at the age of 47, he stills wears items he bought as a teenager.
Grant is perhaps best known for his role as a judge on the BBC’s Great British Sewing Bee. He also owns E Tautz, a high-fashion menswear brand; Norton & Sons, a Savile Row tailor; and, most recently, Community Clothing, a social enterprise attempting to change how we think about and consume clothes. It operates from the Cookson & Clegg factory in Blackburn, Lancashire. Grant bought it four years ago as part of his mission to restore pride in British textiles production and to make clothes that look good – and last.
“The whole idea of sustainable fashion is, of course, oxymoronic,” Grant says when we meet at the factory. “But these are clothes: it’s deliberately called Community Clothing. It’s not fashion.” Each of its products – roughly 50 in total – is designed to last for years. The time and money saved on designing and producing new trend-driven garments is spent instead on materials and labour, which keeps the supply chain short and transparent: Grant’s jumper was spun and dyed in Kinross, knitted in Hawick and distributed from Chorley.
What distinguishes Community Clothing from other fashion brands is its business model. Most brands spend around 20 per cent of their revenue on the manufacture of clothing. The remaining 80 per cent is spent on advertising, retail, distribution, VAT, etc.
At Community Clothing, it’s the reverse: around 70 per cent pays for making a garment, enabling maximum quality; an item should last for many years. Without having to market new seasonal trends, it does not rely on celebrity sponsorships or advertising pushes. Last year, Community Clothing spent just £428 on marketing.
We exist in an age in which bikinis can be sold for £1 and yet ex-Love Island contestants land fashion “partnership” deals – with the brands marketing such swimwear – worth up to £1m. “The fashion industry conventionally was small, making high-quality wears to last a long time,” says Grant. Fast fashion clothing feels disposable, so we buy thoughtlessly and anxiously, trying to keep up with abrupt changes in style.
According to Grant, the brands that value T-shirts at less than the price of a sandwich – Boohoo, PrettyLittleThing, Missguided – cannot really be classified as fashion, given the volume of clothing they produce (fashion houses traditionally produce two major collections each year). “They’re not following trends any more, they’re just making stuff and shoving it down people’s throats for Instagram,” he says. “It’s just stuff and more stuff.”
In the 1970s, driven by increased automation in Asia, clothing manufacture moved overseas, where factories could produce more for less. “[The fashion industry] is bringing people up, then dumping them when their wages start to rise,” Grant tells me. “In the UK, labels moved their textile production to Hong Kong. Then those Hong Kong factories started opening factories in mainland China because wages were lower there; then their wages went up, so they moved it further afield.”
Around the early 2000s, wages in China became too high for the clothing industry and brands moved to factories in Bangladesh and Myanmar, some of which, ironically, are not automated. “They can get people so cheap that they don’t need the advanced manufacturing any more – they’re just going to screw these poor human beings into the ground.”
Grant wants clothing production to return to UK factories. “The government has been terrible in supporting the manufacturing industry. Part of what we’re hoping to prove is that there is a future for this stuff when you invest in it. I have this vision of the Google campus with a lake in the middle and a series of shiny glass factories for the spinning, weaving, dying and sewing. Kids in this area will say, ‘When I leave school, I want to work at Community Clothing.’”
Refocusing on tertiary education and investing in factory automation could provide thousands of skilled jobs at a good wage, according to Grant. Community Clothing operates from a number of factories in the UK as well as its hub in Blackburn: the Scottish Borders for wool, Leicestershire for hosiery, Lancashire for cotton. So far it has created as much as 124,000 hours of work. Its year-round inventory means it can keep factories busy in otherwise quiet periods between seasonal surges. And it’s expanding, too: Community Clothing will make its new line of underwear in the last underwear factory in south Wales.
“These are fantastic quality pants,” Grant says. “We’ve taken the quality benchmark for a £25 pant, and we’re going to try to sell them for £6.”
This is Patrick Grant’s priority: balancing quality with affordability, which is the only way of breaking the cycle of “buying bad-quality stuff that you have to replace over and over again”.
We must recalibrate our notions of affordability, which are tangled in the high turnover of fast fashion culture. Climate change requires us to change our consumption habits, too. “If you have to, take a whole year where you don’t buy anything. Just make it all last in the best way you can,” says Grant. In an industry driving us constantly to buy more, Patrick Grant wants us to buy much less.
This article appears in the 06 Jan 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Out of control