11 March 2011


Forwarded by GFW Chairman Terry Mansfield, please find an exclusive copy of Lord Sugar's speech re: the UK fashion industry - delivered in the House of Lords on the evening of Friday, 04 March 2011.

My Lords,

I was brought up in Hackney, an area which in the past has been a hive of activity for the garment industry. Indeed my father, mother and siblings all worked in garment factories – my father was a tailor; my mother was what was known as a felling hand, while my elder sister and brother were machinists. These types of jobs supported many families in the east end of London back in the 50s and 60s.

Sadly, we have seen the complete migration of the textile industry to the Far East and other continents. What’s happened over the years is that the technology required to produce various fabrics has greatly advanced, allowing flexibility and speedy delivery for garment manufacturers. Regrettably, those responsible for the production of raw materials seem to have focused on the low-labour-cost territories of the world.

The retail trade as we know it today relies solely upon cheap imports. Compared to the past, when a woman’s decision of to buy a dress took perhaps a couple of weeks to build up to (bearing in mind the large financial commitment); by today’s standards the price of clothing has tumbled. So much so, that a dress which once represented a week’s wages now costs the equivalent of a round of drinks on a Saturday night.

Because of this, demand has gone up tremendously which in turn has created an appetite for more and more designs such that there is now a continuous flow of new products through the stores. This has created, in effect, a ‘buy weekly’ mentality, whereby the old traditional autumn, winter and spring collections have gone by the wayside.

As a result, I think it fair to say that we have lost the manufacturing industry for high volume production in this country, and we have to recognise this fact.

So what can we do to re-engage in this very lucrative market? I believe that the secret lies with encouraging young people who are fashion orientated to be trained such that they’re allowed to express their artistic talents in a way that translates into locally-produced finished product.

My friend Sir Philip Green founded his fashion retail academy in 2006 which currently houses 550 students. Whilst he has done a tremendous job in achieving results such as passing 65% of his students through to a full time work placement, most of those places are on the retail side with a particular focus on either buying or sales. I would definitely say that a small proportion have gone into actual manufacturing.

It is therefore my suggestion that the government starts to fund what I would call ‘incubator factories’. There are so many empty premises that could be converted into such factories – each of them with design and manufacturing facilities.

On the periphery of the factory floor there could be small ‘silo’ workshops where young designers can do their stuff, design their products and utilise the ‘core’ facilities for sampling and low production runs. This total facility would also provide employment for those who can gain skills in pattern cutting and machine utilisation.

My Lords, may I remind you that the backbone of this country’s economy is made up of SMEs – those that employ between 2-10 people. This is an amazing statistic as I'm sure most of us would wrongly assume that it is the giant companies who employ most of the working population.

Picture a scenario where a young designer is able to run a workshop and employ 5 people, including assemblers, plus a salesperson. There is good market to sell to: independent retailers, specialist shops and markets, not to mention online. People do not have to produce in thousands to start their business – and from those small acorns, mighty oak trees may grow.

One such an example is a young man I came across a few years ago. He was an alteration hand working in the menswear department of a department store. Encouraged by me he took the leap to start his business and make men’s suits. I am wearing one of his suits today. With my help and several referrals he is now in a fair way of business and employs 5 people.

Realistically, not every young person is blessed with the brain to become an accountant, a doctor or a lawyer. And it is those forgotten young people – who perhaps don’t excel academically but who do have a talent for fashion and design – that we can offer a future to.

This country is known for producing some great fashion designers, and the government needs to engage with people like Sir Philip Green and fund the incubator factory workshops to which I have referred.

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