Boohoo has opened the doors of its first clothing production factory, which boss John Lyttle says is a commitment to Leicester’s “great future” as the hub of the UK textiles industry.

Boohoo’s ‘model factory’ spans 23,000 sq ft and currently has 100 employees, who are producing 6,000 garments per week, primarily for the group’s Dorothy Perkins and Oasis brands.

The site will employ 180 garment workers at full capacity, working across two shifts. It aims to produce 20,000 items of clothing per week, as well as up to 40,000 graphic printed T-shirts using high-tech painting machines, which could allow Boohoo brands to offer customers more personalised clothing items in the future. 

The factory and accompanying offices, which opened in January, are housed in a former car showroom, but Boohoo boss John Lyttle is insistent that the site is more than just a flashy exterior.

“This site will show that Leicester does have a great future”

John Lyttle, Boohoo

“This site will have its own profit and loss account, it is charged rent, it has to be a commercial operation,” he said.

“I can remember, as a young buyer, you would come to Leicester for socks and knitwear. It was a huge textile industry, but when everything shifted overseas it was decimated. This site will show that Leicester does have a great future.”

Boohoo’s model factory is the latest in a series of initiatives launched by the retailer after it was found to be using Leicester-based suppliers who paid staff below minimum wage in 2020. 

To this end, the fashion group’s local sourcing and compliance team are also based at the premises, while its group director of responsible sourcing and product operations, Andrew Reaney, will also visit the site on a weekly basis.

Reaney says another key benefit of the factory is its function as an educational resource.

“This will act as a hub for a lot of the training we do – we’ll bring our suppliers in here,” he says. “Some are not as operationally efficient as they should be, so there’s an opportunity there for both sides.

“The other major benefit is for our buyers. Our buyers are very good and are all over social media, spotting trends, but do they know how a garment is made and costed? The best way to educate them is to take our buyers through this factory.

“It’s a very practical training ground for our buyers and we see that as a massive opportunity because most of the younger generation coming in don’t have the practical skillset, and there is a bit of disconnect between the people who make the garments and the people who buy the garments – what we are trying to do is bridge that gap.”

The vast majority of clothing produced in Boohoo’s model factory is woven fabric, which is more complex to work with than the jersey items produced in many factories across Leicester and requires a greater level of staff training as a result.

Reaney says that focusing on this style of clothing production was a strategic choice, both because it provides better margins but also because it will provide a greater skill level for employees, which the group hopes will leave a long-term legacy.

“Our intention here, over time, is to give people a practical and very hands-on and transparent view of manufacturing,” he says.

“Why? Currently, when you look at those working on the factory floors, you see a certain demographic and age profile – people with 20 years’ skill in their fingertips who are great at what they do. That’s all very well, but when is the next generation of talent coming through?

“When we talk about the sustainability of the industry that is obviously something we need to consider as well.”

Reaney insists that Boohoo’s model factory will not get preferential treatment over other suppliers and will need to win trade from the 13 brands across the group.

He says a key advantage of the model factory is its focus on more sustainable sourcing options, with fabrics in production including 50% recycled content.

“The brands can say they have a sustainable fabric in their range, it’s produced here in the UK and they can get it delivered in a couple of weeks,” he says.

Boohoo works with approximately 48 suppliers in Leicester today but is still producing the same volume of goods from the city as it places bigger and more varied orders with a smaller number of total factories.

Lyttle says the factory is a sign of Boohoo’s commitment to Leicester.

“We have committed to British manufacturing when others have run for the hills,” he says.

Boohoo says the primary advantages of UK manufacturing are speed and agility, with the ability to produce items within two weeks and fulfil repeat orders within just one week, compared with the six-month lead times high street retailers can have with overseas suppliers.

Reaney says that Boohoo’s model factory is built on an 80,000 sq ft premises, meaning it will have room to expand in the coming years “if we can make this work commercially”.

However, he stresses that to ensure the vibrancy of the UK textiles industry long-term, more UK fashion operators should begin sourcing greater proportions of their ranges from Leicester.

“It’s in our interests that more retailers source from Leicester because it makes the industry more sustainable, and that is our goal and aim” 

Andrew Reaney, Boohoo

He nods to the fact that, prior to being acquired by Boohoo, longstanding fashion brands such as Karen Millen, Oasis and Dorothy Perkins had never sourced their ranges domestically. 

“It’s in our interests that more retailers source from Leicester because it makes the industry more sustainable, and that is our goal and aim,” he says.

“I can say anecdotally that our suppliers are getting inquiries from a larger pool of retailers than they were and that’s what we want. We want this industry to be vibrant and these businesses to be sustainable and big enough that they can run as efficiently as possible.

“Our hope is that our suppliers will have multiple different customers across the fashion sector because that is better for the overall industry.”

Boohoo will hope that its first factory is a step in the right direction to reinstating Leicester as a great hub of UK clothing manufacturing – both for its own brands and beyond.

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