Asos is leading the way in developing skills to revive UK production. Rebecca Thomson reports.

Increasing numbers of retailers are talking about the potential to rekindle UK manufacturing - Arcadia, Topshop, Shop Direct, Clarks andMarks & Spencer among them. The extent to which it actually happens remains to be seen, but one thing’s for certain - the manufacturing skills that were once synonymous with the UK have dwindled dramatically since the exodus of manufacturing overseas. If retailers want to source more quality product from this country, those skills need to be reclaimed.

Not-for-profit organisation Fashion Enter is on a mission to bring production back to the UK and to arm young British workers with the skills needed to make clothes. It runs a north London factory that produces 5,000 garments a day for etailer Asos.com, and it has a 200-garment a day specialist workshop. The organisation is now starting to run apprenticeships for people keen to become machinists and pattern cutters, with two apprentices already working at Asos and talks ongoing with Debenhams, Jaeger, Aquascutum and John Lewis.

Asos is relishing its involvement. Head of corporate social responsibility Louise McCabe says: “We are passionate about developing skills for garment manufacturing in the UK.”

Fashion Enter founder Jenny Holloway says there is a general skills shortage in garment technology and production, and says the apprenticeship covers everything.

“Retailers need to have people on board that are technically able to see a garment in store and understand what might be wrong with it,” she says.

The apprenticeship involves candidates taking six modules over an 18-month period. Two modules are mandatory, and the retailer can choose the other four that suit it best. The apprentice then spends one day a week learning skills at the factory, and four days a week working with the retailer.

Holloway adds that the organisation has received lots of requests from retailers that are interested in taking on apprentices, and welcomes the renewed interest in the fashion industry in UK-based manufacturing over the past few months. Arcadia Group boss Sir Philip Green said at the Retail Week Conference in March that he is “very supportive of seeing if we can open more factories in the UK”.

As Holloway says: “Production on your doorstep is a real advantage.” But, she adds: “We need an army of machinists and good pattern cutters - the younger generation is not equipped with the necessary skill base to continue the existing quality.” Retailers’ greater employment of UK manufacturing has many advantages - lower transport costs and potential PR benefits for example. If increasing amounts of production does head to the UK, retailers will be wise to invest in such valuable manufacturing skills if they want to sell quality product that will keep customers buying.

A look at Fashion Apprenticeships

  • Anyone from the age of 16 can apply for the scheme
  • The apprenticeship takes 18 months to complete
  • It teaches skills like pattern cutting and use of machinery
  • Two apprentices are already working with Asos.com
  • At the end of the course a level three diploma is awarded
  • Apprentices spend one day a week at the Fashion Enter factory and workshop, and four days a week working with the retailer