Don't get your knickers in a knot!
I like Saturdays. It is the one morning I stay in bed that little bit longer and browse the net. Well, I actually run down, get a coffee and then get back to bed. Now if my iPhone could also make coffee, life on a Saturday morning would be perfect. This morning's news was, let's say, of interest. To me, to INMIY and to all keeping a tab on British manufacturing. Kinky Knickers has gone into administration as of yesterday. Yes, you probably heard of them. They were the subject of our saviour's - also known as Mary Portas - pseudo-reality "Mary's Bottom Line". A show which allowed the viewer to take a glimpse of the hardships (obviously only those that would make good telly) involved in setting up a factory in the UK. First and foremost, Ms. Portas had no financial involvement in the company (Headen & Quarmby). What she did - via the TV show - was re-open the UK manufacturing arm of a company that, once upon a time, made stuff here and then, like the rest of them in the 1980s, pissed off East to produce. Our Holy Mary (Portas) was bringing them back. Alas, today we found out that, well, it just didn't work out. The administrators have been called.
Portas posted on facebook when the news broke (hers and the factory's statements are slightly inconsistent but I will look into that at another time as I need more facts). Anywho, she wrote "the problems have been caused by cashflow (sic) shortfalls due to bad debts arising from some smaller retailers going bust over Christmas and a large retailer cancelling an order". My first question was, can this be true? Or even possible? Yes, Christmas is a shaky time for small retailers, sort of putting all your eggs in one basket. If your gamble pays off - i.e. you backed the right products - you will survive another day, if not, well. But it was the second bit I didn't quite understand about the cancelled order. Why would they cancel if the knickers were selling (they must have been at some point or an order would not have been placed)? Did the last order from this retailer not sell? And, here you have lesson 1.01 in running a label - you will only be as good as your last collection. You have a shelf life. Once you understand that, well, just keep on going, evolving. Or just not adhere to the fashion calendar, easy. So, how do the big boys operate?
Buyers. Or as I like to call them, the necessary evil. Every big high-street shop has a little team of smarmy, fashmag-reading, yaddy-di-da buyers. Some do accessories, some do clothing, blah, blah, blah. They are the SJP-wannabes of the fashion world. There are a lot of, for lack of a more appropriate word, shit buyers. There are the few good ones but I want to concentrate on the shit ones. To give you an idea, I worked with a buyer - a guy - who would only eat cheese sandwiches, dressed as Pamela at the weekends and kept a small pocket diary with the names of people he wanted sacked. A little book full of venom. These quite unusual people fundamentally decide what the everyday kid wears. You can make a collection of 15 unbelievable pieces, the buyer takes three (of what you, the designer, might consider to be the weaker ones) and the other twelve will be shelved away never to be seen again. They don't take risks - the shit buyers. Therefore, no matter how bad the buyer is, they will never pull an order that is selling. That is how they work. Moolah. Casheroonies. If the product they bought is selling, they can spit on the other buyers. Poke them with hot rods and their boss will allow it. After all, they bought the right product, sales are up. Boom! So why was the knicker order pulled? Maybe there was a change of buyer?
And here we enter even more shitty waters. A change of buyer is like a curse from hell on the manufacturer. You see, the new buyer will want to change things. Immediately. The new buyer knows best. Why would the new buyer even contemplate taking on products the old buyer brought in? A new buyer needs to, like a tom-cat, spray her odour and, like a cockatoo, fluff her feathers. I once worked with a buyer for three months on a collection only to have it shelved at the last minute as she left and a new buyer came in and didn't want anything to do with me as we had "no working relationship". Lesson 1.02 for the manufacturer, have some back-up stuff ready, in the case there is a change of buyer. Stuff the old buyer hadn't seen. But, back to the knickers, even if there had been a change of buyer, I personally have never heard of an order being pulled, an order never being fulfilled unless. Yes, the big unless. Unless there had been production or delivery issues. Usually production issues. Were there some serious flaws with Kinky Knickers? Were their delivery times ticking off the retailer? Or was the order pulled because the store itself was in financial trouble? A store in trouble will, inevitably, think of saving their own skin first and not some small factory that was on TV. Fair enough. We all know that some of the big boys did well over Christmas, some did badly, and some spent £7m on an advert that should have cost about fifty-grand. So, who was the big retailer that pulled the order? If they were in breach of contract - something usually in place for big orders - we will soon find out and I will look into it and make a part deux to this post. It is, at this point, that I believe Ms. Hills (an ex-buyer), from the very recommendable Make It British website, is a bit idealistic when she asks
"I wonder whether the buyer at the retailer that cancelled that order with Headen & Quarmby stopped to think about the likely impact on a small manufacturer of such an action? And more importantly the 33 workers at the Middleton factory?"
The shit buyer doesn't think of anything other than ca-ching. Their lives depend on it. And Ms. Hills deep down knows that. Maybe, just maybe, the Portas-endorsed knickers weren't selling. Or perhaps, hear me out, it was not financially viable for Headen & Quarmby to continue producing Kinky Knickers in the UK, albeit having had an input from Portas and the six-figure sum from the Greater Manchester Investment Fund to invest in its factory? Factories are cold, stuff needs to be shipped, staff needs to be paid, machinery needs electricity to run. All of these things cost in the UK. And, as you know, are not getting any cheaper. Maybe the plan of attack for us manufacturers would be to lobby for a levy on certain issues. The government wants us to manufacture here (yes, Cameron did hire Portas to look at some streets around the country, not to mention the £500k she received from C4 for the series which she denied to Parliament) so why not help us out? Not with cash in hand, but by relaxing some of the taxes and energy costs on the smaller factories. Thus allowing us to really compete on the high-street market. British manufacturing will never come back how it was until we are really able to compete with the others - made abroad - that are available here.
The other interesting thing about this whole situation is celebrity endorsement. It would seem that, unless you are an endorsement genius like Kanye, it just doesn't work nowadays. Celebrity endorsement is so 90s it hurts, and also patronizing (especially for a company like Headen & Quarmby that has been around 79 years). Lesson 1.03 to the manufacturer, the customer knows what they like, and you can shout and scream about your product via celebrities but if the customer doesn't like it, they won't buy it. Not nowadays. You could have fooled the 90s crowd but, now twenty years on, we are all celebritied out. And as a manufacturer, you count on the repeat customer, not the one-off bought by the masses, for longevity. Which brings up another point, did Portas expect sales to boom because the knickers were made in Britain? Again, the high-street shopper might not care where something is made, they buy what they like. Another plan of attack would be to make the customer aware of quality. If they want wool, buy Scottish. If they want a good coffee, don't go to Starbucks. We need to be quality first and foremost and then British.
So, is Kinky Knickers dead and buried? Is this the end of Headen & Quarmby's UK manufacturing branch? Let's just remember that there are other top-class knickers still being made here in Britain. However, until I find out more I will reserve judgement. And the last lesson of the day is this, lesson 1.04, the hard part is not starting a brand but keeping it going!
To be continued...