Leeds City Region (LCR) hosts many of the world’s leading producers of woollen cloths for fashion, upholstery and specialist end users. Whilst specialist international buyers and consumers recognise and pay for the quality of individual mills’ products, the ‘Yorkshire’ connection had not been made in the UK or internationally and thus the branding agglomeration has been neglected and the unique resource under-used. This is in contrast to collective branding such as Harris Tweed or Shetland Wool.
It has been easy to say that the economies of many of the districts in the LCR and Yorkshire have been founded on the geography and availability of raw materials for wool related products and that this manufacturing and commercial strength formed the basis for, but was then superseded by, the service sector and technology driven industries. The provenance of the wool mills remains but as the world economy adjusted, with cheap production overseas and trends for polymer-based fabric production, individual mills and related manufacturers have over the last few decades declined and closed.
Whilst the sector has undoubtedly reduced significantly as patterns of production and consumption have shifted, this perception ignores the achievements of the remaining mills and the wool-related sector. Leeds Fashion Works (LFW) made the connection with the quality retail sector as the ideal platform for promotion and growth in world presence of top end cloth. After convincing the major mill businesses of the strategy, the 2010 major Leeds Harvey Nichols store-wide display demonstrated that the fabric for much of the stock on the rails was Yorkshire Textiles – and LFW brought them together for the first time and branded the collective mills’ input with that name. This is the tip of the iceberg.
LCR has retained a key part of the skills base and manufacturing capability within the textiles and apparel industry (reported in 2011 by the British Fashion Council and Oxford Economics to be worth £6.4 billion for the UK at manufacturers’ prices). However, action is needed to transfer skills and maximise the opportunities to build on what exists now. Innovation through technology and design must be recognised and the LCR has a leading presence. The Behind the Seams’ exhibition and ‘Unzipped Studio’ at Armley Mills which are on permanent loan from LFW to the Council highlights the vast range of employment opportunities available to those with the right skills, over and above the ‘fashion designer’ role (whose numbers are marginal compared with total employees in the sector).
However ‘fashion design’ and the world’s leading fashion houses are a crucial factor for the international status of the industry. Association with the luxury brands is what secures sales at other entry prices – the internationally publicised catwalk shows are investments in the ‘brand’ and only marginally (in terms of returns on investment) about direct sales of the couture garments modelled.
LFW’s belief is that the quality of the products and skills has led to the utilisation by the international brands of Yorkshire Textiles which means that what is needed for growth of the sector in the LCR is to build further on the connections between YT and internationally renowned designers and labels.
Employment in the sector has increased by over 25% over four years in the LCR from figures released in October 2012. In 2009 these jobs were forecast to decline by 45% and because of insight into fashion trends LFW thus took on the cause of championing the industry in the LCR using a wide range of measures which are detailed in the full paper.
However, although in the short term there is a value of promoting the profile and growth of existing mills, this is in other ways a means to an end. The association of pedigree products with internationally known designers and brands under the Yorkshire banner provides an effective springboard for other related industries in manufacture and design. It also adds to the retail shopping destination credentials of Leeds as the capital of the LCR and the specialist centres with a historic setting or an energetic fashion profile.
LFW’s motivation was also rooted in a shared concern for the future of the LCR’s young people, where in 2009 there were over 718,000 of under 20 years olds, almost 25 per cent of the total population of 2.9 million people. The role of ‘fashion’ in engaging young people into educational and life chance aspiration is pivotal and any proposal to promote fashion for the region must take the opportunity to use fashion’s appeal for the benefit of some of those who may otherwise be left behind.
As a not-for- profit initiative LFW has been invited to give presentations to many influential audiences. Key professionals with whom we have contact in our ‘day jobs’ have participated in order to achieve the foundations we have woven. Our university connections have brought some unprecedented projects to students. We have been the first port of call for ideas and contacts for many public and private sector initiatives and projects around fashion and the arts, retail, engagement and regeneration.
LFW and YT are concerned with making things happen and delivery of real projects which fit into the strategy of promotion of LCR textile and fashion quality and innovation in that context. The power of subsequent promotion of this key message cannot be under-estimated and LFW have targeted carefully, using leading international trade press and the Financial Times as well as the local press and media. There is a role for the local ‘street scene’ in and around Leeds in bringing together aspects of youth fashion and alternative culture, but which must be very carefully managed if it is to form part of an inclusive growth, skills and jobs approach for the LCR.