Against the trend of relentless cost-cutting and compromise, one luxury leathergoods company has instituted an apprenticeship scheme to ensure continued high quality.
Inside the UK fashion house that would not be outsourced
In the cupboard under the stairs at my childhood home, stuffed at the back behind the suitcases and bicycle pumps, there were two or three thick, brown leather hides and some tools - all that remained of my father's time working in a shoe factory in the Midlands region of the UK, before he became a teacher. He still had the skills, of course, but the sole had slowly peeled off the British shoe trade, with cheaper footwear being mass- produced in the East. And with clothing factories becoming synonymous with sweatshops, high-quality counterfeit bags appearing on street corners, and the British leather industry gradually disappearing, the developed world collectively decided that what had formerly been skilled and proud manual work was now menial labour to be done for pennies by people without qualifications or hope, and why would we want to take part in that when we could get a BA (Hons) in fashion design?
Of course, the fashion industry was delighted - cheap production? Huge mark-up? Bring it on! Though while many luxury brands manufacture, at least in part, elsewhere in the world, the handcrafting and handstitching of gnarled and wise old artisans in Britain or France or Italy - think Burberry, Louis Vuitton, Gucci - on certain special pieces has become the one selling point that adds a hefty premium to the retail price.
All of which means that the skills that once drove manufacturing in its former strongholds are disappearing as a generation retires, leaving the few companies that do still insist on maintaining factories in the West with even less choice about moving their production east. The quintessentially British leathergoods company Mulberry has faced just such a dilemma and has taken action that will not only ensure its continued presence in the southwest of England, but could also act as a model for other luxury producers. That action? To reintroduce the idea of apprenticeships, a concept that sounds more suited to a Victorian novel than a 21st-century business.
"We realised when we did an analysis that our workforce was ageing dramatically," says Nick Speed, Mulberry's development manager, as he guides me round the Rookery, the factory in an idyllic spot near the small town of Chilcompton, in Somerset's Mendip Hills, where Mulberry's most famous bags are made - the Bayswater and the Daria among others. "Our average age was 50 plus. We needed to address that."
Certainly the high costs associated with apprentice schemes, together with increasing academic aspirations among potential apprentices, has made the idea difficult to maintain through the ups and downs of the western economy. But with an apparent revival in interest in ethical production and artisanal techniques over the past few years, as well as the rising cost of university attendance, the Mulberry apprentice scheme, launched in 2006, has seen everyone from high-school dropouts to fashion graduates applying to take part. Between six and 10 apprentices are employed each year for two years, to work for four days a week in production teams of 14 or 15, where they can learn from their older colleagues, and to study for the technical and academic qualifications that will allow them to build careers, rather than simply hold down jobs.
These apprentices, says Jon Carver, who leads the scheme, are the future of the company and of the industry. "It's not that you come in, you work on one job and you stay on that job until you leave or you die. Mulberry are of the mind that if they see promise then they will encourage it. We took on a graduate last year, Jenny, and she's fantastic. We've fast-tracked her through, and she finished the apprenticeship in just under a year. She graduated in fashion. She wanted to be in fashion. The good thing about Jenny is that because of her age, she only really had to do the NVQ, not the technical certificate, but she just did it anyway."
It's not just about the high-flying graduates, though. Some of those who receive the most benefit - and consequently will offer the greatest loyalty to the company - are those who have fallen through the cracks of an academia-led education system, though it's far from being a charity scheme. "University is not for everyone," says Carver. "We judge every case individually. We think whether this person's going to be good for the business or not. We need to make a return. It's all to do with how many people we've got working and whether we need to top up the levels. Within two or three years we've got the average worker's age down to the mid-30s. In the case of Mitch, he probably would have just jumped from job to job until whenever, and it's great that we've managed to find him a career. I think he'll stay with the company now for a long time."
"Mitch" is Mitchell Allender, a 20-year-old from the area who left school with few qualifications and is now a highly skilled pattern-cutter. What brought him to the rarefied world of luxury leather goods, I ask? "Mainly because you can learn and gain qualifications as well as working and earning money," he says in his West Country burr. "When I left school I didn't have very many qualifications, and that's why I decided to come here, because they do maths and English. Key Skills as well."
Clearly he's not planning to wax lyrical about his abiding passion for handbags, Project Runway-style. But for all his blunt answers and modesty, he is, says Carver, now one of the best pattern-cutters in the factory. "These guys now know the complexity of the bag, and the quality that goes into a bag. Mitch will tell you, when you're cutting a bag, you have to make sure there's no flaws at all. Mitch is one of the best cutters we've got. He's come on leaps and bounds; he's fantastic. And he'll probably tell you himself, he's won a few awards."
He looks at Mitch with almost paternal pride. "You've really built on your qualifications," Carver says. Mitch looks at the floor and goes a bit pink. This is, indeed, a long way from the "me-me-me" world of fashion that we usually see. Mitch is just one of Mulberry's success stories, which speak of a small-scale version of the kind of altruism-meets-pragmatism upon which the great industrial philanthropists such as George Cadbury and Titus Salt built their empires. Rebecca Morphat, 22, has the air of a shy creature who has found her voice, and this does indeed turn out to be the case.
"Rebecca's a person who's grown tremendously. When you started you were a very quiet little thing, weren't you?" says Carver. "It's developed my confidence a lot," she enunciates clearly, before going on to describe the benefits of her time here. "You're not just stuck in a classroom all the time - there was a lot of theory at college and not much practical work, and it did get rather dull after a while. I can do a Bayswater from start to finish. Eventually, I'd like to work in development, where they try new bag styles out, and perhaps designing. It's a good place to work in. There aren't many companies like this now; it is quite rare."
The benefits for Mulberry are clear - for one thing, it can begin to increase the amount of production in England, which currently sits at about 30 per cent, the rest being from Turkey, China, Spain and elsewhere - but Carver gets another sort of kick from the apprenticeships. "You see some real characters grow. Mitch was very quiet when he first started, and now you've got a job to keep him quiet - in a good way. He's a nice lad. I've seen a few people pick up awards, which fills you with a bit of pride in what you're doing. And some people start and are just not geared up for it, but we offer as much help as we can to get these people to work. We did have difficulty with one person, but we overcame it because we started to understand the person and they have now turned out to be an absolutely brilliant part of the factory and member of the team."
It's all very cosy and heartwarming, but as we walk back through the factory, stopping occasionally to see the different processes - choosing the glossy, juicy-coloured leathers; cutting; stitching - and talk to the workers, there's no sense of coasting on good will. It's hard manual work, executed to the highest standard possible, and the noise is not that of cheery chat but the humming of industrial sewing machines. Mitch and Rebecca are intent on their respective jobs, together with the other 150 or so employees. This is the real business of fashion.
The new Mulberry boutique is now open at the Fashion Dome, Mall of the Emirates, Dubai.