Setting up an Ethical Garment Factory, with Jenny Holloway

Trailblazer of UK reshoring and ethical manufacturing, Jenny Holloway gives a frank interview on how tough it was to set up a clothing factory.  Having previously come from a buying background, she shares the highs and lows it took to create a succesful and ethical garment factory in North London.

Fashion Enter, is a garment manufacturer run as a social enterprise. They manufacturer for small brands and startups, helping them create samples and small production runs, but they also manufacture for some of the UK’s most well known retailers like ASOS and Mark & Spencer’s. Fashion Enter is run ethically, with respect for their staff and wages above the current living wage.

Anyone interested in understanding more about garment making, in the UK in particular, will find this interview fascinating.

You run one of, if not the biggest, garment factory in London as well as a training school.

We’re definitely the only one that’s got a training school that has been accredited by ESFA and ABC awarding bodies. I don’t know if I’m actually the biggest from a manufacturing perspective, but certainly we are certainly say we’re the most sufficient.

Your background is in buying, so I find it fascinating that you’ve gone from buying to manufacturing. Let’s start back there. How did that all come about? How did you make that transition from one to the other?

Well it was quite an organic transition to be honest. I went form Littlewoods, M&S and then Arcadia group where I was a senior buyer. I had two fantastic years at Arcadia as a senior buyer. At that stage and at the right time in your life, being a senior buyer is fantastic because you can travel the world, you have great teams, it’s an exciting role.

But then, in my case, I didn’t always necessarily agree with some of the decisions of management. As a result of that, the politics comes in, and I’ve never been good at politics. I think if you have a bit of a conscience as well, you start going towards being self employed. And I left the Arcadia Group.

We set up a brand called Retro and we had 150 selling agents all around the UK. It was a fantastic way of selling collections. In 1990 we were doing 36,000 a week. It was fantastic. All make in the UK.

Then it got hard to find CMT units. Well that was a baptism of fire really – I got straight into production. I loved the people and I could appreciate for the first time the real skills they had. As a buyer, I think you don’t actually realise how technically complicated garments are and you certainly don’t appreciate the skills of the machinists and the cutter and the finishes, et cetera. So that was my sort of first real view of how manufacturing works.

And then how did that lead onto your setting up Fashion Enter?

Well, it’s a bit of a sad story actually. We built up Fashion UK over 10 years and during that time I married my husband who I’d met when I was 15. I’d had two children and I had a third on the way and actually the business was just a bit of a monster. It was too big for two people to keep control of. So I looked for a third party, a competitor to amalgamate with, Unfortunately they stabbed me in the back. They took all my collections, took the 150 sales force and we lost everything in a two minute conversation at 9:30 at night. We literally lost everything.

It does take a setback like that doesn’t it for you to kind of rethink things and think, “Okay, that didn’t work, but I am going to make the next thing. Make sure the next thing blooming well does.” Is that what happened?

I felt incredibly stupid. I’ve got a business to this degree and I actually specialised in law, and all the advice we’ve given people over the years about partnerships, signed agreements, et cetera. I cannot believe I didn’t follow my own advice. That was just naive and foolish on my side.

I was absolutely enraged. I had no money and three children, I literally had to go to the social and plead for a pack of shopping and I got a £20 pound note. When I came back out of there I thinking I was the richest person in the world. When you are that low financially, I think nothing seems to worry you again. You can become more of a risk taker because actually you survived, but more importantly I realised that money, for me, wasn’t actually that important.

That got me thinking – I’m going to help people for the rest of my life. I know that sounds very sort of ‘little halo shining’ but honest-to-God, I just can’t get over how utterly stupid I felt to have lost everything that I had built up over 10 years. I mean it hurts so much doesn’t it? We’re only human at the end of the day, but what doesn’t kill you ladies makes you stronger.

I think it was a defining moment in my life. I just thought, let’s believe in karma. What you give out, you get back. Let’s build some good and I got a job with the London Development Agency on a project called London Fashion Forum where I got paid to give advice which was fantastic. And then that stops and then I thought, right, I’m not going back to the world of buying, we’re going to start Fashion Enter. And that was a social enterprise and it still is a social enterprise.


So you made a conscious decision to say, right, I’m now going to set up a sewing factory?

Well, it sort of it came along because we had no money when we set up Fashion Enter. Jenni Sutton who’s the Development Director today, she was my intern, which we did pay her for. And we had a shop in Croydon and we traded, that’s how we started the company. We were taking commission from sales but also giving out advice to young designers and we were recommending CMT units to people that I’d worked with years ago. Then I had to have phone calls at 10:00 at night on a Saturday with quite rightly hysterical young designers saying you recommended this factory and they’ve written me off. I felt so bad. I said, “Right, the only way to do this is to setup our own little workshop.” We made samples for these designers and that’s how the development into production started.

You were a trail blazer with that, weren’t you?  I ‘m  now seeing more and more designers setting up small workshops to make their own product. And then also to make for other designers.

I just think the more craft we can rail back into production, the more we make beautiful garments, the more we appreciate the skills of the machinists and the cutters. It’s only a good thing for the whole of the industry.

At what point did you go from small sample units to employing so many staff?

We’ve got 107 in total and we’ve got about 85 on the machining side in the fashion studio. The workshop became the fashion studio when we making samples for London Fashion Week designers,  start-ups and mum who’s got a good idea. We offer a complete service in illustration, design, specing, grading, first fits, et cetera.

You’re also making for a lot of the big retailers as well, aren’t you? So how do you make that work for the high volume stuff? It’s two ends of the spectrum, isn’t it? Whereas you’ve got a lot of manufacturers who will only specialise in doing small runs or the volume business. How have you made both sides work for those two different types of customers?

We’ve have different branding. So the fashion studio has been going since 2008 and we are very genuine, we’d say to somebody, “Yeah, we can make that in three and a half hours and you can come in and watch it being made if you want to.” We are totally transparent. And it was never about the money, as I explained to you. It was more about feeling satisfied and doing a good job and there is some fantastic designer talent out there and we should be supporting them for bigger and better things.

But we were making samples for ASOS, and  they wanted some press samples. I was at the press launch and I bumped into Nick Robertson, the MD. I said, as an off the cuff remark, “Nick, one day you’re going to need a factory for fast track fashion.”

Notice I don’t ever call fast track fashion throw away fashion. Fast track is two to three weeks lead time. Fast fashion does not equal cheap fashion.

I completely agree, it’s fast response to fashion. So what year would that have been that you said that to ASOS? That you predicted that big retailers like them would want more local manufacturing?

It was 2010.

About the time I started Make it British. We could both see it, couldn’t we? Because we started our careers around the same time, when everything was made in the UK and we saw all sorts of changes happening over the last 20, 30 years. We could see it’s going to come back and and for so many different reasons, but particularly for this fast response.

I’ve got to give real credit to Nick Robertson because this guy didn’t know me at all. I know he knew I was making nice samples and to be fair to him he said “That’s not a bad idea. How much you think it would cost?”

So the first he asked was price?

Yeah. He’s on it isn’t he? I said “I would have for the guess and say about a quarter of a million.” And we did get a soft loan, option of £230,000, by ASOS, to set up a factory.

That’s obviously why their business has grown so quickly because someone who’s leading the company had the foresight to see something like that and to believe in you and to invest in you like that. So then you went from small studio to large folio business. You must have had to employ loads of staff, pretty much overnight, to do that. As well as move into a new building.

I’d say it was pretty naive to think that I could have gone from making beautiful samples to suddenly running production. I was so, so, so outside of my comfort zone! And it was quite a stressful period. Lots of tears, at the night I’m thinking “What have I done?”

But I also was so loyal to Nick Robertson, and then I also came along Nick Beighton, who’s now the current CEO. And these are such good guys. I just could not have ever looked at myself in the mirror if I’d let them down. Now I felt as though it was an honoured position to be in. I was incredibly grateful and that factory was going to work! I don’t care what it took. And it took a long time to make it work because I was really learning on the job.

The one thing that we did right from day one is that we never compromised on quality. We could have subcontracted out, we were under pressure and suddenly inundated with orders. We didn’t know what to do first, we had no methodology and we had no flow in the factory. It would have been easy to say to the unit round the corner “Quickly make this for me.” But we didn’t. And we didn’t do anything unethical either.

We didn’t pay anybody cash. We made sure that they were working correctly and I’m really proud that we didn’t go for that quick buck. And I had a few tellings off in the early days, like what are you doing and you’re late, it was just a gigantic mess to start off with.

What sort of changes did you have to make from when you went from being a small workshop making for startup designers to making for ASOS?

Well, it was completely different because you’re going from a one to one relationship, making one beautiful garment, to suddenly dating! We opened with 16 in the factory and we had a factory manager, which proved to be horrendous. We had two cutters and we had about three pressers. But because we’d had such a weak manager, and I didn’t know what I was doing, I’ll be the first to admit that, we just really messed up. We were late on everything, we had no flow, we had no systems. The machine was clearly new. So it was just the most awful time. However, I was very proud of the fact that we did not compromise on our ethics, or our quality standards to literally have made a fast buck and to have kept ASOS happy at the time.

We could have taken the orders next door around the corner and got them made and brought them in on time so they wouldn’t have really known at that time, but I just couldn’t do it. I’d also say they trusted me with their money and I had to do it properly. I’m actually really glad I kept to that because that’s it’s put us in very good stead. We had to learn as we went along. And it took us a good year and a half, if not two years, to really get the factory working and understanding issues and problems and getting pricing right.

That was the other thing, we were incorrectly costing. We weren’t looking at the standard minutes correctly. So a huge, huge, huge learning curve. One that gave me sleepless nights walking around my bedrooms and tears but you know, what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger as I keep saying.

Now the staff you’ve got, in order to incentivise them. You don’t pay them just on an hourly rate, do you? Tell me more about how you incentivise your staff to make sure that they not only enjoy what they do and work hard, but also that it works well for the factory.

Everything was going really well. I’d say I’m talking about year two to year four. We were building on the machinists. We went from 16 to 35. Everything in the guard was pretty damn rosy. Then I would say a bit of complacency crept in. People talk about having different qualities in a factory. I totally disagree with that. In my book you can only have one quality and everybody works to it. But what you do have is machinists who are faster than others and what tends to happen is the machinists just gets paid more because they’re making more garments. But actually, if the price differential is 50 per pound an hour, you work eight hours a day.

The price differential of eight pounds actually is not a significant motivator. In fact if anything it has a negative impact because the machinists start going slower and slower because they’re going to get their money anyway. There’s just no incentive to do anything. It was actually Nick Beighton, the current CEO of ASOS, who said to me “If you look at performance related pay on average productivity increases by 14 percent.” I’ll never forget that statement.

In our situation, bringing in the Galaxius system that we use, we went from 4,000 garments a week up to about 7,500 garments a week with the same amount of staff.

It’s absolutely unbelievable what people can achieve when they are correctly incentivised to earn money. But they can’t compromise on quality because that’s always the risk.
Galaxius is a cloud based system whereby each machinists has got a phone with a barcode reader. Every bundle that we make has a barcode for every operation. And every operation has a time and that relates back to a very fair rate over minimum pay. So roughly £8.50 – £9.00 per hour. It means that anything that they make over that time is their money. We’ve got people who on average earn £12.00 an hour and our best machinists are on £17.00 an hour.

It’s fantastic for them and also the quality is never compromised because we can literally trace that barcode all the way back to every stitcher, every finisher. We haven’t done it on pressing yet because it’s quite complicated on pressing – the pressers are so fast. But it means that our quality is never compromised. If there are issues, then we stop the clock and the repairs are made in their own time.

So anyone that says that I’m working in the garment industry, working as a machinist is really low pay, then you’re a shining example that it’s not.

Yes, and we’re based in London so we’ve got big rent to pay as well. I just know that we can make it work and the Galaxius system isn’t exclusive to us. We are a genuine social enterprise. So we are here to help everybody, young designers and manufacturers alike.

What advice would you give to someone who’s thinking of setting up their own small production unit? What would you have done differently if you did it well over again?

I wish I’d know about that Galaxius system much, much earlier! We made so many fundamental mistakes. So my first advice is systems and processes. You’ve got to have a way of monitoring what you cut, what’s delivered. You need to make sure there’s no shrinkage and we used to have thefts which we don’t have now. Everything is automated, so we know exactly where every garment is. Even if you have an Excel spreadsheet and your own critical path, you have got to have a system for monitoring everything.

That’s so true for any business. In fact, for any designer as well, they need to have systems in place, don’t they?

Yes, and it’s also the stock holding, for example, for a young designer who’s setting up their own workshop and wants to make for other people. If that delivery goes in hanging, normally it’s a minimum order of 1,000 hangers, and if you don’t keep the inventory of those 700 hangers that you haven’t used, because they decided they need 300, your hanger cost now is 30p, not 10p per cost and it’s those little things that really impact.  Because we are like grocers, we’re dealing with pennies and the more efficient you are, the money you can save. I want people to do well. So that’s the first thing, about their systems and processes. Secondly – come and see what we’re doing. I will gladly open my doors and if I can help people, I will because I think life’s too short to hold information back.

I think you need to keep your ‘spirit level’ level. So if you have a bit of a crisis and your machinist hasn’t turned up, you’ve got an order going out, don’t try and rush the garment, I wouldn’t give it to another machinist. Honesty is the best policy and have that relationship with the client. Because once trust and business integrity goes, you haven’t really got anything else. I believe, that in my life, it’s just money at the end of the day. I know it’s important, I know we all have to pay our bills, but don’t compromise yourself. We’re in a very difficult industry and there’s lots of smoke and mirrors. But they are frocks, they are all garments. We need a bit of soul in ourselves.

Talking about doing the right thing, you mentioned some of the accreditation’s that you have. If anyone is looking to work with a factory, what sort of accreditations should they look for and ask the manufacturer if they have, if they want to know if that factory is working ethically?

There’s two main audits. There’s the SMETA, and that’s universally recognised, and then there’s the newer audit which is the Fast Forward audit, which is much more ethically orientated. It actually goes into your bank account and it looks at your transactions. It’s looking for cash withdrawals in case you’re paying staff that way. And when the auditor comes in on Fast Forward, they will also bring in the machinists themselves, give out the business cards and say “Do you need to contact me? If there’s anything wrong in any way then you can call me out of hours.” And that’s very effective, but thankfully not in our organisation. I’m aware that some machinists have had their money stopped or have been paid half pay, or have had to give the cash back to the manufacturer owner. That does go on in some places, unfortunately.

If a factory doesn’t have one of those two audits would you say walk away or work with that manufacturer to try and get them signed up? Does it cost much money for a manufacturer to have the audits? 

Yes and it’s a lot of money. So no, I wouldn’t say walk away, but I think be aware of what the audit is and what the questions are. Then you’ll know what to look out for when you go into that factory. Make sure they are adhering to those policies. One thing I would always ask now is the RTW (Right To Work) documentation. You don’t want illegal immigrants because if the board of agencies make a spoof, they have the power to close down the factory. Your garments will be embargoed. It’s just not worth the risk and also why would you, as a young designer, wants to work with unethical people? They’re coercing their work force to make money.

If you work it backwards from your cost price is and know that the living wage in the UK is around £8.00 and hour, you need to ask yourself if “do I really think that garment can be made for that price?” If something is too cheap and it’s made in the UK, you’ve got to question it. I don’t believe you should be selling your brand made in the UK on price alone – that’s a slippery slope.

It’s quite interesting because I also think it’s quite controversial now. We’re big fans of Stella McCarthy. We know she’s of led the way in ethical and sustainable production and yet there’s a recent twitter post and where she’s said about her new menswear range being made in Italy. Why is it made in Italy?

Why are retailers and designer brands increasing their carbon emissions footprint when we have wonderful garment manufacturing here in the UK? It is not an excuse to say that we’re too expensive because we certainly are not. I have to look at the exit margin, not the intake margin, and you’ve done lots of fantastic work on this proving that when you take into consideration the cost of transportation, the visits to hotels to go and look at your stock, it’s expensive to make overseas.

Exactly. Let alone the fact that if just one order turns up with something wrong and you have a disagreement with that overseas manufacturer you could lose that entire order, But that’s less likely to happen if you can go and visit your manufacturer quickly and easily. Like you’ve just said, you have an open door policy at your factory, anyone can come in, another manufacturer, a designer they may not be making with you. They can come in and see how the whole process works and how an ethical factory runs. I think that it’s amazing that you do that. 

We’re more than happy to do that.

Another thing I want to talk about that I think is really interesting is that you’ve just launched your own brand. What made you decide that you’re not just going to be making for other brands but you wanted to do your own?

First of all, I don’t think I’m a designer by any stretch of the imagination. I was a strong senior buyer mainly because I don’t think I’m very objective, rather than subjective. I’d rather be a player than being in any designer clothes. I’m just not that type of person. But I felt exposed as a company. I’ve always got to think strategically. I’ve got 107 mouths to feed and they’ve got children and we employ lots of single women who have children. So I’m always very conscious about what the future is for the company.

We decided two years ago to create a collection, we had a trade name Belles of London, but we just kept going with the factory, we didn’t use it. Then we decided, right, 2018 is the year when we create this collection. It’s not often we fall out as a company here, but we fell out! We are such a close knit team. But design is very subjective and very personal, so I said, “I can’t do this.” We were all out of our comfort zone. What we decided to do instead was to go through the workforce, and each person is tasked to do help design six styles that they would wear themselves.

The Belles of London

We started with myself, Caroline who is Production Director and Jenni Sutton is Development Director. The next three have been selected, and actually I’m very proud because we have a lady called Kate who works in Bristol on the Fashion Capital side who has multiple sclerosis. She’s a fantastic woman, I just so admire her, she does boxing and I just did admire her grit and tenacity. So I said, “Right, we’ll design you six items of your choice, just give us sketches, and we’re going to create six for you.” So that’s what I wanted to do. It’s going about the social enterprise side of the business again and it’s getting our workforce engaged.

How can people find your brand; Belles of London?

We have a website www.bellesoflondon.com

If you want to visit the Fashion Enter factory email Jenni Sutton at jenni@fashion-enter.com