David Nieper is one of the largest UK clothing manufacturers. We interview MD Christopher Nieper to hear about his ‘just-in-time’ business model and initiatives to tackle textile skills shortage
David Nieper is a long-standing fashion house based in Derbyshire. The company sells direct to customers and operates a vertical business model carrying out everything in-house, from concept design through to manufacturing and printing their own catalogues.
Being a vertical business has helped David Nieper to navigate the changing industry and achieve longevity and success within British manufacturing. But the biggest challenge facing the David Nieper business, like many UK manufacturers today, is the skills shortage.
However, Christopher Nieper, the son of the eponymous founder, and current MD of the business, is tackling the skills shortage head-on by setting up The David Nieper Education Trust.
The firm also runs a Sewing Academy, and this year David Nieper has become a National Apprenticeship Trailblazer setting the education standard in the textiles industry. Once set, all fashion and textiles apprentices in the UK training for these roles, will be assessed against the new trailblazer standard.
Here we interview Christopher to find out …
Can you tell me how David Nieper was founded?
The business was started by my parents in 1961 with just £300. It’s very easy to lose money when you start a business so if you start with a large sum your risk is all the greater. It’s not a bad idea to start small.
My mother cut out the first garments on the living room floor and my parents hired a retired sample machinist who made the first garments. They knocked on the doors of retail shops and started selling.
It was very slow and difficult and work had to be supplemented by CMT (subcontract Cut Make and Trim) in the ‘60s and ‘70s, but then gradually the company made its way as a nightwear designer – particularly glamorous nightwear in silk and satin with Nottingham lace, which was made locally around here.
You’ve always manufactured in the UK, were you ever tempted to go overseas?
Yes, we’ve always been loyal to local skills and local people and have never gone offshore.
The benefits of ‘going overseas’ are for cheapness alone but there are many wider implications not least the social cost of closing British factories.
In our case there were too many other areas to concentrate on including our product and our route to market. In the ‘80s there was a change in retail with independent upmarket boutiques gradually selling out to chain stores who wanted to buy lower price goods and compete with the likes of Marks & Spencer. The premium boutiques that we used to sell to disappeared. So our focus was in reaching, by other channels, our own former customers who used to go to those exclusive shops.
Gradually, over at least 10 years, we formed a mail order business, whilst at the same time the move to offshore by British retailers was decimating British fashion manufacturing.
We avoided it all by recreating our business selling direct to consumers and abandoning selling to and through other retailers.
By the year 2000 we were 100% mail order, with thousands of private customers buying one or two garments each, a much safer option than a few hundred shops buying many garments each. This also enabled us to launch a whole range of fashion alongside our nightwear, such as skirts, dresses, tailoring, coats, and even knitwear with a brand new knitwear factory producing exclusive designs in merino, lambs’ wool and cashmere.
So you make all of that here?
Yes! And it’s arisen from necessity as the trade has gone to the Far East, and the skills and supply chain has depleted. We’ve built more and more in-house and it’s become an unusually vertical business.
We start with an idea and a 4B pencil. We design each garment and continue right through until our customer selects and buys from her own home – it’s design, manufacturing and retail all under one roof.
Customer service is in-house, we write our own computer programs, we do our own marketing, we have our own studio, we shoot our television ads here and we print nine million catalogues a year on our own printing press here in Alfreton, all of which are mailed to private addresses of our customers in the UK and around the world.
One of the advantages of being completely vertical is that you’ve cut out the middle man which enables you to give your customers very good value for money and that’s why you’ve got a very loyal audience isn’t it?
Yes, it’s a much more sustainable business, but customer loyalty has to be earned, it can’t be bought. The vertical business enables us to afford better fabrics, better machinery and better staff training.
You’ve also told me that unlike a traditional retailer, you hold no stock, everything is made to order for your customers, so you get full price on everything you sell.
That’s right. Almost everything is made to order or supplied from stock, that is the big advantage of manufacturing locally in Britain – you can make just in time.
Nowadays customers don’t want to wait 28 days when they order a garment, they want it tomorrow, so we have to forecast and hold a little stock. Our company has around 6,000 different stock keeping lines of different sizes, lengths and colours of different styles, but we have a mathematical algorithm which enables us to predict what we need – we’re topping up stock all the time.
If we get it right we end up with very little stock and over 98% of all the garments we make are sold through at full retail price and without the need for stock clearance discounts.
This is how we afford British labour rates over Far Eastern labour rates and this is how we have avoided the need to ‘go offshore’ for all these years
There’s a lot that both big retailers and smaller businesses can learn from your business model. Have you got any tips, in particular for smaller businesses or new factories who are starting out?
I think business is the most wonderful and exciting world, particularly if you are prepared to take some risks from time-to-time. If you’re a budding designer wanting to start out I don’t see why you can’t sell directly to the consumer, straightaway, all you need to do is design a collection, it can be very small. The tip is to start with a niche, don’t try to compete with everybody. Choose a niche that you can put your signature on, create a website, and off you go.
Be prepared to start very small, be very patient. It might take a long time, but once you get the building blocks in place you can build your own brand and your own company and have a lot of fun along the way.
Your sewing floor is probably one of the biggest in the UK, how many machinists have you got here?
We have 280 staff in the company now, and at least two thirds of those are involved in manufacturing. Sewing is a very big part of it but we also have cutting, knitting and knitwear linking here alongside exam and press, warehousing and despatch.
Are there any plans to expand on that? Will you be making or printing your own fabric?
I think we have to evolve all the time, it’s very exciting to move onto the next thing, and if the company can grow organically from its own success it has a much better chance in the long-term. I think today we have to take a different view of globalisation, we have to think global but act local.
With the weak pound which we have as a result of Brexit there’s more and more reason to manufacture in Britain. Overseas goods are more expensive in the UK and British made goods are more competitive overseas. We really have got the best opportunity in a generation to recreate textile skills and textile manufacturing in Britain. And yes, we are considering fabric production or processing as future developments.
What are you doing about the skills issue? How are you going to bring the youngsters in?
You make a very good point. We need three things in a business – orders, machinery and skills. The skills are by far the hardest challenge for us because they have been so depleted in Britain over the last two decades. Unfortunately, we have to start again from scratch. If we can’t do that we simply won’t be able to be here for another 55 years.
We’ve decided to take a much more long-term view and invest in skills right the way across the spectrum. We have our own sewing school in the factory which is dedicated to specific sewing skills. It’s a six to 12 month training programme in which two of our most experienced machinists, who’ve each been with us at least 20 years, pass on skills to the next generation.
We also sponsor university scholarships and have formed the ‘David Nieper Education Trust’ which has been approved by the Government as a ‘multi Academy Trust’. Our aim is not only to support local education, it’s to create a new business/education partnership model which could be adapted Nationwide.
How are you going to link the education trust to the business?
In September 2016 we became the first UK fashion business to sponsor a state school. We’ve started with a failing secondary school which we’ve renamed ‘David Nieper Academy’. This is for pupils aged 11-18.
In February 2017 the school moved into a new state of the art brand new building built for 850 pupils.
We’ve donated both money and resources to the school, for example a new uniform for every child and many of our staff have been involved in some way.
We’ll be teaching maths, English, modern languages, science and so forth, and with the help of local partner companies we’ll use real life examples to put the curriculum into context. This way school lessons become more relevant and we believe learning is improved. In fact ‘applied learning’, as it’s called, has already been proven to work well elsewhere.
By doing this and by involving local employers we also embed employability skills as well as introducing children to potential careers. We will be one of those companies as well as the lead sponsor of the school.
We’ll be fuelling the local economy, as well as creating aspiration, ambition and social mobility for the area.
Is David Nieper the first business to get involved in a school like this in the UK?
I believe we are the only private company to do so – we’re certainly the only fashion company.
Most academies are schools who have adopted academy status. Ours is a privately sponsored secondary school and as such appears to be of increasing interest.
We’ve already had numerous VIP visits including, at the outset, the Secretary of State for Education.
Can you suggest how Britain could build back its textile sector skills Nationally?
We certainly need to re-create textile skills or pass on the skills we have left to a new generation. We’ve formed our own sewing school within the David Nieper factory where we recruit young people who learn from our experienced dressmakers.
More importantly we’re leading the Government’s trailblazer for National apprenticeship standards for the textiles industry across three specialist job roles including; sewing machinist, pattern cutter and garment technologist. Once set, all fashion and textiles apprentices in the UK, training for these roles will be assessed against the new trailblazer standard.
Do you think the fact that your clothes are made in Britain is one of the reasons that your customers buy from you?
Yes, but we must be careful not to delude ourselves here. Customers buy because they like the quality, the style and the fabric. Being made in Britain is a ‘nice to have’, and not the only reason to purchase! That said, Brand Britain is a great asset and it’s up to all of us to give it the quality reputation it deserves
Being made in Britain is a valuable asset and it’s important for us to communicate the skills and expertise of real people who’ve been with us for multiple generations, passing on their skills. Ours hand sign every garment they make and we receive many letters from customers in, for example in Zurich or Paris, Milan or London. We pass these credits to the machinists concerned and they feel justifiable pride and reward for their excellent workmanship.
And do you think the youngsters that have come to train in your sewing school have that same pride? Once they get on the machines and start learning, do you think they then discover that pride?
You need to lead by example to establish this culture in a business. You have to set an example of trust and respect. It’s contagious for the young people and they adopt that culture. So yes, I hope the young people adopt pride in their work.
If you hadn’t joined the David Nieper family business, what would you have ended up doing do you think?
Well I was tempted by engineering, I did a mechanical engineering degree and that is something that interests me, but you know the line isn’t everything, I’ve learnt that business is all about people, and it really doesn’t matter, it could be engineering, it could be photography, it could be anything. This business is successful only because of its people. Many journalists ask me how we’ve survived for over 55 years in textiles and with this cyclic economy; it’s because of our people!