As designer clothes become more and more inaccessible, and fast fashion spirals into an ever cheaper and more disposable vortex, one visionary designer has spotted a gap in the market…
Each time the newly painted dove-grey door of Community Clothing is pushed open, it rings an old-fashioned bell. It’s a quaintly charming touch. So is the coffee bar in the corner of the Blackburn store, with its retro peg-letter-board menu boasting Vimto, hot and cold. Vimto is a local favourite, and this company is all about the local.
Credit: Craig Easton
A social enterprise backed with £88,000 raised via Kickstarter, Community Clothing is a new fashion label from Patrick Grant. Proudly made in Britain from premium fabrics and sold at competitive prices, its pieces are stylish but not trendy, high-quality but not expensive, basic but not boring. It offers the wardrobe staples that the British high street used to excel at: simple knits, selvedge-denim jeans, raincoats and Harrington jackets in khaki and navy.
The brand arose as Grant’s solution to a perennial problem for domestic manufacturers such as Cookson & Clegg, the Blackburn factory that produces much of its clothing: a facility that was a hive of activity during peak order season fell silent during periodic lulls. As an alternative to a seasonal hiring model or zero-hours contracts, Grant introduced Community Clothing’s seasonless creations, which could be produced in slack periods throughout the year.
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Unisex crew neck jumper, £59, Community Clothing
Designed by his team in London, the mod-meets-utility aesthetic ensures production is at its most efficient for the factory. The Community Clothing Harrington jacket, for example, has no pocket flaps, and therefore no buttons and no buttonholes, which cuts back on machine operations, production time and component costs. Unlike a jacket by a designer brand, which will tweak the details on classic items seasonally
to offer something new, that Harrington will never be updated for the sake of it. Even a tiny change would necessitate patterns being recut, new samples made and machinists retrained.
Apart from jeans, which have to be cut differently, all the designs are unisex, but sized for men and women. ‘We’ve taken design classics and engineered them for the minimum number of sewing operations,’ Grant says. ‘We’ve taken out all those details that are usually put in to make a product feel more designed.’
Knitwear comes from Hawick in Scotland, which makes clothes for an enviable portfolio of luxury brands; Leicestershire firms provide socks and jersey for T-shirts; and more fabrics come from Rochdale, and the Yorkshire towns Bradford and Todmorden. Most of the line is made in a factory that supplies Margaret Howell, Nigel Cabourn and Grant’s own E Tautz.
As high-street retailers fight to undercut each other and high-end design houses become ever more expensive, the fashion middle ground of simple but quality products has been all but abandoned.
‘We’re trying to replicate those everyday essentials that existed when I was at school 30 years ago,’ Grant explains. ‘You can no longer buy good-quality basics. You can buy cheap basics but the quality is pretty poor and they just end up being disposable.’
The desire to pay a bit more for better quality is out there, as proved by the response to the Kickstarter campaign, which raised more than the target £75,000 in one month. ‘Everybody we’ve spoken to about it gets it,’ Grant says. ‘They ask why it hasn’t been done before.’
Unisex cardigan, £79, Community Clothing
Grant, 44, is the owner of Savile Row tailor Norton & Sons, but he’s more widely known for his immaculately suited appearances as a judge on the BBC’s Great British Sewing Bee – the Paul Hollywood of the sewing-circle set. He acquired Norton & Sons in 2005, while studying for an MBA at the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School (sales have grown tenfold since the acquisition), and revived its E Tautz and Hammond & Co lines in 2009 and 2013 respectively.
When he learnt that Cookson & Clegg, an E Tautz supplier, was on the brink of closure in 2015, he knew he had to take action. ‘The idea of all that knowledge and talent being lost was heartbreaking. I knew and liked the people in the factory and I’d been working with them for years. But they were also making bloody important products for E Tautz, which we couldn’t make anywhere else. So that April I bought Cookson & Clegg,’ paving the way for the launch of Community Clothing.
Unisex raincoat, £129, Community Clothing
Cookson & Clegg began as a producer of workwear for coal-delivery men in 1860, butby the First World War it had expanded into army uniforms. As recently as 1991, whenfactory manager Dave O’Kane joined as a cutter, it had Ministry of Defence contracts and 130 machinists. The move into fashion is another stage in its evolution. ‘We’ve done well to survive,’ O’Kane says. ‘As the market has changed, we’ve changed.’
To cut out retail costs, Grant approached eBay to host Community Clothing’s online store. ‘It felt philosophically right; it’s a community of sellers. It’s also very straightforward and accessible.’ Funding and exposure across the site have also been provided by eBay, and products have already been shipped to eight countries, proving there can be global interest in local business.
Unisex musette bag, £10, Community Clothing
Vital support has also come from Blackburn with Darwen Council, which gave the company a deal on the shop premises in a former cotton warehouse in Blackburn’s town centre. Now the shop, open two days a week, is a bright spot on an otherwise derelict street. Staffing and refurbishment costs were supported by Bootstrap, an organisation that helps the long-term unemployed get back to work.
Pupils from the local Tauheedul school helped paint the shop, with materials supplied by Crown Paints, another local business. As word spreads, more factories are offering their services, but Grant is keen for growth to be sustainable, and that means taking things slowly. The schools that have been in touch about Community Clothing making their uniforms will have to wait.
Unisex harrington jacket, £109, Community Clothing
Grant has supported other local businesses, too, making the project something the whole community can get behind. ‘Nobody can do it alone,’ says Councillor Phil Riley, executive member for regeneration at Blackburn with Darwen Council. He believes Community Clothing’s presence will help other local businesses see the area’s potential. ‘Manufacturing is what we do here,’ he goes on. ‘Now it’s a bit like we’re reinventing ourselves, remembering what we’re good at. And Patrick makes manufacturing sexy.’
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