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In France, the term ‘haute couture’ is protected by law, and designers must earn their right to title their goods as such. Should the same be true for brands claiming to be ‘British’? NJAL speaks to designers and industry experts, to unpack what it really means to be a heritage brand in a global marketplace…
In an industry where fashion brands outsource production to all parts of the world, and bringing in CEOs and designers from other countries is common practice, the question of what makes a ‘heritage brand’ has become increasingly complex.
For many of the UK’s most prominent fashion companies, such as Burberry, Mulberry and Barbour, being ‘British’ is a key aspect of their marketing strategy; latching on to quintessentially ‘British’ styles, from trench-coats to waxed jackets, and domestic production’s connotations of quality and craftsmanship.
As the hostile economic climate sees customers favour reliable brands and long-lasting products, the ‘British’ stamp on their goods goes a long way to explaining these companies’ success.
Exactly what makes a brand ‘British’ is not wholly clear. Mulberry terms itself an “English design company,” whose leather goods and clothing offer consumers “timeless British luxury”. In 2013, Ian Scott, Director of group supply at Mulberry, stated that all of the brand’s men’s bags are made in Turkish factories, while some of its luggage items and small leather goods are manufactured in China. This was despite Mulberry advertising its goods as being made in the Somerset factories the brand set up in 1973.
Cases such as this open up major questions of value – if a customer chooses British brands in order to buy into what they perceive as ‘British quality’, should a brand or designer be bound to keeping production local, or publicly state when it is not?
The fashion industry’s monitoring of the provenance of goods is noticeably undeveloped compared to that of other industries. Under EU law, quality foodstuffs can be granted Protected Geographical Status. Under this system – the most well-known example of which is champagne – goods may be marketed as the product of a geographical region only when they adhere to strict criteria, such as using ingredients from the region or ageing the produce there.
Jeffry M. Aronsson is the CEO of consulting and investment group Aronsson Group LLC, and has served as CEO of brands including Oscar de la Renta, Marc Jacobs and Donna Karan. “If the brand is to be marketed as a ‘British’ brand, it must have a reason – beyond nationalism ¬– for it to exist,” he says.
Aronsson emphasises that to justify being marketed in a certain way, a product must "walk the talk”, noting that when a brand claiming to be British sources goods globally, it may “undermine the brand by diluting its British authenticity”.
A prominent case of the above is that of Burberrry, whose tagline – “Iconic British Luxury Brand” – and marketing centres around the company’s heritage. The brand wears its Britishness on its sleeve, favouring British models in its campaigns, and integrating its roots into its online experience, through an interactive ‘Heritage’ section on its website, which walks visitors through the label’s history.
And yet, over the last seven years, Burberry has massively scaled back its UK production, closing its factories in Wales, cutting British jobs in Northern England – and cutting its production costs – in favour of cheaper Chinese labour. Despite this, the label maintains its Royal Warrants, suggesting that its status as a British company is rooted more in its history than its current operations. It might be argued that if its products uphold the quality that Britishness suggests, where the goods are made is of no consequence.
For young designers, for whom the necessity of producing in smaller quantities already limits their ability to compete with major retailers’ prices, keeping production local can be a tough commitment to make.
With many brands benefiting from British heritage as a successful marketing strategy, there is a case to be made that fashion companies’ use of a national or regional label should be regulated, to ensure that the quality it suggests is passed on to the consumer, and the integrity of ‘British fashion’ remains intact. Despite exposés such as Mulberry and Burberry’s sparking inflamed discussion about brands not properly earning their British status, whether official – or legal – steps will be taken to protect the label ‘British fashion’ is yet to be seen.
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