11 JANUARY 2003, Page 34

An early lead lost

Geoffrey Owen

HOSIERY AND KNITWEAR: FOUR CENTURIES OF SMALLSCALE INDUSTRY IN BRITAIN, 1589-2000 by Stanley Chapman OUP, 1:55, pp. 328, ISBN 0199255679 In 1926 Simon Marks, head of a littleknown chain of penny bazaars called Marks & Spencer, placed an order for men's socks with Corahs, a Leicester knitwear manufacturer. The order was kept secret — the Corah brothers did not want to offend the wholesalers, who forbade their suppliers from selling direct to retailers — but it proved to be the start of a beautiful friendship.

The cost to Marks & Spencer was 8s 6d for a dozen pairs of socks, a shilling less than a wholesaler would have charged. But Simon Marks was not just interested in lower prices. He wanted to distinguish M&S from Woolworths by upgrading quality and giving consumers real value for money. Hence he entered into a dialogue with Corahs on how the shilling saved could be spent on producing a better garment.

This was a boom time for ready-made clothing, helped along by the emancipation of women. Thanks to the new man-made fibres from Courtaulds, light underwear replaced the heavy woollen 'unmentionables' which women had worn at the start of the century, and shorter skirts created a

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huge demand for rayon stockings. For historical reasons production of hosiery, underwear and knitted outerwear such as cardigans and jumpers was concentrated mainly in the East Midlands, with a smaller enclave in the Scottish Borders, and this part of the textile industry expanded strongly in the inter-war years, while Lancashire cotton and Yorkshire wool were in steep decline.

Simon Marks's genius was to find a way of satisfying the growing market by offering good-quality clothing at affordable prices, and he did so by forging an extraordinarily productive and durable partnership with the hosiery and knitwear trade. This involved not just large orders but close cooperation on design and production methods.

For manufacturers who could meet Marks's exacting standards — they included several immigrant entrepreneurs, such as the Djanogly brothers, who became Marks & Spencer's largest suppliers of outerwear — it was a lucrative business, and it grew even faster after the second world war, with the vogue for mini-skirts, fishnet stockings, knitted leisurewear and sportswear. Only in the last decade, mainly because of cheap imports from low-wage countries, has the relationship broken down.

Yet, as Stanley Chapman explains in this detailed but entertaining history, there was a downside to Marks & Spencer's success. All M&S garments were sold under its own label, and, as it tightened its grip on the clothing trade, the scope for manufacturers to promote their own brands was greatly diminished, Up-market firms like Cox Moore and Pringle could do it, but it was hard to compete directly against M&S in the mass market. Apart from a few outstanding businessmen such as Brian McMeekin (Pretty Polly stockings) and Eric Pasold (Ladybird children's clothing), most firms preferred to throw in their lot with M&S.

While this made commercial sense for the firms concerned, it led to a neglect of design (since garment specifications were laid down precisely by M&S) and a lack of interest in competing for overseas customers. In Italy, by contrast, where there was no dominant mid-market retailer, manufacturers had both the incentive and the opportunity to promote stylish designs of their own, and the knitwear industry was a hugely successful exporter. Italian consumers were in any case more fashionconscious, and more keen on display, than their British counterparts.

These national differences, in Chapman's view, do not completely explain why British firms have lost so much ground to the Italians in recent years. He believes that the absence of design innovation and marketing flair reflects a deep-seated malaise which afflicted the industry for generations. Knitwear, he says, was cursed by a 'craftbased ideology' which was not conducive to entrepreneurial ambition. Interestingly, the two notable exceptions, McMeekin and Pasold, were both outsiders, the former an ex-stockbroker, the latter a Sudeten German from Bohemia.

Chapman castigates the East Midlands firms for relying too long on cheap female labour, and for setting their sights too low. Too many small firms stayed small because their owners were content with modest prosperity and time for other interests rather than great wealth or domination of their industry'. They were parochial, slow to take up new technology, and indifferent to training and education.

This argument is backed by a historical sweep which takes the reader from the invention of the stocking frame in the 16th century, through the Luddite riots that followed the Napoleonic wars, to the invasion of the industry by corporate empirebuilders (led by Frank Kearton) in the 1960s and 1970s. It is a highly informative account of the least studied branch of the British textile industry.

In the end, though, one wonders whether Chapman is too harsh. With hindsight, it is clear that the knitwear-makers should have been quicker to move away from churning out standardised goods (which are now mostly imported) and to adopt the Italian model. But all firms, not just British ones, find it difficult to break out of a formula that has worked well for a long time. Thanks in large part to Marks & Spencer, the East Midlands knitwear firms — or at least the more efficient among them — had a great run for some four or five decades. This is a good deal more than most businesses can hope to achieve.