The British denim design and production scene is having a moment. Here menswear brand Universal Works explains why denim, handmade in the UK, is a must.
Over the past few years, a select number of UK based designers have been championing the made here seal of approval proudly on their locally crafted jeans, which are so good, they are nipping at the heels of their more illustrious counterparts in the US and Japan.
These independents aren’t about pushing serious numbers. Here the focus is on small-scale production and high value goods, carried out by the UK’s finest manufacturers, many of whom have been in the business for over 100 years.
UK-based brand Universal Works is another contemporary menswear brand that has been tapping domestic workforce for its collection of workwear-inspired goods. Under the stewardship of founder and director David Keyte, the Nottingham-based brand has been steadily building a reputation as a manufacturer of top quality menswear garments since 2008.
Championing skilled, small-scale production is one of the core values of the brand. This means producing garments in the right place, both in the UK and overseas, working only with factories they trust, admire and are proud to be associated with.
When the brand recently launched “Workshop Denim”, a capsule range of premium selvedge five-pocket jeans and jackets – it was in the midlands of Britain that Keyte wanted to produce the denim pieces.
We caught up with David to chat all things denim and take an unseen look inside the British factory that produces his Workshop Denim collection:
WGSN: What was the drive to introduce the denim line for Universal Works?
David Keyte: Denim is probably my favourite fabric, one of the original workwear fabrics, a fabric that looks better with age and wear, it’s a fabric that says a lot about the wearer too, how you wear it, how you wash it, how it fades on you.
I always wanted to add denim and jeans to the collection but there is a level of investment needed and we had to wait at the beginning of the brand. I wanted to make jeans and jackets with great denim, but not just the same Japanese denim that everyone was going for, so I had to find the right European denim.
Also I only ever wanted to make it with one maker, but I had to wait until we were ready and also that they were ready for me!, to be ready for the commitment that launching a denim line demanded.
The shape and fit of UW jeans had to be right too, in our collection we don’t do skinny pants so maybe I wanted to wait until everyone, man and his dog was wearing crazy skinny jeans just so our loose fit jeans would be fresh!
WGSN: Why is “Made in England” so important to the brand identity of Universal Works?
DK: From the beginning of UW, “made in” has been less important that “made why” or ‘made by” I want to make products with soul, with meaning, with purpose, product for a longer life, not for a season and not for a fashion.
But behind that I also believed it was important we do make product in the UK and we do. In fact if possible we make local to where we are based.
‘We want to be part of a local community even though we also have a global focus.’
We never went out of our way to be all “made in England” or heritage or anything like that. We wanted to be contemporary and look to modern methods and skills, while not forgetting the great history and great past of British manufacturing.
We work closely with people we trust and believe in, people who make the right products for us in the right conditions with the right staff, treated in the right way. We like to think it is more “made with care”, “made with purpose”, and just about the country of origin, so yes all our denim line is entirely “Made in England” and proud of it but across our collections we make in UK, Portugal and India.
The “Made in England” concept was once dying, but in the recent couple of years it is very slowly becoming more common. Do you think there is potential to resurrect UK manufacturing on a larger scale in the foreseeable future?
To be honest I am not sure it is!
In fact I am not sure we want large scale production of garments in the UK if it leads to trying to make cheaper products for large brands and retailers that seem to control the market place, they will only push down prices and costs leaving people in low paid, low skilled jobs. If we make garments in the UK it has to be about higher value goods, smaller scale, more flexible and this will need major investment.
‘We have to start to value the product and the makers more.’
For a real return to major production we need huge investment in people, skills and infrastructure of the garment industry and that’s a tough task right now.
Our society is not set up for investing in people or for long term views about better jobs and high quality management and skills. Since the early eighties when UK government failed to support manufacturing industry we have only a finance/banking/service orientated and short term thinking economy. I hope one day we will turn this around but it takes a huge political change of heart to do so.
What are the key strengths of UK manufacturing that you look to?
We always look for the right skills and the right attitude wherever we make our product, UK or not. More than this, we ONLY work with people we actually like and trust, weird but we can do this as we are so small we don’t have to chase the cheapest price. We like to work with for the longer term, my major concern with all my UK makers is they are all nearer the end of their careers than the beginning, I need to push them to find some younger staff too to keep them going!!
Are there any particular factories/manufacturers that you would highlight for workwear/denim?
YES, the ones we work with now are all perfect, well at least they are for us, its taken me 25 years to get the right ones but I am happy with them; so you will need to buy me a couple of beers if you want that list.
Like what you just read? Follow Samuel on Instagram for the latest indigo inspiration and denim news.
DENIM HEAD? Our team of experts are at every trade show, determine tomorrow’s trends and know which looks are going to have a huge impact on your business.