One could hardly be blamed for considering London to be the fashion capital of the UK. It is, after all, the financial centre of the country as well as being home to numerous designer boutiques and the famous London Fashion Week.
In Global Language Monitor’s annual Global Fashion Capital Survey, London was said to be the third most influential fashion hub on the planet - surpassed only by Paris and New York.
But away from the ‘Big Smoke’, a fashion revolution is taking place, and it’s happening right here in the city of Manchester. You only have to take a stroll down some of Manchester’s streets to recognise that this is a city that is putting itself firmly on the fashion map.
From trendy independent stores in the Northern Quarter to multi-million pound online brands that have based themselves in the North West, Manchester is fast becoming the place to be for fashion. A lot of work is being done to narrow the gap between the economies in the North and South, and this is only going to make the former an even more attractive place for fashion-conscious entrepreneurs to set up shop.
In this report, Forward Role explores the Northern fashion industry, starting with its roots as the centre of the UK’s cotton industry, right through to today where a digital transformation is taking Manchester by storm. We speak to a number of independent fashion brands and industry experts from all over the country, to get their thoughts on whether ‘Cottonopolis’ could become the online fashion capital of the UK.
Incidentally, Manchester was nowhere to be seen in the Top 50 of the aforementioned Global Language Monitor report, but as we’re about to find out, it won’t be long before this burgeoning fashion haven starts to earn the recognition it deserves.
Manchester’s roots in fashion
While all eyes may fall on the capital, it’s arguable that the North West has an even richer history in fashion than even London. The North’s fashion history stretches back a long way, right back to the 19th century in fact. During this era, Manchester was known as ‘Cottonopolis’ and was the focal point of the country’s entire cotton trade and textile industry.
So here’s a brief history of Manchester’s cotton industry
1781 - Richard Arkwright opens the world’s first textile mill powered by steam on Miller Street in Shudehill.
1816 - The number of steam-powered cotton mills in Manchester alone reaches 86.
1853 - The number of cotton mills in Manchester reaches its peak of 108.
1870 - The term “Cottonopolis” is first used to describe Manchester.
1924 - The last Manchester cotton mill is constructed at Miles Platting.
While these are just a few key dates on the vast landscape that is Manchester’s history, the incredible influence that the cotton industry had on this Northern city should not be underestimated. After the 1850s, the cotton industry began to expand outside of the city into the surrounding areas of Bolton and Oldham, but the centre of Manchester has always remained a strong influence in the UK’s fashion industry.
From textiles to trend setting
Fast forward almost a hundred years, and Manchester has come a long way since the days of cotton mills and warehouses. Whilst the city is no longer famous for producing and trading in textiles, it has now earned itself a much bigger reputation as a huge player in the world’s fashion scene.
A home to unique and independent brands
Of all the districts within the city of Manchester, one in particular has gained a reputation for its unique style and has become a magnet for those seeking out clothes and accessories that you won’t find anywhere else. We are, of course, talking about the Northern Quarter, often described as the “fashionable bohemian” area of the city and considered to be the beating heart of Manchester’s creative side.
You only have to walk down the streets in the Northern Quarter to recognise that it is worlds away from the central retail district. Evidence of the old mills and warehouses still remain, but they are now occupied by independent fashion stores ranging from the eclectic to vintage and everything in between.
And the shining jewel in the Northern Quarter’s crown is the famous Affleck’s Palace - or Afflecks as it has been known since a grand re-opening in April 2008. Since the early 1990s, Afflecks has been the ultimate place to go if you want to explore alternative fashion from independent stores for everyone in the family.
That’s not all the Northern Quarter has to offer. There’s Junk Shop, the sustainable fashion store that collaborates with some of Manchester’s best up-and-coming designers; Oi Polloi, whose mission it is to provide an ‘antidote for stale and uninspired menswear’ and hosts sales of rare adidas trainers that draw overnight queues; and Tokyo Royale, which stocks everything that can be categorised as ‘alternative’, including steampunk, Harajuku and geek-inspired items.
Katrina Urwin, founder and owner of Manchester-based jewellery store Hoochie Mama, believes that it is this incredible variety that makes Manchester such a wonderful city for fashion entrepreneurs:
“Manchester is a great place to set up your brand. We have a great community vibe up here because the city centre is quite compact and the fashion industry is close knit. It’s got quite the village feel at times whilst also being edgy, lively and cosmopolitan. I moved to Manchester for the disco and fashion. We have such a vibrant music scene up here and the rich musical heritage spans more than just the Hacienda and Oasis. I think historically that marriage between music and fashion has inspired many Northern designers.”
Behind the scenes
We’ve explored Manchester’s incredibly diverse fashion scene. On one side of the city you have your mainstream high-street stores, which attract thousands of visitors a week, and on the other you have your sub-culture outlets which are just as popular. All tastes and styles are truly catered for and accepted. But this isn’t just happening on its own.
It’s widely known that the city of Manchester is home to some of the finest education institutions in the North West. Aside from the University of Manchester and the Metropolitan University, the colleges and schools offer some incredible courses that cover everything you would ever need to know about fashion…
The University of Manchester
Fashion Management (BSc)
Fashion Marketing (BSc)
Fashion Retail (BSc)
Fashion Buying and Merchandising (BSc)
Manchester Metropolitan University
Fashion (BA Hons)
Fashion Design and Technology (BA Hons)
The Manchester College
Foundation Degree in Fashion and Clothing Technology
Manchester School of Art
Fashion (BA Hons)
“There are some brilliant fashion courses up here in the North, including those at UCLan and MMU. There are plenty of opportunities so students don’t necessarily have to move to London as soon as they’ve graduated. The students are ambitious and creative, but to hit the ground running as soon as they graduate I think more business and analytics need to be learned from an earlier stage in order to compete with global competition.”
By offering such a wide variety of courses and options, Manchester makes it clear that it welcomes people from all over who want to study and enter the vibrant and varied world of fashion.
Move over London, is there a new event capital in town?
London is considered to be one of the most influential fashion hubs on the planet. It is said to be one of the four major fashion capitals of the world, alongside New York, Milan, and Paris, which each host their own Fashion Week throughout the year.
But, as we’ve already alluded to, Manchester doesn’t always get the recognition that it deserves. Whilst we would expect Paris to dominate as the global fashion capital, it was surprising and a little disheartening not to see Manchester on Global Language Monitor’s annual survey, which saw other cities such as Krakow, Florence and Antwerp ranking amongst the 56.
But this is already starting to change and Amanda Moss took inspiration from the capital in order to start Manchester’s very own Fashion Week, helping to give Manchester the recognition that it truly deserves. This five-day event, dedicated entirely to showcasing fashion in the North West, gives designers large and small from the local area the chance to see their creations brought to life on the catwalk.
When asked what inspired her to set up the event, Amanda said:
“I’ve been saying this for years - #northwestisbest. My shows are sold out every year, there is a huge demand for designers in the North West; the problem is attitudes need to change elsewhere.”
And Amanda isn’t the only person to think that. In October 2013, Manchester played host to Vogue’s ‘Fashion’s Night Out’; the first time the event was hosted anywhere other than the capital.
“Every city has its own sense of style, and although the UK is relatively small, as it’s an island, it can experience extremes in terms of both weather and behaviour. Manchester itself has a mixed and diverse identity, not just in terms of fashion but also music and culture; although in some ways it’s similar to that of London, it also moves at its own pace.
“We thought it’d be a good idea to go somewhere different, instead of just a different area of London, and due to its diverse fashion culture, naturally Manchester was our first choice.”
The sheer diversity on the streets of Manchester shows how the North West’s independent fashion industry is thriving. But there is growing evidence that the region’s digital industry is also growing at pace. There are a number of huge online fashion brands choosing Manchester as their home as opposed to London, and they are starting to really dominate the world wide web.
One of these powerhouses is Boohoo.com, which found its feet in one of Manchester’s most well-known districts. It has become one of the biggest employers in the area; helping to boost the city’s economy and working closely with the local talent.
Katie Curran from Boohoo.com told us how proud they are to call Manchester their home:
“Boohoo.com was originally born out of a successful wholesale business called Pinstripe, which was based where our HQ is now located in the heart of the Northern Quarter. This has remained our home ever since and we are proud to be such a big employer in the area. In more recent years we acquired our warehouse in Burnley, which in August 2015, saw investment and extension that delivered 270,000 additional square feet, delivering a vast amount of new job opportunities.
“Our business is global so the reality is we could be based anywhere, but Manchester and Burnley are our home and we intend to stay.”
Why should businesses choose Manchester?
As strong as Manchester’s reputation is becoming in fashion circles, businesses surely need more than a trendy vibe in order to bring their operations to this neck of the woods? In truth, Manchester ticks a lot of boxes.
It’s well-known that the North is significantly cheaper compared to the South. Fuel, commercial property to rent and mortgages are all cheaper in Manchester compared to London - so it makes perfect financial sense to lay roots here.
Cheaper rent was cited by Amanda Moss as one of the key advantages to setting up a business in Manchester as opposed to the capital - “Cheaper rents than London mean businesses can grow faster in Manchester.”
As we have already explained, Manchester has an abundance of nearby institutes of higher education to choose from when it comes to cherry-picking future talent. And those we have listed aren’t the only ones; a little further North is UCLan, the University of Bolton, a number of schools in Liverpool and Edge Hill. Every year, thousands of students graduate and flock to central cities such as Manchester looking to start their careers. With big brands like Boohoo.com and Missguided already set up, and so many opportunities to start your own adventure, it’s no wonder that people choose Manchester.
Manchester has always prided itself on being a friendly city and with so many independent stores lining the streets of the Northern Quarter, it’s clear that designers starting their journey are willing to band together for support. If the city is ever going to rival some of the big fashion capitals of the world, this support is key.
Natalie Fahey, Marketing Manager at Public Desire,
“The North West has always been a thriving business community, and it’s fantastic to see it becoming a fashion hub and especially putting Manchester on the map. Looking back to when I personally finished University, I thought my only job prospects would have been in London but the Manchester fashion scene started to develop. I presume it’s due to the amount of wholesalers in the area and the strong courses that the surrounding universities offer.”
How will things change in the future?
It’s clear that digital is on the rise in the world of fashion. As people become more comfortable with buying clothes that they haven’t seen in person or tried on, online fashion sales will continue to increase every year. In February 2016, online clothing sales showed an increase of 22% year-on-year, which was the biggest growth seen since June 2013.
Despite this, and the ongoing demand for user-friendly websites and apps where people can purchase clothes, the experts still think that nothing will completely replace traditional shopping methods:
Leslie Docherty believes that although we have seen the rise of digital, nothing can replace the thrill of heading down the high street:
“If anything I think there is a bounce back to bricks and mortar retail. I talk to customers and they still enjoy the shopping experience. All big operators know they need to have a good retail store; this in itself drives traffic to the website.”
Amanda Moss echoes that sentiment, and believes there will always be a place for both:
“People will always want to shop online. But you cannot beat the thrill of walking into a shop and feeling the material and trying things on. Shopping is like a drug!”
So we’ve heard it straight from the experts; Manchester truly is an up-and-coming place to be for those looking for a future in fashion. Those who have their sights set on a career in this industry, whether it’s starting your own business like so many of our designers, should not feel like they have to move all the way to London just to pursue big opportunities.
Huge things are starting to happen away from the capital, and the part that Manchester plays in that should not be ignored. So no matter what stage of your fashion journey you are currently at, now is the time to act.