Recognise the iconic Mulberry tree logo above? We visited the Mulberry factory in Somerset recently, about two and a bit hours by train away from London. We visited The Willows, which is their second UK factory in Somerset, after The Rookery which is not too far down the road. I have been lucky enough to do a few factory visits for the blog over the years, and it is something that I really enjoy. In my past life as an auditor, I have probably seen it all. Stock takes, start to end process notes, what is so interesting you ask. To put it in rather cliche terms, life is pretty much about the journey, not the destination. Take a train ride around the scenic fjords in Norway and you will understand, blink and you might miss it. I often engage with the PR teams, if we can do factory visits to see how some of the products are made, if we can visit the design studios to further understand what gives the final product sitting on the shelves. Opening up the factory floors to the press is no mean feat, it says "we have nothing to hide" and all is laid bare to see. I have been to a few where the press visits are fairly staged, and you can really smell the fish a mile away.
Factories have always been a touchy feely thing for most retail companies. Some have huge PR campaigns telling us what a feminist looks like, but backfired in the most amazing fashion (pun intended?) when the nation's favourite tabloid uncovered evidences of sweatshop conditions in making of said PR related products. Or Banksy-type guerrilla labels being sewn into garments of a certain retailer with flagships at the unfashionable ends of Oxford Street in London. Nothing this exciting at The Willows though, when the bell rang at 12:30pm and half the factory evacuated for the subsidised canteen, that is as real as it gets. Mind you, I'll do that too.
The opening of The Willows is a new chapter in Mulberry's manufacturing story, and reflects a £7.5 million investment in British manufacturing. The government's Regional Growth Fund also granted a further £2.5 million towards recruitment and training, if they could fulfil the various requirements, like hiring of over 50s or people with little or no post qualifications. Manufacturing in a developed country is expensive, anyone can tell you that. Mulberry is one of the last few high end retailers who chose to stay here and not be tempted by our cheaper EU neighbours, or my fellow comrades from the Far East. The shiny new factory in Somerset boast of solar panels which can generate 20% of their required electricity, and they collect enough rainwater to flush all the toilets. Trust me when I say it rains a lot here in the country. Mulberry is making significant investments to stay put, and the Made In England tag is fast becoming a luxury item as it is increasingly rare. All this, and I have not even mentioned about the craft.
Craft and heritage are something that consumers buy into these days. At the beginning of the visit, we were told of some line staff having emotional moments when they saw their final finished products. Some of us sniggered, I just thought "hashtag TOTES EMOSH!". These stories are not unheard of, I wrote about that when I visited the John Lobb shoe factory in Northampton a while back. I don't think taking pride in our work is anything to be ashamed of, when was the last time you were truly proud of what you achieved? I treated myself to a new bag when I beaten several candidates at a job interview at a major investment bank, where I had to solve a series of complicated Microsoft Excel formula queries within a set time as part of their initial screening. That was my past life as an accountant, having a little Keira Knightley moment in The Imitation Game, go see?
Empowerment is important to us, we all want to better ourselves. It is expensive, and I am more than qualified to tell you that as I have been a victim of ill-informed outsourcing, only to hear stories of how operations were scaled back to the UK after a while. I feel that retailers with low volume but high margin products should rightly invest in their people. I am careful not to use the term luxury, as this company issued several profit warnings in a row and adjusted their price points, so I am not exactly sure where we are at. Maybe I should put on my Finance hat and interview the management, but that is another story.
It was a short fleeting factory visit, the train journey was way longer. Alas, no fjords but I did have good company with me. The thing I took away was that Mulberry is proud to remain manufacturing in the UK (and a bag too, yes wham bam thank you ma'am). All that is left, is for someone to head and creatively direct the team in a permanent capacity. We all love Cara Delevingne and her Mulberry range is surprisingly appealing, but she has movies to act and runways to strut. At close of writing, I was assured that the Creative Director front will be revealed very soon. Let the rumours commence.
edit 27th November 2014: no need for rumours anymore. Mulberry has announced that Johnny Coca, former Céline accessories design director, will be appointed as their new Creative Director, effective July 2015. Exciting times!
Johnny Coca, new Creative Director for Mulberry effective July 2015.