Fashion entrepreneur Ian Maclean has dozens of sweaters (“all of which I paid for, of course ...”), but a piece of history about the family firm that made these garments still surprised him when he joined as its new chairman in 2008.
Back in 1771, when Richard Arkwright invented the spinning frame knitting machine and opened what can claim to be the world’s first factory, three other textile entrepreneurs - one of them Maclean’s direct ancestor - emulated him. Only one of these businesses survived, at Lea Mills, Matlock in Derbyshire, and this is now known as the knitwear brand John Smedley. And so it transpires that Maclean, at 41, finds himself head of the world’s oldest continually operating manufacturing business, which is now 225 years old. That’s some responsibility.
“Two things have been on my mind since joining,” he says. “One, I don’t want to be the man who ends up turning all the lights out, and two, what a great opportunity I have. It’s only a small business, but it has a dream balance sheet thanks to my predecessors, who took great decisions.”
These decisions included huge investment in factory sites, buying up the surrounding land to have sole access to the spring water necessary for the making of fine knitwear, plus continued investment in the latest machinery, and an ability to persuade shareholders (who number about 70, owning 30% of the business) not to take back all their money in dividends, “to put off that decision to lie on a beach forever,” as Maclean puts it.
They are also decisions that in some cases go back more than two centuries, and heritage can be a millstone, holding companies back from vital progress, but right now it seems to be in demand. Increasingly, the recession is driving consumers to look for brands with certain key characteristics. These include traceability - and the buyer of each Smedley garment can trace its wool to the particular sheep farm in New Zealand that supplied it. We also like provenance - and this company manufactures only in England - and longevity, which Smedley clearly has in spades.
“I remember being told once that the customer doesn’t care where a Chanel shoe is made, just so long as it has the logo on it. But customers are looking beyond the surface of everything they buy now and are regarding different qualities as desirable,” says Maclean, who comes to Smedley - its seventh generation chairman - after spells with 3i and the outdoorsy clothing company Orvis. “If fitting into a renewed interest in provenance hits the zeitgeist, then I’m more than happy, but there’s always something new to do.”
That may seem an odd statement for a company that, superficially at least, has not done much new for a lifetime, but that has underpinned the brand, which recently won the Gold Export Award and the British Knitting and Clothing Export Council’s new Heritage Award. At heart, it is known for making one product the plain, resolutely logo-free, finest gauge wool or Sea Island cotton knitted shirt - and doing so exceptionally well. Even its employees seem part of a long tradition, with some having worked for the company for 40 years or more, with their children following in their footsteps.
That is just as well - a major problem Smedley is likely to face in the longer term is how best to attract young, aspirational people into training to fix a trim or collar to a shirt with the kind of instinctive hand-eye co-ordination that only comes with years of experience.
The company recently snapped up nine ‘linkers’ from a small competitor that closed, but it will increasingly have to develop its skills base itself. No wonder if, in the meantime, the ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ mentality is a tempting one to relax into.
Certainly, Maclean shies away from re-framing the company as part of fashion, as if that were some newfangled concept an established manufacturer in the north would little concern itself with.
“Fashion, to my mind, suggests boom or bust, something you’re either in or out of,” he says. Yet fashion has, to be fair, somewhat assisted the brand of late, with the gradual casualisation of the workplace meaning that the wearing of fine gauge knitwear with trousers or under a suit jacket is an increasingly acceptable alternative to the shirt and tie. Maclean, however, thinks of John Smedley as part of the broader style industry, albeit in a specialist way.
“We’re known for a single product and I think that if we tried to produce other kinds of clothing, as we could have done, we’d suddenly have to narrow our appeal to one end of the customer spectrum or the other, and at the moment that covers everyone from 18 to 65, depending on how you wear it,” says Maclean. “Does that mean we’re limited? I really don’t know.”
It certainly does not mean that John Smedley has failed to move forward. While its classic, simple knitwear, many designs dating to the 1930s, remain the brand’s bread and butter, design director Dawne Stubbs has introduced more colour and variety, such that the brand has picked up considerable attention from (whisper it ...) fashion followers.
These will no doubt be drawn to the special-edition ‘225’ collection launched last year to celebrate the anniversary. Indeed, over the last year the company has undergone a minor face-lift that has seen the refurbishment of its single flagship store on London’s Brook Street, an updated website and the gentle modernisation of its corporate identity. It may not be dragging the company into the cold light of the 21st Century, but nor it is leaving it in the 18th.
“The last few heads of John Smedley have been production-led in their thinking, and if one aspect of the business needed more work than the others, it would be the company image,” Maclean concedes. “We need to be better at the customer-facing stuff. We’re aware that few products can survive without the right image. We can still sell a lot more of the core product, and when we have a cushion of money we can do more risky things. I just want John Smedley to be in business for another 225 years.”
The factory floor at Lea Mills provides an apt analogy for the company’s position between the allure and quality assurances of yesteryear and the need to prepare for tomorrow. On one side the company has the most advanced, Japanese-made ‘whole garment’ machines - capable of knitting a shirt from spool of thread to finished garment and ideal for the more complex designs that John Smedley is now producing.
But on the other side stand ranks of clunking, whirring, Heath Robinson machines. Each has been producing fine knitwear for generations, and, most likely, they will continue to do so for many more to come.