Woolly but winning the business

Woolly but winning the business

Wool’s return to popularity is promising fashion designer Andrea Freeman a 50% leap in business with her revived brand – not bad for an enterprise barely two years old. She tells Brian Nicholls what’s selling and where.

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A near 50% leap in online business, likely this quarter, is a trend many firms of any size would love. For Andrea Freeman’s micro-operation, just over two years old, it’s reassurance indeed.

This entrepreneurial fashion designer and her tiny team in Darlington are driving sales of an historic brand both at home and abroad with her knitwear range being turned out for men and women - made from British wool and manufactured in Britain too.     

Having revived the famous Beehive brand that once spread the name of her native Darlington worldwide, Andrea now works with three manufacturers - in Nottingham, the Scottish Borders and Manchester. And she looks forward this autumn and winter to launching a Nordic collection of woollens, with styles available from this summer direct to consumers - as well as to extending her already successful Men of Action range.

Men of Action, the initial production run of her collection, is inspired by a wartime brand of heroes promoted in the original brand. It has sold out online. And, says Andrea: “There’s now a movement among big brands towards bucking the fixed season trend. The likes of Burberry and Tom Ford, among others, are asking why everyone should have to wait six months for products to land, by which time they’re almost out of date.

“This will affect wholesalers quite dramatically. So it’ll be an interesting agenda. Being a small company allows us to be flexible in our retail model. We can offer our core customer base in-season promotions and pre-order functions exclusively. This helps build loyalty.    

“We can test things and ultimately depend less on the seasonal cycle, bring product forward and alter runs depending on the weather. Take this recent February for example. The cold then kept the winter range still very much in demand.”

The Men of Action autumn and winter collection includes Great British Fairisles taken from the Beehive emblem. Argyle and cable knit jumpers sit comfortably alongside Beehive pointelle and fine gauge twinsets.

Key wholesale partners will be offered the ranges of this year and next to step up Beehive’s presence in the UK and Ireland, and Andrea proposes further export trials. “The Men of Action collection has drawn immense interest in Japan,” she reveals. “The ‘English gentleman’ look is very popular. So it’s important to capitalise on this and strengthen our new partnerships in Europe and Asia.”

Business so far in 2016 discloses new interest in Germany and Scandinavia from wholesale partners looking to supply Northern Europe. Beehive is also into its second season of trials with Japanese retailer Journal Standard. However it is the direct-to-consumer sales, web orders, that show most growth.

Andrea says: “To keep up momentum, that’s a key objective. We’re getting lots of engagement on our digital platforms and more enquiries off the back of our e-newsletters. The latest one received a 25% open-rate.”

That’s considerably higher than average for e-commerce – reportedly 16.8% according to Mailchimp. An illustrated appearance in the Daily Telegraph’s weekend magazine boosted traffic to the website more than expected, including many enquiries about sizes being re-stocked. More than 300 hits resulted.

Beehive was of course the famous brand of Patons and Baldwins, for which many of Andrea’s family once worked, as did thousands more in the Darlington area. Though she, during her career, worked with the Barbour clothing company, she never lost her fascination for Patons and Baldwins’ knitting wool factory in Darlington.

She collected a range of Beehive memorabilia, ranging from knitting patterns and shade cards for wool shops, then on to original adverts from the 1940s and 1950s, when home knitting in the war effort and beyond was extensive.  

Discovering an opportunity near the close of 2013 to revive the Beehive trademark and the 230-year-old brand, she seized it. Knitting is coming back into fashion among younger people, we’re told, and she has reinvented the brand by bringing mid-20th Century knitting patterns into the contemporary range now selling worldwide.

Andrea creates the designs in her Darlington studio. “Shapes need to be adapted a little from the original Beehive patterns to fit the modern figure. Our grandparents were slighter than we are,” she explains. “But this is part of the challenge. It felt natural to come home to the North-East after 15 years in the industry to start a label of my own. Northern Powerhouse is high on my agenda – I’m passionate about doing business here and proving fashion doesn’t belong to London. We’ve many plans ahead, recruitment included, as the Men of Action range expands and the Nordic collection comes in.”

Andrea is also an associate lecture at Teesside University. Earlier she was for seven years design and development manager at Barbour, South Tyneside’s globally renowned outdoor brand.  

On turning entrepreneur, Andrea launched her Redana Studio label, selling scarves made from recycled materials. “I’ve worn many hats,” she reflects. “But being able to create a new chapter in the Beehive story is a highlight indeed.”

She’s now thinking about designing children’s knitwear under the Beehive brand too.

Inside the Beehive

The Beehive business so inspiring Andrea began in 1785. James Baldwin of Halifax and his Scottish counterpart John Paton had set up individual companies to use the spinning-mule developed by Samuel Compton, and which revolutionised the manufacturing industry and textile trade.

In 1920 the two companies, J. and J. Baldwin’s Wool and Paton’s Yarns, noted individually for their commercial wool, merged. Patons and Baldwins was born. It diversified from commercial yarn spinning into producing wool for home knitters and publishing knitting patterns. These went under the trademarks Patons Rose and Baldwins Beehive. During the 1930s the company expanded in Scotland and the North of England, including at Billingham and Jarrow. Operations were also set up in Canada and New Zealand. Then In 1951 headquarters of the business was relocated from Halifax, in West Yorkshire to Darlington.

Building had begun for the Darlington move in 1945, six years before, and the cost on completion was £7.5m. This, however, became home to Europe’s largest wool manufacturing plant – indeed was recognised as the world’s most modern and largest single storey plant of its kind upon opening. It had its own railway sidings. It was also Darlington’s first major post-war industrial development, so Andrea believes.

At peak, the firm employed more than 4,000 people and was an original member of the FT 30 index of leading companies on London’s stock exchange. Its diversifications included an angora rabbit farm in Staffordshire and involvements in nylon and Terylene development. In 1961, however, the company merged with J & P Coats Ltd, and today Lingfield Point, a thriving business park, marks the site of 107 acres once occupied by Patons and Baldwins.

With the arrival there of Capita and its 450 staff last November, more than 3,000 people are working at 60 businesses there. A £100m masterplan envisages a mixed community to surround the existing business core, providing up to 1,300 homes, green open space and sports, school and healthcare facilities.