‘From champagne to watches, some luxury goods will forever be synonymous with the places where they are made. So much so that to make them anywhere else would be to rob them of all authenticity.’
So reads the manifesto of Joshua Ellis, the textile mill that was established in 1767 and is tucked away in an industrial corner of West Yorkshire. But while the Champagne region (just east of Paris) and Geneva are centres of luxury manufacturing that have a certain glamourous ring to their names, the same cannot be said of Batley. And yet when you see one of Ralph Lauren’s suits or Chanel’s dresses totter down their respective catwalks, chances are that’s exactly where the fabrics for these designs were woven.
“Traditionally, the water here in Batley was important to give the fibers a softer handle,” says Kristie Reeves, Joshua Ellis’ Design and Sales Director. “Today we are still based in Batley because of the history of the people who work here. For example, when we moved from the old factory we wanted to move as short a distance as possible so that we could keep the skilled work force.”
Indeed, in a Digital Age where the job-for-life mentality is thin on the ground, preserving skills and specific craftsmanship is a main priority. “We are investing in quite a few apprentices right now,” says Reeves who reveals that most new trainees are not necessarily related to current staffers, as would have been the case a generation ago. “We have got a lot of young people training-up to learn the skills in the finishing and wet-finishing processes, weaving, yarn testing and scarf processing.”
This dynamic mix of the young and the old extends to the machinery itself which makes a cacophony of comforting noise like some strange, mechanical lullaby. “We still have some really old machinery because it gives the exact finish that some customers want,” says Reeves. “For example, the teasel gig is around 100 years old.”
The teasel gig is a gigantic cylindrical drum with stripes of dried prickly plant heads from the Dipsacus plant (commonly known as teasel) positioned along its length; an unlikely contender to the fiercely modern computerised machines that do the job of many hands/hours at lightening speed, if ever there was one. “Everybody wants everything yesterday,” says Reeves with an exasperated giggle. “When it comes to our classical customers what they want is lighter fabrics. However, when it comes to our fashion customers there is a trend for heavy fabrics imitating vintage fabrics.”
“The climates of emerging luxury consumer markets [such as the Middle East] have been a factor in the demand for lighter fabrics,” continues Reeves. “And it’s these new markets which are protecting the luxury fashion industry from recession which, in turn, is helping to protect us.”
Because, ladies and gentlemen, it is us, the Great British customer, who has put our local textile mills at risk, addicted as the nation is to cheap, mass-manufactured crap. “People here make quantity a priority over quality,” says Reeves who confesses that Italians have a better appreciation for the Joshua Ellis product than Brits do. “People don’t appreciate how much work goes into making our fabric and I think that’s what’s missing from many British consumers: the appreciation for locally-made luxury.”
(Of course, it goes without saying that Joshua Ellis’ cashmere can be found here at The Tobacco Warehouse in Nomad Atelier’s Nina jacket, straight skirt and drop-crotch pant designs; key pieces for a stealth wealth, avant-garde wardrobe that will last a lifetime.)
“We are continually trying to develop our business in different ways: growing our scarf business while continuing to work with the big fashion houses and to diversify. We never stand still; we never get complacent. We have got to keep moving all the time to keep people interested.”
And so like any luxury goods company with a mission to stay relevant in the 21st Century, Joshua Ellis is focussed on the issue of sustainability and preserving luxury, “because if we don’t protect the fibre supplies now there won’t be any in the future.”
To this end, Reeves has been to Mongolia to see for herself the problems facing the cashmere business and makes this pledge: “I want to work long-term on these sorts of projects so that we can continue to get the fibre in 50 years time. We’re also working with British Alpaca — it’s sustainable; has a low carbon footprint, and its natural colors are eco-friendly because they don’t need any dye stuffs.”
Listening to Joshua Ellis’ dynamic future makes you wonder if George Osborne, with his Northern Powerhouse rhetoric, actually knows what’s going on up here. “We do get frustrated,” admits Reeves. “The Government has only just started to talk about the importance of Northern manufacturing when, in fact, we’ve always been here. We do need Government support and investment because all the time you hear of mills closing down.”
It’s true. Only last year, Robert Noble, a mill based in Peebles in the Scottish Borders region and whose origins dated back to 1666, was closed down with 87 job losses. Bradford’s biggest wool mill, W & J Whitehead in Laisterdyke, closed in 2001 with the loss of 600 jobs.
“It’s not a case of when one mill closes down that you pick up their business; their business has gone because the business itself has shrunk,” says Reeves. “It’s sad because the smaller the industry gets, the harder it becomes.”
So make sure you do your bit for the local textile industry this season and invest in some deliciously soft Joshua Ellis cashmere. I promise that if you sip enough champagne, Batley does end up having a certain glamourous ring to it.