What a fascinating conversation I had with John Wright, the Managing Director of Brisbane Moss. I just learned so much about the textile industry from this conversation. We talk about how fashion tastes of consumers are changing to be more, I guess, sustainable with a focus on quality, as opposed to the fast fashion and disposable models made famous by Primark, Boohoo and Topshop, for example. It was just a really interesting conversation. We talked about everything from how social media and technology has resulted in an explosion of young designers who are setting up their own fashion labels to cater to unique alternative tastes, which is really good for business because they service all ends of the market.
Aside from their heritage, being a company that's been around for 140 years, we discuss what makes them unique and why brands like Prada, Gucci, Ralph Lauren, and others source from them. They are also a business that moves with the times and John explains in a lot of detail how they use social media and technology to reach new markets and service new customers. I think you're going to really enjoy the conversation. From Red-Fern Media, this is Remake Manufacturing. My guest this week is John Wright, an experienced Managing Director of Brisbane Moss. He is a senior leader within the textiles industry and is skilled in the management and leadership of trends and analysis within the textile and fashion industry. John Wright, welcome to the show.
John Wright (01:47):
It's a pleasure, David. It's nice to meet you.
Good to meet you as well. Thank you very much for doing this. So, just a little bit of background to give everyone some context, after leaving school at 16, you spent a lot of time on the sports field. You did some work in printing, and then at 22 years old, you got a job selling cloth. Tell us how you got your start in the world of cloth and apparel.
John Wright (02:13):
Well, it wasn't planned. At school, I went to a basic comprehensive school in Manchester and we were offered, at the end of our final year, some career advice. One of the things they pushed the boys of my academic qualifications to was an apprenticeship, something that really should be brought back now. My father had a great work ethic and he'd installed into myself from a very early age that you had to work hard to achieve anything. Thankfully, I was offered an apprenticeship with a printing company in Manchester.
So, during this time, which was a four year apprenticeship, you had to work for four days a week in actually the printing practice. You did every job from cleaning up, making teas, delivering goods. Everything, really. Give you a fully rounded aspect of what work was, and one day a week you went to technical college to learn theory, techniques, new technology, and one of those skills that I learned was screen printing. So, screen printing is part of the textile or one of the components in textiles.
I finished my apprenticeship at 20 and I'd learned to screen print. One of the things I wanted to do was set my own T-shirt printing business up, which at the time was probably too far ahead of its time and I didn't have the right experience. But through a friend, I was offered a position in a company in London who needed someone who had technical skills for printing and maybe a sales leaning. I went to work for this company in London at the age of 20. Literally, I built a range of fabrics and prints, which at the time, that was what they specialised in. It was a product called sublimation, which is when you actually heat printed paper onto a fabric and put it through a machine at 200 degrees. Outside the other end comes printed fabric. Really, that's how it all started for me.
Really interesting. Then you tell a really interesting story about when you were actually in London. I think it was your first day or second on the job. You were looking for, how am I going to sell, find new clients, and it just so happened that you bumped into someone that you knew in Manchester who just so happened to be buying cloth. Tell us that story.
John Wright (05:16):
Yeah, that's right, and that's a great understanding of it's not what you know, it's who you know, and it was true. I was in the centre of London. I'd just started. I had a bag of fabrics. I had a bag of samples, which I was touting out in the centre of London. At the time in London, central London around great Margaret Street, East Castle Street, Mortimer Street was the whole textile industry. That's actually changed now and gone into a more media industry around those areas. But I was parked on Mortimer Street and was rooting around the back of my car going to see a next client, and walking down the road was a girl who I knew from nightclubs in Manchester. At the time in the nightclub, she was the coatroom attendant and I used to go in the clubs with the friends. It was a club called Placemate 7 in Manchester.
We'd not seen each other for years and she saw me in the street and she was with another lady. She said, "Great to see you. What have you been doing?" We had a catch-up and she said, "What are you doing here?" So, I said, "I'm selling fabric." I said, "What are you doing? She said, "I'm buying fabric." So, I said, "Who for?" She said, "Great Universal," which at the time was probably the largest retailer of fashion wear. This is before the High Street had so much domination. She said to me, "Come in and see me tomorrow." I did. She was unavailable, and as you do, you thought this was just a missed opportunity or a windup.
Her assistant came down, the girl I'd met the other day with her, and she said, "Michelle can't be with you. Can you come back on Monday?" I came back on Monday. We went into a meeting. She opened the door to what was then many opportunities, and it was ... That was another story there. But it was a strange thing that happened. Sometimes in life, people need breaks, and that time I got the break.
That was a big break.
John Wright (07:35):
It was, and we continued the relationship. Probably, the business went on for maybe four years. She was absolutely an angel, a fantastic girl. The business changed and I then started my own business after four years with the company I was with in London, and we continued business then for a further four or five years. So, yeah. It's strange how you always be good to people on the way up because you'll meet them at some stage, and this girl, in the nicest way, looked after me and benefited my career.
Great story. Great story. Thanks for sharing that. So, tell us a little bit more about Brisbane Moss, for those that don't know. I understand you've been around for 140 years. You're essentially a manufacturer of really top quality cloth, but tell us a little bit more.
John Wright (08:30):
Actually, it was 1858. The history of the company can be traced back to 1858.
John Wright (08:38):
Brisbane Moss is regarded as the world's leading producer of corduroy and moleskin. As a company, we carry 40, 50 ranges of corduroy, moleskin, flat cottons, linen, and velvet. In each range, there are about anywhere between six to 30 colour options. So, if you put it all together, we carry about 900 SKUs or options in the range, and these all have to be stocked in our warehouse in Todmorden, which is in the [inaudible 00:09:12] Calder Valley, for immediate dispatch or immediate offerings to customers. That's one of the problems that we have. We are a stock service business catering to the world. We export all over the world, everywhere from Japan, America, Middle East now, and there's so many emerging markets that are coming through. It's predominantly men's fashion and country apparel, but there are theatre and film costumes that we supply, and then there's the growing market of furnishing, which is proving very popular. It's a challenge. To keep everything running smoothly is probably the greatest challenge.
You don't hear of many British manufacturers exporting abroad, and I also imagine that over 140 year career, the company has had to change a lot over that period of time to stay relevant and maintain its position and a business. Talk about, at a high level, how the business has changed over the last, I don't want to say 140 years, but let's say the last 50 or 60 years, and how is it that you're remaining relevant today in a market that's changing so quickly?
John Wright (10:33):
Well, I don't think the business has changed our business. We supply on three key requirements. Quality, service. The quality, we can't change that. It's taken 140, 150 years to develop the skills, and these skills were developed by artisans. The Calder Valley where we're based was this sort of breeding ground of great expertise, traditions, techniques, and from the original days when there was no automation and prior to anything else where corduroy was hand cut on a table.
As times and techniques and technical changes took over, the requirement that we've always still worked, and we still work to now, is quality. We are the leading producer of corduroy and moleskin, and even in Italy where they make these products as well. The company, Brisbane Moss, excels in its quality, and that's what we've always worked to. That's what we'll always work to, with a service and the, as I say, the unique selling point that we actually are a stock business. But quality will always emerge as the key requirement for people, and it's one that we've never veered too far away from.
Really interesting. So, that leads on to my next question. Why do clients buy from Brisbane Moss when they could buy from other manufacturers in cheaper countries that have lower overheads and potentially get a cheaper product? What is it that clients are buying when they're buying Brisbane Moss?
John Wright (12:36):
It goes back to quality. In the UK, we undersell ourselves. We've got some absolutely fantastic creative people. We've got some creative mediums that we work through. But as time has gone by, the bar is always set by one or two companies or one or two people, and time chips away at these, and then price. Over the last probably 20 years, price has become more key in the world. Everyone wants anything. There's absolutely drive to the bottom. I think pre-COVID that not only the textile industry, but the world in some various stage has driven itself or tore itself apart.
I think we have to look at the whole future, the textile industry, the whole planet, and look at trying to put these two back together, and the constant requirement for chemicals, raw material through discount retailing, huge manufacturing. It's got to end at some stage, and I think now when people look at the wardrobes, the wardrobes are completely full. There's no requirement to buy any more clothes. We have enough T-shirts, we have enough trousers, we have enough shoes now to last the majority of people a lifetime. I don't think there's any requirement to buy any more clothes. So, you have to look at it. The only reason that people want to buy clothes, or they should be buying clothes, is the desire to look better, different, or something, and that's where quality comes in.
The buy and throw away market, yes, there will always be that. It's the younger end of the market. They want to be seen in something different every week when they're having pictures taken on Instagram and they can't wear the same clothes. That market will always be there, and companies like Boohoo and Pretty Little Thing have dominated that market. But I think the majority of people have enough clothes now to last them a lifetime, and if they're going to buy something, they want something special, that makes them feel special, that is suitable for all occasions, and it's classic and it lasts the test of time. You're not buying a product for two months, two years. You buy a product that can be reworked or tailored in or something, and a good product that we sell lasts 20, 30, 40 years. We have people who have bought corduroy from us who still have them 40 years later.
John Wright (15:39):
The product stands the test of time.
Really interesting. As you say, over the last few years, you've seen people or brands like Forever 21 and, go down the list of Boohoo and a number of online retailers that are catering to fast fashion, lower quality, cheaper, but it's more disposable. But what you're saying is that there's still huge demand for higher quality products that last for a longer period of time, and people are willing to pay a premium for that.
John Wright (16:13):
I wouldn't say huge demand. When we look at our market, we're probably selling to the top 5% of money earners. It doesn't mean that people with an average income can't buy our products. They can do, and our products run through the whole marketplace. But some of our products end up in very high end garments for brands like Gucci, Loro Piana, Ferragamo. These brands, they sell beautiful products and it's the whole design, the whole-
John Wright (16:48):
... culture, experience that you're buying into. I have no issue with the brands like Forever 21, Boohoo we just mentioned there. They have developed a market, which wasn't there before. They've created fantastic businesses, especially Boohoo, who I've seen develop over the past 10 years. You've got to take your hat off to what they've created. They've created something very different, and it's direct and it can be within 24 hours of someone purchasing, They're wearing the garment.
But that's a certain market. Our market is at the other extreme end where people have maybe saved money or people have a desire. A lot of our customers have a desire or a passion for fashion, excuse the pun there, and they want to look special. They want to look different. They want to wear the latest look, the latest colours, and because the way things work, the high-end brands can offer those. They're buying into a lifestyle. I have no issue with that, and they are the meat and veg of our customers, and without them, we wouldn't be as we are now.
So, what are the biggest growth areas for Brisbane Moss? You talked about the high end fashion retailers, you talked about furniture as well. But are there any other growth areas that you're really excited about that is seeing a lot of opportunity at the moment?
John Wright (18:25):
Well, one thing that we have seen, and again, over the last sort of 12, 14 months have just been a life changing experience for many people, sadly for better and mostly for worse, the mount of redundancies or businesses that will close or have closed. I don't think the full extent will hit until the furlough scheme's finished. But we can already see that there are young designers, young people who've coming out of either college and worked for some of the larger store groups or larger design companies, and maybe these companies are making redundancies or people have seen a lifestyle that they're not happy with.
If you were living in London and you're on a train or the underground for one and a half hours before you get into work and then you have a very mundane job. A lot of the designers don't actually ... They're not allowed to be creative and express their own creative talents. They're actually targeted in certain areas and they have to work within certain parameters. Maybe those now with the change of lifestyle and how COVID has affected the shutdown and not being able to meet friends and different people, it's given people a different perspective.
I think what we've seen over the last 12, 15 months, even prior to COVID, is that the emergence of small little brands where they can start from their own bedroom. They can use their own creative talent. They can put a range of clothes together from businesses like ours who stock fabric, and that's one of the key things, going back to our business. We actually stock millions of pounds worth of fabric in our warehouse. We have hundreds of several hundred thousand meters of fabric, and people can buy from one meter to 2,000 meters and have it shipped within 24, 48 hours from our factory.
Is that quite unique in the industry? Sorry to interrupt you. But is that quite-
John Wright (20:48):
Yeah. Again, I would say of the three key criteria to our business is a quality service, and we have this USP of a stock service business, and we are the largest stock service business of corduroy and moleskin in the world. There's no other company like us.
Amazing. Is that mainly for accessibility reasons? If a client has a tight turnaround and wants to get product now, they can come to you and get access to-
John Wright (21:19):
That's what they do. That is our USP. In our industry, the minimum requirement of fabric you can buy is 500 meters of one colour. Now, the average person setting off a business can't facilitate that. They have no background. They have no customers. So, they can come to a company like us. They could buy two meters of multiple fabrics. They could make a range of chinos or range of jackets, and using digitisation, they can be selling worldwide within 24 hours. They can get a reaction. They can come back to us and then they can buy maybe 10 meters. They can buy a roll. We've seen some fantastic businesses over the past few years who've grown dramatically at the higher-end of the market because of the facilities we've offered them.
It's a business, so they're paying for it. But they have the option to dive into our business, to pull back to then return, and they know, and because the way we operate our business, as I say, we have 900 options, these 900 options do not change. We sell the same colours. We sell the same fabrics year in, year out. We have done for decades. We have done for multiple decades. Again, someone can buy from us 20 years ago and they could buy the same fabric in the same colour, and hopefully the colour and the fabric would exactly match the original product. In fact, the probably original product would have changed. But yeah. We have standards that we set ourselves for colour matching and and technology-wise, and that creates the opportunity for people to return to our business and be flexible in their own business.
I think that's why people have entrusted us with their products, and going back to the growth area, I think that will grow and grow and grow. I think the opportunity for young designers, young entrepreneurs to dip into this market, see if they can obviously be flexible and say the availability of websites now and how they get Instagram, they can promote a business to grow-
From their bedrooms.
John Wright (23:47):
... from their bedrooms and be just as competitive and probably just as face-fronting as someone of the higher-end, like, say, Gucci, someone like that.
Yeah. Really interesting. So, you're serving both end of the market. You're serving the established high-end retailers, Gucci, Prada, and those guys, but you're also serving the younger entrepreneurial startups who are more creative, have lower overheads because they're operating from their bedrooms, but they want to do something. They want to start a business on the side and then see where that goes. So, you give them the flexibility to be able to create products or one-offs.
John Wright (24:31):
Yeah. That's right. Yeah. That's right. Yeah. Our customers, anywhere from Gucci, as I mentioned, Loro Piana, Ralph Lauren, in the UK, Cordings of Piccadilly. But there are multiple young up and coming brands who are coming on stream daily, and this will grow. What I said before about people, people want uniqueness. They don't always want to wear the same color. They want to delve into fashion, but they don't want to be on the High Street, which I was involved with for 20 years. It was the same thing, the same color, the same look, and whoever could just drive the price down to get the maximum business.
We've seen this happen now with businesses, even from my day when I first started, companies like British Home Stores. And companies that are still surviving that will have to change their business model. Even Marks & Spencer's now are selling other companies or other brands' product because can't get their fashion business right. They had in the '90s and the early '00s, they were huge businesses and they sold some food. But now, Marks & Spencer's sell more food than they do clothing, and that's testament to their inability to change and change their model. Now they're actually selling other brands because the brands are doing it so much better than Marks & Spencer's, which is sad. But unfortunately, we all have to change.
You have to change.
John Wright (26:22):
It is. It is. So, these growth areas that you talk about, are they mainly in the UK or are you seeing the same thing happening in-
John Wright (26:31):
... other markets?
John Wright (26:32):
All over. You've got emerging markets, Southeast Asia. China is an untapped market. We've actually won the Queen's Award for Export twice in the last few years, which was a great achievement.
What is that, for people that don't know?
John Wright (26:51):
Okay. It's an award for continued growth. The parameters of change recently, but it was continued growth over five years or six years when you're exporting. So, you obviously start at a base level and then if you could show that you've exported, your exports have grown increasingly over a five, six year period, you could be entitled to ... You had to apply and you have to be vetted, and there's multiple documents that you have to work through. But it just a recognition of export achievements. So, we won this twice. This all became because we had to close one of the UK Dyeworks in early 2002.
The gentleman in charge of the company prior to myself, he took the view that stocking fabric, stocking as in stocking supplies in a warehouse, was the way forward, and it was a decision that proved economically viable because a great amount of capital really had to be invested. As I say, we have about three million pounds worth of fabric on the floor.
John Wright (28:16):
So, you have to invest a certain amount or a large proportion of money up front, and there's no guarantee that anything is going to come from that. So, yeah. The markets now, Southeast Asia, China, these are all emerging markets. The Japanese, the American, the European market have all grown. But I still see within our business with Brexit a great demand in the UK, I think because of the duties and constraints that we've had put on us through Brexit. The UK market, I think there's great opportunities for businesses to grow manufacturing, and I know manufacturing of clothing is coming back. There's people I speak to who, two or three years ago, probably had an order book for two, three months. We speak to people now who've got an order book for 18 months booked up already.
That's with British brands, British companies, who've all returning to the UK because of the issues with Brexit, that people want to make in the UK. They want the flexibility that they can buy. They don't have any problems. The shipping problems that we're seeing now in the Suez are just things that are all barriers to trade. Again, we're in a business, which is a fashion business where people have to react quickly, and we also have to be sustainable. T understand that. The requirement to make closer to home is going to grow. In the next three or four years, Europe and the UK will grow dramatically, and it will be a bigger source of fabric, of manufacturing and products, and then we'll be returned to what we probably saw in the '90s.
Really fascinating, John. I've really enjoyed this.
John Wright (30:16):
Last couple of questions before we end the interview. Talk about your own digitisation as a business. How are you using modern tools, social media, etc., to market, grow, find new customers?
John Wright (30:31):
Okay. Our business, we've always travelled. Say, with the Queen's Award, you physically have to go and meet face to face with different countries, different people, and time is a great constraint. We show at European shows, so we get to meet clients two or three times a year at different shows worldwide. But this is all a time-consuming process, and I know there's a question coming up about inventions, and the opportunity to map out and show your products and digitise and get them spread around the world within 24 hours is just an incredible achievement. Through that, we were able to develop our range, photograph it, digitise it, and go online, which has helped our business grow dramatically. Since then, we've seen the likes of Instagram. We're just actually in the process now of working with a great company called Red-Fern, who are working with us on the next levels that we're going to.
But we've created a new website and teamed it up with Instagram where overnight, and I've seen this in the last couple of years, the response and the worldwide reach of these tools just changes a business dramatically. We're not a small business. We're not a huge business. But it can take any medium around the world within 24 hours. People can speak. You can be dealing with Australia overnight. You can reach everywhere in the world. It is, especially now with COVID and the requirements of travel, the lack of travel, it's the only way I'm seeing fashion shows now, which are digitised, where people show the ranges online. We have multiple thousand people viewing these shows on a daily basis and they can reach in, they can look at fabrics.
They can't touch, and fabric, I have to say, it is a feely-touchy business that you need to touch the product and the quality and feel the quality, especially of the higher-end products. You need that. But we can back that up with ... Again, we send swatches out and swatch cards all around the world, again, that can be reached within two or three days, and people then can see the product. But to actually get contact with the customer, there is no better way than Instagram or your own website. That has been a great growth market for us, the way that we see business worldwide, and we're reaching out to them and they're coming back, and yeah. It's fantastic.
Well said, and thanks for the plug for Red-Fern. Appreciate that. Last question before we end the show. We always end the show by asking our guests the same question. So, tell us the one invention that, if never manufactured, would make your life unbearable.
John Wright (34:10):
This is a very difficult question. Do you want this personally or in a workplace environment? Both.
John Wright (34:16):
If you got two.
Well, I'll go for a workplace environment one first. Again, worldwide web, computers, the whole technology aspect. In my lifetime, the growth of technology within my lifetime from the age of 20 to where I am now in the mid-50s has been phenomenal.
John Wright (34:43):
It has been a game changer. But one thing I would say, and back in the '80s when I started, when computers actually started, Apple, Apple Mac, I was fascinated by ... Well, it was called Macintosh then, and Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak as they were then worked from their own garage and created a company, which was called Macintosh. It was then, it changed its name to Apple. I would say the iPod would be the greatest invention for me.
Okay. Is that because you love your music?
John Wright (35:25):
Well, I was going to say, I love my music. Now, that doesn't relate to a work based invention. But yeah. I think for me, the ability to take music anywhere and play all different types of music, music is one of my greatest passions and it's the soundtrack of my life, music. So, so I would say the iPod.
That's a really good one. By the way, just on that, for me, when we moved from CDs and Discman where basically you could have 20 songs maximum on your CD to the iPad where you could have a thousand songs-
John Wright (36:09):
... that was amazing to me. That was just unthinkable. So, you're totally right, and I think we're both recording this podcast on our Macs now. So, Apple.
John Wright (36:20):
Yeah. We are. Yeah. Yeah.
If you're listening, thank you.
John Wright (36:24):
Yeah. Yes. It was actually more Mr. Wozniak than Mr. Jobs. Mr. Jobs was a great marketer, marketeer. But I think Steve Wozniak was the brain. But touching on that, I remember going running when I was late teens, 20s, and I had my cassette with earphones, and it was almost huge. Then we had some sort of, like you say, CD you're running with, and then all of a sudden, one day you're running or you're cycling and you've got this slim piece of kit, which had thousands on thousands of songs, and it was revolutionary and-
John Wright (37:05):
... just magical. So, I would say the iPod has been-
John Wright (37:10):
... for me-
John Wright (37:10):
... one of the greatest achievements. Yeah.
Great answer. Love it. Well, that just leads me to say thank you very much to our guest, John Wright.
John Wright (37:20):
Thank you, Nathan. It's been a pleasure. Thank you very much for letting me speak.
Thank you. And subscribe to our podcast in all the usual places, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Amazon Music, Google Music. Thank you very much for listening to this edition of Remake Manufacturing. I'm your host, Nathan. See you next time.