I spent a great 90 minutes with Brian Handley, General Manager of Harvey Nichols in Leeds, and Lee Hicken from online marketing outfit Hebemedia to find out a little more about their work in supporting enterprise across Yorkshire and to explore the possibility of helping to develop their role in supporting emerging artists and crafts people.
Now I am no ‘fashion and retail’ guru and struggle to understand why anyone would want to pay £3000 or more for an Italian Leather handbag, but apparently they do, and Harvey Nichols helps to serve that want. (Not everything in Harvey Nichols has such a price tag. Apparently a coffee in their restaurant costs the same as in Starbucks, some items in the Food Hall match Morrison for price and some of their makeup too matches the High St retailers on price.)
But why are those expensive handbags Italian? Why not British? Or Yorkshire?
- Are we lacking the skills and talent required to craft leather to this standard?
- Are we poor at the marketing and brand building work required to compliment fine craft skills to command this top end of the market? We are simply unable to break the consumers taste for ‘Italian Leather’. Perhaps the Italian High Streets are full of top quality British Leather handbags – I suspect not….
- Does the Italian craft leather industry receive support from its own Government that allows it to perform at this level?
- Perhaps the Harvey Nichols buyers have not found the great British products that are out there, preferring instead to go with established Italian brands that they know will sell?
I suspect that it is some combination of the first three that leads to the failure of British manufacturers to compete at the top end of the luxury leather handbag market. A conversation with Brian convinces me that they do all they can to source locally wherever possible without compromising on quality.
And I suspect that the absence of high quality business support to help with the development of craft and marketing skills is a large part of the problem. I can’t recall seeing a single UK regional economic strategy that emphasises the importance of the craft sector. They tend to focus on ‘high-tech, bio-tech, creative and digital’ but hardly mention the support of traditional craft skills which tend to live of the crumbs from the ‘high growth’ table.
Which is perhaps why Harvey Nichols in Leeds have been able to do so much work with 11 textile mills across Yorkshire, helping to raise their profile. Absolutely nothing wrong with their product. They provide felts and baize for Steinway pianos and the worlds best snooker tables. They provide the fabric for Barack Obama’s curtains in the Oval Office of the White House, and the world’s most expensive suit. Each of the mills was characterised with an obsessive passion for the quality of the product which had allowed them to move up market and hang on as most textile manufacturing headed east. But their marketing and branding was weak, and when they came together at Harvey Nichols to see how an association with the store might raise awareness of their product, Brian said it was the first time that all of them had shared a room to explore the way forward. They had learned a little about how to compete with each other – but very little about how to collaborate. (Perhaps there is a clue here to the prominence of Italian artisan on British High Streets?).
Why does Harvey Nichols get involved in this kind of work?
Well I don’t think it is pure altruism. It is self interest properly understood – a thriving local economic ecosystem is essential for the maintenance and development of the customer base. A good story is essential for brand building and getting people through the doors. This is good business combined with a genuine passion for, and commitment to, high quality manufacturing in the region.
This kind of ‘business to business’ business support was once widespread. In some parts of the world it still is. But in the UK business support has turned into a government funded industry not primarily focussed on responding to local indigenous businesses but on focussing support on strategic priorities (high tech/biotech/creative and digital).
Perhaps in these straitened times we could afford to let this government backed Business Support industry to just fade away and encourage more employers like Harvey Nichols to play a full part in supporting local enterprise. The engagement of businesses in this sort of civic society, using their expertise to develop a viable and sustainable entrepreneurial ecosystem will surely create much more value for society than so many corporate social responsibility projects that end up with Lawyers painting community centres….
…and if you are looking to spend £300 rather than £3000 pounds on a Leather Handbag that is ‘Made in England’ you might try Liz Cox.