Made The Way It Should Be
Words & Photographs : Ashley Watson
Before I started to design for myself, I spent seven years working both in-house and as a freelancer, for global brands and start-ups alike. There were a few moments from this chapter that have really stood out, one of these more than most.
Five years ago when working as a denim designer, I visited a factory in Mainland China - three hours west of Hong Kong. The standard of the factory was high, the building was well maintained and from what I could tell, the workers happy. There was no issue there. I arrived late in the day and was shown around after hours. Making our way back towards the entrance, we crossed one of the floors. The lights were turned off, a line of windows up to the left cast their soft shadows across to the right. The day’s activity had come to an end; the room held its breath. We walked past row upon row of sewing machines and as we neared the doors on the other side, a pile in the corner caught my eye. It was a pile of hot pants. Fifty thousand pairs, ready to be shipped. It made me stop; stacked high they made me stare. Fifty thousand pairs.
It’s hard to picture a quantity until it’s in front of you, for me anyway. This was one floor in one factory, producing more clothing than I’d ever seen. It’s an image that’s etched itself into my memory. From that point onwards, I’ve always been conscious of what a sketch can become.
That afternoon in China made me question the trajectory I was on; what I was designing, how it was being made and, most importantly, why. Whichever way I went, my thoughts seemed to find their way to the same conclusion. The sharpest creative minds are pulling in the wrong direction; tackling problems conjured by a warped reality that we know to be false and yet allow to thrive. Hours spent crafting ways to sell twice as many shirts instead of engineering one shirt to last twice as long.
Central to my passion for design is a belief. If done in the right way, for the right reason; design can, and should, be a force for good. Yes, the wheels need to turn but, to me, it’s extremely important that they move in the right direction. This is why I’ve strived to work for myself - so that I can have both hands on the shape of things to come.
"Central to my passion for design is a belief. If done in the right way, for the right reason; design can, and should, be a force for good. "
I find it impossible to design in a vacuum. When working on a project my mind wraps itself in an idea. What’s it for, how it will be used, how it should fit, the landscapes it will pass through, the elements it will encounter and, more recently, I’ve found myself considering the conversations that will surround it. Maybe a touch indulgent, maybe I should just get on with it but, it’s a new part of a process that’s made me realise a thing or two.
As I was starting out in the clothing industry, the buzz around ‘Made in England’ was getting into its stride. I loved it; the craft, the heritage. It was a time that I was learning about the roots of work-wear and understanding what clothing design, in its purest sense, was about. Fast-forward eight years and these two pillars have combined to form the foundation for what I do.
The flag-waving voices that trump in the media from both sides of the Atlantic are, at the moment, inescapable. It’s a noise that's formed into the unfortunate backdrop of our time. There’s a part to making in the UK that is, and will always be, rooted in heritage. A part that looks to re-create what once was. It’s a part that I appreciate and respect but, over the past eighteen months, is one that I've felt increasingly at odds with. Heritage for heritage sake runs dangerously close to ‘Make America Great Again’ and I for one do not want that haircut.
Over the past few years, I’ve spent more days than I can remember travelling across the country to work on projects with specialist manufacturers in all areas of the clothing industry. It’s something that I love to do and an experience that has taught me far more than I had expected. Making in the UK is not what I once thought it was. It’s not about heritage. It’s not about trying to re-create how things once were. It’s not about making things great again, it’s something much bigger - it’s about people.
"Making in the UK is not what I once thought it was. It’s not about trying to re-create how things once were. It’s not about heritage. It’s not about making things great again, it’s something much bigger - it’s about people."
It’s about people who have committed their lives to a craft. It’s about people who won’t sacrifice on quality. It’s about people who have re-mortgaged their houses to keep their businesses going. It’s about people who work long hours, endure stress and uncertainty. It’s about people that do all of this and more; not for financial gain, but for a passion. A passion to make a product the best it can be. A passion to share knowledge. A passion to innovate. A passion, not in what an industry once was, but in the possibility of what it can become. Making in the UK is about looking forward, not back. It’s a statement for the future.
How do you tackle a pile of fifty thousand pairs of hot pants? Is demand driving supply or is supply manufacturing a false demand? The chicken or the egg? I think it’s simple. Do we want twice as many shirts, or one shirt that last twice as long? Do we want to support the manufacturers who see the clothing they make as a passion or for profit? Every purchase we make is a turn of the wheel, an opportunity to move forward. The decision on which direction we choose sits in this moment. It’s for the taking.