Page updated: 16/06/2015
'Future heritage' Twist Magazine- May/June 2015.
The British worsted fabric manufacturer Alfred Brown is looking ahead confidently as it marks its centenary this year. Jonathan Dyson reports..
Alfred Brown, one of the UK’s leading manufacturers of high-quality cloth, is celebrating its centenary this year, as the Leeds, West Yorkshire-based mill looks to build on its long and proud heritage, and capitalise on the growing demand for British fabric and provenance in the UK and overseas.
The family-run company was founded in 1915 when Herbert Brown, an established businessman and retailer, started his second company, Brown & Sons (Bramley), a mill weaving cloth for military uniforms. The company was re-named Alfred Brown (Worsted Mills) Ltd. in 1954. Alfred Brown was one of Herbert’s sons, and ran the company during the turbulent 1920’s and ‘30’s, ensuring the mill remained stable and successful.
Today, Alfred Brown is managed by fourth generation family members Ian and Nigel Brown as joint managing directors, as well as sales director Roger McArdle and production manager Michael Lee. Over the past year the production department has been bolstered by the arrival of Ben Brown, son of Ian Brown, and Stuart Kaye, who began his career with UK spinner Globe Worsted.
Ian Brown told Twist that Alfred Brown’s long experience of producing high-quality demands and challenges, continue to place the future confidently. “Herbert Brown’s energy was typical of the time, and subsequent generations have grappled with economic recessions, and globalisation, meaning cheaper imports. But the story has been one of survival and success.”
Today, Alfred Brown specialises in fine worsted fabrics in pure new wool and wool with mohair, as well as wool blends with Lycra and polyester. With a capacity of 1.2 million metres per year, Alfred Brown is one of the few remaining British mills capable of producing bulk orders for hig street retailers as well as supplying smaller, niche brands, designer labels and tailors, and with consumers in the UK and elsewhere increasingly looking for British cloth, the mill’s total sales have grown by 20% over the past five years, according to the company.
Later this year, Alfred Brown will celebrate its centenary through a range of activities, including events with employees, suppliers and customers; the production of a special booklet detailing the history of the mill; a special centenary logo; and an updated website featuring a detailed timeline of the company’s history.
Alfred Brown is also expanding and updating its stock service ranges, which comprise two collections – Bronze, which contains around 100 classic, 100% wool fabrics, ranging from 280 to 420 gms; and Silver, which consists of around 90 finer fabrics in lighter weights, such as 240 gms, in 100% wool, and wool / mohair blends in classic designs, many of which have amodern twist.
Nigel Brown said that the stock service collections generate more than 20% of the mill’s business, as they offer a broad range of modern classics at competitive prices in small quantities. He also explained that with both of the newly updated Bronze and Silver collections, which will be launched at IdeaBiella in September 2015, Alfred Brown is looking to meet the current demand for colour.
“Charcoals and navies retain their place as classics, but we are also introducing stronger, fresher colours, particularly brighter shades of blue, as the men’s suit is increasingly used as a fashion statement, requiring a sharp and clean look,” he said. Alfred Brown will also introduce its first stock-supported range of Super 120’s fabrics in its updated Silver collection.
Nigel Brown added that the mill’s seasonal collections also feature a wide range of cloths, from the classic British patterns such as herringbones and Prince of Wales checks, to micro semi-plains. “Each season we produce an ever wider range of new designs,” he said, adding that for spring/ summer 2016 Alfred Brown has introduced a new range of 95% wool / 5% kid mohair fabrics with a soft finish.
The UK accounts for around 80% of Alfred Brown’s sales, and the mill supplies many of the leading UK brands, retailers and department stores, including Marks & Spencer, Next, Moss Bros, Austin Reed, John Lewis, Jaeger, Paul Smith, Hackett, Thomas Pink, Reiss, Gieves & Hawkes and Charles Tyrwhitt.
Ian Brown commented: “We are maintaining and building on our strong position in the UK, through our commitment to producing quality cloth, while also keeping prices as competitive as possible.”
Alfred Brown has been involved in a number of special projects with British retailers over recent years, such as producing fabric for a range of suits featured in Marks & Spencer’s Best of British range, and supplying the cloth for a special collection of high-end John Lewis & Co suits sold at
the John Lewis flagship store on Oxford Street in London.
Ian Brown noted that most brands and retailers, both in the UK and overseas, that use the mill’s cloth feature an Alfred Brown label in the suit, and explained that the mill is this year introducing special centenary
weaver labels for its different brands, such as Alfred Brown and Empire Mills. Stressing the importance of such labels in order to capitalise on the growing interest in British direct marketing tool we have and we are pleased to share news of our centenary with the end consumer.” He added that Alfred Brown also supplies customers with branded swing tickets, seals and product information booklets which hang on the suits.
Roger McArdle noted that Alfred Brown is also becoming more well-known among UK consumers through articles about the mill in mail order catalogues from brands such as Charles Tyrwhitt, as well as digital and social media content, such as photographs and videos capturing a typical working day at the mill, created when buyers from brands such as Reiss visit the factory. “This kind of thing is a win-win for Alfred Brown, our customers, and the end consumer,” he said.
Alfred Brown’s position within the UK market has also been strengthened over recent years by producing the fabric for the official suits worn by a number of top UK sports teams, including the Team GB suit produced by Next for the London 2012 Olympics, and the M&S suits for the England football squad at the 2010 and 2014 World Cups, as well as Euro 2012. “We are continuing to work with M&S and the FA and we hope to be involved with Euro 2016,” said Ian Brown.
Nigel Brown said that as well as building on its strong position within the UK market, it is also important for Alfred Brown to grow its export market, with the mill aiming for the proportion of its overseas sales to increase from 20% to 30% over the next few years.
He said that Japan remains its biggest export market, with sales there growing steadily at present, and with a particularly strong increase in woven selvedge business. Alfred Brown also exports to Europe, the US, the Middle East and China.
Alfred Brown is also building for the future through a continuous programme of investment at the mill in both staff and equipment. The mill employs a total of 78 staff, which Ian Brown said is growing steadily, aided by regular in-house training. He added that the machinery in the warping department will be updated in the next stage of the mill’s reinvestment programme, following a £1.5 million investment in 24 Sulzer Textil G6500 looms in 2011.
In addition, Alfred Brown is working with Leeds College of Art, offering fashion students the opportunity to use the mill’s cloth in men’s tailoring as part of a competition, with the winning garment to be showcased at Alfred Brown’s booth at IdeaBiella in September 2015.