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Some go for the weather, I went for the leather

21 March 2022

THE WORLD of work, we are constantly being told, has changed forever. We are constantly being told, by people like me, that is, people who have been known to file copy dictated into a mobile phone and sent by email. People for whom working from home (or coffee shop, gym, public house, casino or from seat 14 A of easyJet flight U2 8627 from LGW to PMI) is a possibility because their only tools are a mobile phone and a notebook computer. It’s less practical when you’re at a lathe, foundry or injection moulding machine.

Talk of easyJet isn’t just random: writing this column I was reminded of a holiday I took a few years ago. I was staying in the industrial town of Inca, in the centre of Mallorca because, as everyone knows, if you want to have a great holiday on an island surrounded by Mediterranean waters, the best place to stay is an industrial town as far away from beaches as it is possible to be.

The industry of Blackpool
I have a thing about industries that flourish in places best known for tourism: perhaps it’s a consequence of having been born in Blackpool, which is better known for its Tower, rollercoasters and alcohol-fuelled violence than it is as the birthplace of Jaguar Cars (then known as Swallow Sidecars), as a place of aircraft manufacturing (Hawker built Hunters in a massive factory by the Airport) and the home of Glasdon, makers of GRP bins, street furniture, kiosks and modular buildings.

Inca was the centre of Mallorca’s leather industry and I wanted to pay a visit to the factory of Camper, one of my favourite footwear brands. When I arrived it was surprisingly modern and there wasn’t a lot of shoemaking going on. It transpired that it wasn’t a factory, merely an outlet shop, selling samples and seconds of shoes that were largely manufactured in China.

Where’s the factory?
“Where was the actual factory?” I asked Joan Marc, chef-patron of the eponymous restaurant on Plaça des Blanquer. The restaurant looked out on a square that was mostly faced by residential houses. “This was the factory,” he said. “There was no actual factory. Everyone in this neighbourhood worked for Camper. That house might be making mens sandals, the next house, women’s dress shoes.”

This was before the pandemic but even then I thought it an intriguing way of working, a predictor of future patterns as much as a symbol of historic decline. Far more satisfying, I thought, in terms of a brand story, than the usual “design here, manufacture there” philosophy. And it was adaptable too: because production was close to the designers and the end-users, unpopular lines could be discontinued and new lines started with greater speed than when products are being shipped halfway around the world in metal boxes. 

Curb Your Enthusiasm
Whether this was piece work (probably) or salaried employment (less likely), I never found out as I was too busy tucking into Joan’s delicious tasting menu, but the fact remains that a globally renowned fashion brand, a brand that inspired the plot – such as it is – of an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, was founded not in a factory, but work-from-home manufacturing.

Is WFH or hybrid manufacturing a possibility in any sector in the UK? Obviously there are the usual caveats, certain things that are just too big, or too dangerous, to make at home; but is hybrid working feasible? I’d love to know your thoughts, particularly if you have already moved to a hybrid employment model.