Charles Horton, managing director of Charles Kirk, discusses the reducing number of schoolwear suppliers and retailers, and the rise in demand for natural fabrics and more fitted styles

What are the key design trends in schoolwear at the moment?
Schools are increasingly asking for garments that are more fitted in shape and we are seeing this expanding into knitwear also, particularly in senior schools. This could be due to schoolwear following the latest fashion trends, whilst still being practical and serving the purpose of unity and identity in a school.

And what are the key colour and fabric trends? How important are smart fabrics to this sector?
Navy is still a strong colour choice in schoolwear, with this being our bestselling colour throughout our stock ranges. Here at Charles Kirk we have also seen a rise in requests for garments with natural fibres, eg cotton and wool blends, which are perceived as being softer on the skin. Whilst smart fabrics, eg microfibres and polar fleeces, have made a huge impact on outer garments and sportswear in both the schoolwear and fashion sector, traditional knitted and woven fabrics are still in demand for the basic schoolwear items: shirts, trousers, skirts, knitwear and sweatshirts.

What, in your opinion, has been the biggest change in the schoolwear sector in the past ten years, and how do you see the sector developing?
The schoolwear sector has seen a significant reduction in both suppliers and retailers over the last ten years. Also, suppliers are becoming retailers and retailers are going direct to factories and not using traditional suppliers. We think this will continue in the short term. However, as sales are concentrated in the summer months before Back To School, this gives a huge logistical conundrum of how to deal with orders and increased online ordering by consumers. We would not be surprised if online retailers, eg Amazon, become more involved due to the expansion of their mechanised warehouse facilities, which is the ideal way to deal with high demand.

There are more than 20,000 stitches in this school badge

In the past two years, Charles Kirk has spent £250,000 on new machinery, including the Stoll CMS 530 HP knitting machines

What have been the most significant advances in schoolwear garments recently?
Consumers are continually asking more of their schoolwear and the way in which it performs, which in turn has shown an increase in better performing yarns and fabrics. The only downside is that they do cost more, so although this is likely to continue, they will be developed more offshore.

How important do you think ‘Made in the UK’ is for this sector – is it more important for some types of schools than others?
‘Made in UK’ is important for some retailers, schools and parents as they recognise that less energy is wasted in transport by ship or air. However, price is also very important and where garments are sold in large quantities, UK manufacturing cannot compete as the industry has contracted so much in the last 20 years.

Being the last specialised school knitwear manufacturer in the UK is very important to us, but we have noticed that most of what we manufacture here is very bespoke. We spent over a quarter of a million pounds in new machinery over the last two years so we can supply our customers and schools with the distinctive styles they require, at a high standard.

What’s the best or most unusual decoration you’ve seen on a schoolwear garment?
We recently sampled an embroidered school badge that had over 20,000 stitches and was made up of various flags from around the world. School embroideries are not usually this elaborate.

What’s the single best piece of marketing and/or sales advice you can give to Images readers to help them sell more of your garments to their customers?
Continue to remind your customers that you are always there for them, whilst updating them about new and improved products with information about innovative technology used in the design and manufacture of garments. Many of Charles Kirk garments are still made in the UK and this gives the customer reassurance that they have been made ethically and by workers above or on the living wage. If a garment is cheaper than a pint of beer, it is probably too cheap and it is unlikely that the workforce that made it will be receiving a living wage.