Laura Turner meets the design talent behind the UK’s largest supplier of schoolwear.
Better by design
Laura Turner: Emma, you joined SWI Schoolwear as a designer in 2014 and now hold the title of head of design. What experience do you bring to the role?
Emma Robertson: I studied for my degree at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan), completing a four-year course in fashion design with first-class honours. During my third year, I interned in the couture department at Alexander McQueen and improved my tailoring skills at the Savile Row tailor English Cut. I also spent seven months working on school, sports and leisurewear design with the SWI team.
During my degree I was fully trained in pattern cutting, garment manufacture, design, illustration and CAD, and in my final year I chose to specialise in menswear with sportswear.
Fortunately, my role as head of design allows me to get involved with every aspect of the development process and the experience I’ve gained from working in various areas of the fashion and garment industry have helped me become a much more rounded designer.
LT: Who makes up your design team?
ER: We have an extremely talented, young and vibrant team on board here in the Runcorn office. Our designer, Chloe, graduated from Northumbria University specialising in sportswear design; she was also shortlisted by the university for the Fashion Innovation Award at Graduate Fashion Week. I am delighted to say that my sister will also be joining our expanding team, having just graduated from UCLan herself. In addition, she has been selected as the winner of the Lancashire Arts Festival Award for Fashion Design, as a finalist in the Sainsbury’s TU Label competition and was also nominated for the Gala Show at London Graduate Fashion week.
Since graduating from UCLan myself, we have worked hard to create a strong relationship with the university, developing an internship programme to support students during their third year of study by providing them with vital industry experience.
LT: Where do you source inspiration?
ER: When planning our concepts for new ranges, we’re inspired by a variety of platforms. The high street has major influence over the garments we design, as it’s important the clothing has details that are relatable to current fashion trends. We are also influenced by social changes, articles and forecasted trend information. Another method we use to gather insight is holding focus groups with schools and students. This is the best way to collect primary direction for our concepts, allowing us to be confident with the design decisions that we’re making. Ultimately, it’s important that our products are aspirational, comfortable and perform well.
A new class in schoolwear
LT: BMB acquired SWI Schoolwear last July; what changes and developments have occurred over the last year?
ER: Essentially, the efficient and successful integration of the two businesses. Despite its size and reputation as a schoolwear provider, BMB has always lacked the facility to innovate in terms of design. One of the most exciting developments for BMB, as a result of the SWI acquisition, is that we are now able to offer a cutting edge design service. This will enable us as a group to genuinely lead the market in schoolwear and sportswear, not only through our sheer size, but with our passion for product innovation.
LT: What would you say are BMB’s Schoolwear’s core capabilities?
ER: BMB is now the largest supplier of schoolwear in the UK. It has achieved this position across the entire supply chain – through size and subsequent buying power, access to competitively priced quality fabrics, great relationships with factories that deliver on quality and on time and, top of the priority list, a genuine and dedicated commitment to customer service.
What was missing from the equation prior to the SWI acquisition was a stock supported performance sportswear range, in-house design, product development and marketing. We are now able to boast a dedicated design team who concentrate solely on developing and producing market leading ranges.
LT: What does BMB Schoolwear encompass?
ER: It covers the entire spectrum for all types of schools; primary, senior, academies and independents. We offer everything from school uniform to performance sportswear, available from stock all year round, in a wide range of sizes and colourways and with the depth of range to dress a student from head to toe. Garment personalisation and a comprehensive in-house bespoke service is also available for schools requiring a unique individual look.
LT: What can we expect from BMB Schoolwear for Back to School 2018?
ER: We’ll be launching a selection of new garments bearing the traits of our original approach to design at the Schoolwear Show in October. Some of these new styles offer additional support to our existing offer and others form new ranges.
We want to encourage buyers to come to the Schoolwear Show and see the product for themselves, so that they can feel the new fabrics and experience the quality first hand. However, without giving too much away, I can provide some insight.
On the school uniform side, our newest development is the new Signature Suiting Collection. For boys, this comprises a jacket and trousers and for girls, a jacket that can be paired with either a trouser or a choice of two skirts – straight or pleated. This durable collection caters to those looking for a stylish cut, with fabric that performs. We’ve taken the trusted Ziggy’s fabric, which is already part of the BMB collection, and combined it with a modern suit jacket style. The jackets offer a contemporary feel, with features including slimmed down lapels, pocket flaps, with a single button front opening for girls and two buttons for boys. Both the girls’ and boys’ trouser options offer a choice of a classic cut or a contemporary, slimmer fit and they all have adjustable waists to ensure a perfect fit.
Elsewhere, we’ve added four new items to the APTUS Performance Sportswear range. The Swacket is a side-line garment that is essential for outdoor training; a new everyday football short features moisture-wicking fabric that moves with the wearer; while our new rugby shirt and short are both created using embossed fabric and reinforced seams.
We are also introducing a new outerwear jacket, a replacement for the Mistral, which is a contemporary, water-resistant hooded jacket with soft fleece lining and silver reflective details.
Setting a new standard in sportswear
LT: Moving onto the sportswear side of the business, how does BMB maintain a competitive edge in this fast-moving market?
ER: We listen to our customers and act on what they say. We held several focus groups across schools that encouraged under-16s to speak openly about sports kit and how they could be improved. What we found was that there were a huge amount of students who were conscious about the way they look and didn’t feel that the school sportswear on offer motivated them to participate in sports. This precipitated the thinking behind APTUS Performance, a collection that fuses fashion with functionality, designed specifically to empower rather than inhibit students on the sports field.
LT: What are the most in-demand fabrics coming through in school sportswear?
ER: Quality fabrics with functional elements. Polyester is an ideal fabric for sportswear, and the main material used within the APTUS Performance range. It boasts a huge amount of benefits, being durable, lightweight and anti-wrinkle, as well as cost competitive. It has effective wicking properties, meaning the perspiration from the body is wicked to the outer side of the fabric and is then air-dried. It is also offers a stable base for decoration, which is really important for school personalisation applications.
LT: What are the latest trends in sportswear for the educational market?
ER: During our focus groups, we discovered that what students were choosing to train in during sport outside of school, was very different to what they had to wear during curriculum sport. Consequently, the APTUS Performance collection responded to this with a school sportswear collection that offers girls’ leggings – as opposed to training pants – and also adjustable length tops. For boys, we designed loose fitting shorts and slim fit track pants, which is what they preferred. We want students to take a real pride in their school sportswear and we are confident they will with APTUS.
LT: Are there any areas of the school sportswear market you feel are lacking?
ER: I think the female sportswear area within schools has often been overlooked in the past. Female specific sportswear had always been a bit of an afterthought, though this is definitely beginning to change. The variety of sports offered through physical education has evolved significantly and the sportswear garments on offer need to keep up with the pace. The launch of the Sport England This Girl Can campaign coincided with our design development and gave us a real sense that we were on the right track with our vision for our APTUS Performance range.