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In My View by Eric Musgrave: High hopes north of the Border

Eric Musgrave
06 October 2022

I like meeting passionate and principled people, so I enjoyed my recent conversation with Nadia Alexander in her small clothing factory in Cumbernauld, just north of Glasgow. Nadia has set herself the laudable but challenging task of creating a luxury lifestyle brand called Bearco, based in Scotland and made in Scotland.

A serial entrepreneur for more than a decade, she owns two beauty salons in Perth and, more recently, she opened two womenswear shops, one in the prestigious Multrees Walk in Edinburgh and the second in Auchterarder, the Perthshire home of the Gleneagles golf courses.

Alexander Manufacturing, operating since March 2022, is her first venture into clothing production. Supported by her husband Murray, who has multiple business interests from farming to construction, she has been on a fast, steep, exhausting and expensive learning curve.

In the summer of 2021 Nadia made what she thought would be only an investment in Hancock, a small manufacturing business specialising in garments made from rubberised or vulcanised fabric.

The company, founded in 2012, was named after Thomas Hancock, a Victorian business partner of Charles Macintosh, whose name – with a k added – became the generic term for classic British vulcanised raincoats. The modern Hancock company was a rival to the modern Mackintosh company, which also called Cumbernauld its home, although it has been Japanese-owned for many years.

Financially, all was not as it seemed at Hancock and Nadia’s £160,000 investment was quickly eaten up, she says. To the Alexanders’ alarm the business was placed in administration in January 2022. Faced with the choice of walking away or taking on the challenge of rebuilding, they opted for the latter.

In February 2022 they purchased from the administrator the assets, intellectual property and website of Hancock of Scotland Ltd. That entity is now dormant, having been superceded by Alexander Manufacturing.

The business is developing a website but in the meantime it spreads the word via posts on its Alexander Manufacturing (Scotland) LinkedIn account. They are worth a look.

Since March this year a new factory – three times the size of the old one – has been rented on the same industrial estate in Cumbernauld. It had to be repaired and fitted out at a cost of around £250,000, says Nadia.

The new company employs 22 staff and possibly the best instance of the attitude of the new owners is seen in the wage rise they have introduced.

“No one working in the previous company ever earned more than £13 an hour,” says Nadia. “These are skilled craftsmen and women. It takes seven years to train to make our vulcanised coats – that’s as long as it takes to train a doctor. Our coatmakers and other production staff have had a significant pay increase.”

Although Nadia, who is 38 years old, and Murray, 52, run 15 businesses between them, the Alexander Manufacturing venture is more than just a money-making exercise, she insists.

“We are members of (manufacturing trade body) UKFT and we want to establish a credible modern apprenticeship scheme here with them. We know this is always going to be a boutique factory producing a niche product, but it’s hand-made, crafted and sustainable. And we want to create a viable business that can keep going for the sake of the people who work here.”

I was impressed by Nadia’s efforts to add innovation to rubberised raincoat technology that is essentially 150 years old. She is working with Oldham-based Fothergill Polycrom, which has been producing rubber-coated fabrics since 1911, to develop vulcanised textiles using Scottish woollen cloth as the outer layer.

Nadia Alexander of Alexander Manufacturing

Nadia Alexander with a vulcanised trench coat featuring the Bearco house tartan as the outer fabric

She has had her own tartan created by Clare Campbell at Scottish manufacturer Prickly Thistle and woven by Lovat Mills in Hawick. Lovat provides her with other cloth, as does tartan specialist MacNaughton Holdings in Perth and Marton Mills, a Shetland tweed weaver in Otley, Yorkshire.

“Vulcanised garments will always be at the heart of Bearco, but we are also making tailored garments, ideally in Scottish-woven fabrics,” she explains. “We have started with womenswear but menswear will be introduced in 2023 and childrenswear after that. We are also eyeing interiors because so many Scottish-made fabrics are ideal for interiors.”

It is well recognised that lifestyle brands need a back story and a point of difference. In another innovative move Nadia and Murray are having cloth made from the fleeces of their own sheep from their farms in Perthshire, which sets a high standard for traceability.

After the fleeces are scoured and spun in Yorkshire, the yarn will be woven into suiting qualities by MacNaughton Holdings in Perth and delivered to the factory in spring 2023.

The initial route to market for Bearco will be through Nadia’s shops, which trade as Oliami (the name combines part of her daughters’ names).

Her introduction to retailing came as a 16-year-old Saturday girl in House of Fraser in Perth. HoF became Debenhams and she became hooked on selling beauty products. She opened her first salon in 2011 when she was in her late 20s and added the second in 2014.

In November 2017 in Edinburgh she opened a franchise store for Holland Cooper, the British label that gives traditional country-style womenswear a sexy modern twist.

(Fashion industry watchers will be aware founder Jade Holland Cooper married Julian Dunkerton, co-founder and CEO of Superdry, in 2018).

The Auchterarder store was opened in November 2020 as Oliami and in July 2021, the Holland Cooper shop on Multrees Walk in Edinburgh was renamed Oliami but it remains the only Scottish stockist of Holland Cooper.

“The Oliami concept is to be a multi-brand womenswear store specialising in British brands like Fairfax & Favor,” Nadia explains, “so it will be an ideal showcase for Bearco.”

Already this year Alexander Manufacturing has produced clothing concepts for Scottish whisky brands The Macallan and Johnnie Walker. Further collaborations with various companies are under discussion.

“We have our own brand and we are still supplying products to some of Hancock’s customers. The factory will work on CMT and on CMT-plus, whereby we help clients create collections, not just manufacture them,” Nadia explains. “We would very much welcome discussions with prospective wholesale stockists for Bearco too.”

She is clear she wants Bearco to be a luxury lifestyle brand and it has retail price tags to match that ambition. A new-style trench coat with a wool outer bonded to the vulcanised fabric is £1,500, a classic single-breasted vulcanised raincoat is £995, as is a peacoat. Tailored trousers retail for £349 and £399.

The Alexanders’ adventure is nothing if not bold. Nadia acknowledges they are fortunate to have deep financial resources to draw upon and admits the world of manufacturing in the UK is far more demanding on many levels than she imagined.

Her vision, however, seems clear and she is clearly eager to learn and to bring expertise into the business.

Despite the many obstacles UK-based manufacturers face, it may be unwise to underestimate Nadia’s drive and resilience. When lockdown forced the closure of her then Holland Cooper shop she took to hosting online style sessions to women that soon had 5,500 active viewers and online customers.

I wish Alexander Manufacturing the best of British luck.

Main image: Eric Musgrave and Nadia Alexander at the new Alexander Manufacturing factory in Cumbernauld, North Lanarkshire.

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