School uniforms have historically received a raw deal in popular fiction – think Just William’s general scruffiness, Billy Bunter’s blazer’s straining buttons and the indecorousness of the pupils of St Trinian’s; even Harry Potter was told to tuck in his shirt by a talking mirror. Thankfully, more recently – and in the real world – uniforms are increasingly used to not just establish equality but also to prepare pupils for the big world they will all-too-soon enter.
That smartest school uniform element – the blazer – has undergone something of a makeover of late, according to Tim James of Schoolblazer: “For independent schools a major trend has been a move from a traditional blue blazer with a big badge toward demonstrating the school brand via fabric and colours – not crests. King’s Ely School now has a bespoke pinstripe incorporating Cambridge blue in a blazer without a crest.
We have done something very similar for two major schools in Newcastle which are merging and taking a new school colour. What we are seeing in many independent schools is taking uniforms back in the supply chain to the original mills in Yorkshire to weave bespoke fabrics. If you have a strong enough relationship with dye works and weavers you can do almost anything.”
Uniform styles can even reflect rural and urban nuances. “This trend is partly a reaction to state schools,” says Tim James, “where, for example, some academies have quite fancy uniforms with piping on blazers – a style the independent schools previously owned. Now independent schools are looking beyond this to ensure a smart look which is less in-your-face.
“Cheltenham Ladies College is a country school and their sixth form recently chose a tweed jacket with a moleskin collar – something they had in the 1920s and 1930s. In contrast, a school in Newcastle’s city centre needs a uniform to reflect this – a city centre suit in keeping with a business suit look.”
Schoolblazer has its own sportwear brand, Squadkit, operating in a dynamic sector. “There has been a move from kit for each sport to multi-purpose kit built on layering principles – a base layer, playing layer and waterproof top,” explains Tim James. “Whereas before, at some schools, pupils would need different shirts for fives, rugby and hockey, the physical differences between products for tennis and badminton are limited if you have a high performance fabric.”
At Stevensons, business development manager Howard Wilder echoes the change in blazer design, away from a traditional shape with three pockets to a fitted version for both boys and girls. Elsewhere, function dictates fabric and form. “There is now a greater emphasis on washable clothing,” he explains. “Before in the independent school sector there had traditionally been a preference for woollen flannel which was dry-clean only and therefore expensive to maintain. Outside of the independent sector there is also an increasing preference for the use of eco-materials, made from, for example, plastic bottles. We are also seeing girls’ skirts without waistbands so they fit lower on the hips and not around the waist.”
The use of technology has increased as Stevensons’ business has grown; 18% of ordering is now online but customers can still visit the company’s high street stores and attend one of their approximately 300 school selling events annually, something particularly important for new starters.
While the issue of single uniform suppliers in the non-independent school sector has become political of late, they bring undoubted benefits.
“Around 95% of our schools operate on a sole supplier basis,” says Howard Wilder. “If you have a dual supplier, particularly in the case of smaller prep schools, nobody takes responsibility and if one runs out of a particular item they may assume the other will have stock. If you are the sole supplier it is your responsibility and you take the flak if items run out. We take our responsibility very highly.”
James Benning, Stevensons’ sports account manager, recently helped the Beacon School, Chesham, replace its former ‘team’ rugby jersey with an inclusive printed version available to all. He has noted “a move toward more technical fabrics in sportswear, breathable materials helping ensure the child doesn’t overheat. These dry quicker and are beneficial to parents as they wash better and have improved durability.”
Perry Uniform are award-winning designers and manufacturers of school uniforms with expertise in branding. They operate their own design studio and factory in Leeds, developing stylish, practical patterns, sourcing cloth in Yorkshire where the designs can be unique to the school and create garments pupils are proud to wear.
Bradford Grammar School recently commissioned Perry to design a new image for the school which now has its own Yorkshire woven, navy and maroon pinstripe. The school motto “Hoc age” translates from Latin as “Do it” which represents the school ethos: a sense of non-“showy” self-confidence. Headmaster, Kevin Riley, sums up the new uniform: “I have had many comments from our feeder schools, parents, pupils and staff that our new uniform is transformational and enhances the standards for which we are renowned.”
In these recessionary times, parents are looking for schoolwear that lasts, provides good value and incorporates easy-care fabrics. This means striking a delicate balance between using the best and most durable materials, and the market price for them.
John Cheatle is repeatedly coming across this dilemma, reflecting a return to more traditional uniforms and a need for awareness of tight budgets. Commercial director Tim Hallas said: “We want to give schools the best uniforms possible but there are several factors at play. Parents want their children to look presentable but resent paying any more than they have to for uniforms and sportswear. Schools want uniforms to properly reflect their traditions and the quality of teaching they provide – and often there are must-have inclusions on specific uniform items that may date back hundreds of years. Pupils and parents want uniforms that are easy to wear and care for. It is possible to tick all of these boxes but you need to have the widest available ranges to select from in the first place. You also need to review your uniforms and sportswear regularly.”
Due to its significant buying power, John Cheatle is able to source almost any item of schoolwear or sportswear, whether designed or off-the-peg (or a combination), and to obtain value for parents on pricing. While the recession continues, it is clear good value is a key indicator of current schoolwear trends.