Expert Insight

Interview: How family-run Liverpool millinery has stayed on top

Interview: How family-run Liverpool millinery has stayed on top

For over 150 years Liverpool-based Try & Lilly has been producing bespoke hats and caps for everyone from the Metropolitan Police and the Royal Navy to Northern Irish marching bands. Move Commercial sat down with projects assistant Suzanne Jennions to find out how this family-run millinery has managed to stay on top in an industry increasingly occupied by low-cost overseas manufacturers.

Interview by Lawrence Saunders

 

Founded in 1864, Try & Lilly on Hanover Street quickly became known as a quality supplier of seamans’ caps for the steamship lines crisscrossing the globe during a period when Liverpool was home to Britain’s great Merchant Navy fleet.

Fast-forward to 1958 and Suzanne Jennions’ grandfather took over the storied manufacturer before handing it down to her father and uncle who run the company today.

With the demand for tweed hats and caps not what it once was and Liverpool’s mercantile dominance remaining only in name, how has Try & Lilly managed to keep its head above water?

“Similar to a lot of the textile industry, the majority of hat making production has gone overseas,” says Jennions.

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“Many just couldn’t compete with the low wages of places like China and India when they started manufacturing.”

Jennions thinks an established name has helped Try & Lilly retain customers whilst the superior quality of its product versus foreign makers, and ability to produce smaller runs, has also worked in its favour.

“Some people really do care more about quality and have stayed with us all the way, whilst there are others who are realising what they buy overseas is just not of the same quality.

“Uniform caps are extremely niche. There aren’t a huge number of people in the world making them and it’s quite complex textile manufacturing.

“It’s interesting at the moment in textiles because lots of people think UK manufacturing should be about bespoke and small runs but at Try & Lilly it’s something we’ve been doing for the last 50 years or so.”

“Also, being relatively small scale and having the flexibility to make small quantities is a real advantage.

“Many of the overseas manufacturers won’t deal with small quantities, you have to buy several thousands of caps.

“It’s interesting at the moment in textiles because lots of people think UK manufacturing should be about bespoke and small runs but at Try & Lilly it’s something we’ve been doing for the last 50 years or so.”

In a further sign of its prosperity, Try & Lilly recently signed a deal to supply the Metropolitan Police with all of its male and female caps and bowlers.

This prestigious contract is in addition to the firm’s similar agreement with the rest of the UK’s police forces, as well as a string of enforcement agencies across the world.

Jennions believes overseas interest in Try & Lilly products has a lot to do with the distinction that a ‘Made in Britain’ tag affords.

“We do a lot of export business and we make for lots of forces overseas in places like Africa, the Middle East and the Caribbean,” she says.

“A lot of that business is based around quality and the fact that institutions in these parts of the world were originally formed by Great Britain so there’s a connection there.

“Lots of people like to buy UK made and enjoy the prestige having UK made textiles brings.”

 

Liverpool millinery

Suzanne Jennions, projects assistant

 

According to Jennions though, it’s not just the UK-made credentials that keeps the orders flooding in from abroad.

Try & Lilly’s commitment to innovation has seen it literally set a new standard in national police headwear.

“We’ve put a lot of work into meeting the criteria that the UK police require,” explains Jennions.

“For a long time the bowlers that female police officers wore were non-protective or much less protective than the police helmets worn by male police officers.

“We’ve managed to create a bowler which meets all the same requirements as the police helmet, so now you have men and women on the beat together with the same protection.

“If you’re prepared to innovate and stay ahead of the competition and produce something that customers want then that definitely sets you apart.”

Of course as with any UK manufacturer involved with exporting goods, the issues surrounding Brexit and any future trade deals are a hot topic.

The government believes trade with Commonwealth nations, something Try & Lilly is already conducting, will give the country a post-Brexit boost but Jennions is less certain what the future holds for the family firm once the UK bids farewell to the EU.

“We make for lots of forces overseas in places like Africa, the Middle East and the Caribbean… Lots of people enjoy the prestige having UK made textiles brings.”

“We export a lot currently; it will be interesting to see if we gain any new customers after Brexit,” she says.

“We make for both the New Zealand and Canadian navies already, so in terms of our customer base we’re quite widespread.

“You could argue that the drop in the value of the pound will be positive for Try & Lilly but equally if we leave the EU with no trade deal and revert to World Trade Organisation tariffs, that may effect us in a negative way.”

Something that Jennions does agree is unquestionably a positive for Try & Lilly is an ambitious new vision for the area of Liverpool city centre where the firm is based.

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Exciting plans for new homes, shops, offices and public realm are part of proposals which could see Islington reborn as the Fabric District.

Jennions, who sits on the Islington Stakeholders Group (ISG) and helped to create the vision document for the area, thinks the changes can be directly beneficial for Try & Lilly and the 30-plus staff in its factory on Kempston Street.

“The best outcome for Try & Lilly from the Fabric District project is an improvement to the public realm of Islington.

“Creating a nicer environment for people to come to work in is very important for us and what we want to do with the Fabric District fits in with that.”