Fashion’s position has always been clear: leaving the European Union would be a living nightmare.
In June 2016, a British Fashion Council (BFC) survey found 90 percent of British designers would vote to remain in the EU in that month's Brexit referendum, and, according to Fashion Roundtable, a nonprofit that links fashion and policy leaders, 96 percent of people working in the UK fashion industry did indeed vote to remain. Earlier this year, with the Brexit departure process grinding on inconclusively, the BFC threw its weight behind calls for a second referendum.
At a glance: the UK fashion industry contributes some £32.3 billion (approximately $42 billion) to the country’s GDP. It also employs 10,000 European staff and around £10 billion (approximately $13 billion) worth of clothes and accessories are imported from Europe every year.
From future trade with the EU uncertain and increases in tariffs and taxation threatening the country’s cultural currency, could Brexit mark the end of the UK as a global fashion superpower?
“Leaving the EU is unbelievably stupid from a commercial point of view,” says Katharine Hamnett, the 71-year old designer, activist, and pioneer of modern British fashion. Hamnett, who relaunched her namesake brand in 2017, says she employs “very few” staff, although around 80 percent of them are European.
“The moment they called Brexit, we decided the sensible thing would be to set up the company in the middle of Veneto, Italy. One of my mantras is the preservation of tradition and skills. It would break my heart if we couldn’t get that beautiful, top-end ‘Made in Italy,’” Hamnett says. “Our warehousing, everything is managed and shipped from the EU because we have a global market. We sell all over the world. I don’t want anything fucking that up.”
British Fashion Council CEO Caroline Rush concurs. “I think if we go much further, more businesses will move,” she warns. “Maybe not all of their warehousing, but they will make sure that they’ve identified facilities within the EU where they can hold goods and ship within the EU.”
Rush cites the things the UK fashion industry will potentially lose through Brexit: frictionless borders, tariff-free access, pricing margins, specialist workers from the EU, and warehousing. At this stage in the departure process, knowing how the relationship between the country and its biggest trading partner will look post-Brexit is a guessing game, which makes it impossible for brands to plan long-term.
“The Brits [have] that ‘dressing-up box’ tradition from when we were teeny. Other cultures don’t do that,” says Hamnett. “For young fashion designers starting out, it’s going to be difficult.”
When the value of the pound collapsed after the referendum on June 23, 2016, homegrown brands such as London streetwear label Aries were hit hard. “The currency was an issue because the pound dropped so much to the euro, and we were running in pounds,” says Aries co-founder and creative director Sofia Prantera. “There were significant losses there.”
For brands whose sales are done in pounds and whose buying is done in euros, any currency fluctuations have a dramatic effect. As a result, Prantera now runs Aries in dual currency.
“If no trade deals are set after Brexit, we’re also going to be subject to import and export tax," says Prantera. "It’s the same trying to sell your product to the US. Unless you’re manufacturing there, your products cost 30 percent more than an equivalent product because it’s ‘Made in Italy,’ for example.” By comparison, with the EU one large single market without tariffs between member states, selling a UK-made product to Spain or Germany currently costs nothing extra.
Where does that leave fans of London’s roster of influential independent brands? The sad reality is that Brexit will likely make smaller fashion businesses such as A-COLD-WALL*, Aries, and Palace less viable and more expensive to buy.
For serious growth, most fashion businesses rely on exports. With an increase in export tariffs, those brands unable to relocate their business or distribution outside of the UK will become more costly for stockists to buy than their European competitors.
“The rising costs of production will impact how we trade,” agrees East London-based designer Alim Latif, co-founder of bespoke footwear label ROKER. “The shoemaking industry in the UK is set up to produce certain types of shoes, and to produce something that’s more fashion-focused requires access to a wider range of suppliers, which the EU can offer us. Brexit will make this less accessible and [more] restrictive.”
Would relocating be an option? “This crosses my mind repeatedly, [but] we’re a London brand and our work represents this. As soon as we move out of the country, I’m worried we will lose our authenticity. I feel passionate about a ‘Made in UK’ product, which in itself is a very good selling point.”
Richard Malone, a graduate of prestigious fashion school Central Saint Martins and leader of fashion’s new wave of sustainable designers, stresses that one of the biggest implications post-Brexit will be the loss of freedom of movement.
“It will make access to Paris much more difficult, with customs and border control likely to become a nightmare," says Malone. "London also relies on a huge community of people from all over the world who make the fabric of this city so exciting — and we’re losing it.”
An Irish native who has been based in London for eight years, Malone says being part of the EU has meant he has been able to “live here as an immigrant, study at the best fashion school, [and] have access to the rest of Europe to travel, source, and ship.” He argues the atmosphere of UK design and art schools has already changed dramatically, turning more into “corporations” rather than hubs of creativity.
Once the UK leaves the EU, the arts education sector is at risk of lessened diversity in debate, research, and across industries as students graduate. For example, this year, 40 percent of London's Royal College of Art graduating class in the MA Fashion Womenswear program is made up of EU nationals. This could dip if students are faced with higher fees to study in the UK compared with British nationals.
“Culturally and economically, we need to remain on the stage together as part of Europe,” says Zowie Broach, head of fashion at the Royal College of Art. “That’s to do with the city we’re in [and] the cultural history we’ve come from.”
British menswear designer Daniel Fletcher had the opportunity to study in Paris on an EU-funded placement year during his time at Central Saint Martins, honing his craft at various French fashion houses. He says that year was “one of the most important in my career.”
“Leaving the EU would take away this chance for the next generation of students,” Fletcher adds. “For me, the saddest part of Brexit is the loss of cross-border collaboration and the freedom to live and work in other countries, and for people to come here. Even in my team now, it is full of people from all over the world.”
More than 30,000 musicians, artists, and creatives have lent their backing to the #FreeMoveCreate campaign, which is seeking to protect freedom of movement for everyone working in the creative industries. The campaign argues that curbs to freedom of movement between the EU and UK would harm the creative industries and the livelihoods of artists and freelancers whose work isn't limited to one country.
“The [fashion] industry has to change regardless of what outcomes we may struggle with in the next year, [or] five, 10, or even 20 years,” says Broach. “We absolutely need innovation in our industry to shift the business model for the designers.”
With talk of Brexit tarnishing London’s multicultural and global reputation in the fashion ecosystem, industry leaders forecast a youth in revolt and creative energies directed toward protest.
“In times of adversity, the creative industry seems to push boundaries further, so I suspect we’re going to see an incredible amount of creativity coming out of the UK over the next few years as a response to what’s going on,” the British Fashion Council's Rush says. “Culturally, we’re very open [and] it’s very difficult to see how that could be replicated overnight.”