As Theresa May triggers Article 50, British fashion cowers before Brexit
One year ago, British fashion designers took a very public stand against Brexit. An estimated 90% of London-based creators aghast at the very idea of leaving Europe, as many very firmly spoke out against any such divorce. Today, they await the divorce with trepidation.
Back in February 23, 2016, four months before the June 23 referendum, Burberry went so far as to publish a letter in The Times backing the Remain side. Just weeks before the vote, Vivienne Westwood wore an agitprop T-shirt calling on people to register to vote and stay in. She was one of 282 leading creative figures to sign an open letter opposing Brexit. Pro-EU posters shot by German photographer Wolfgang Tillmans even adorned the walls of the reception area of the British Fashion Council during London Collections Men that June.
But today, as Prime Minister Theresa May triggers Article 50 this Wednesday morning, the UK fashion industry is truly cowered by the dramatic rush to leave Europe. Conversations with designers and fashion executives reveal considerable caution about the eventual outcome, along with a general sense of sadness about what looks like a very messy separation.
The May letter – hand-delivered to the president of the European Council Donald Tusk - ignites a two-year process of negotiations to see in what manner the UK will leave the European Union, ending a link that has lasted 44 years.
Among fashionistas, there is little doubt that Brexit will have huge consequences for our industry, all the way from education to exports. Britain boasts the single most famous fashion school in the world – Central St Martin’s – which supplies literally scores of Continental fashion houses with design talent. Though with Tory Party Brexiteers calling for far tighter visa restrictions, May has ruled out the idea of removing students from net migration numbers.
The first issue is already on any negotiating table will be the status of EU citizens living in Britain. Will their right to remain residents be respected? Will newcomers from today be accorded the same rights? One should note that a rough Top Ten of London designer shows would include Erdem Kurtoglu (a Canadian-Turk); Roksanda Ilincic (a Serb from Belgrade); Marques‘Almeida (two Portuguese) and Mary Katrantzou (born in Athens).
And, as attendants at the runway season in London can attest, practically every collection features clothes and accessories manufactured in continental Europe.
"I was as surprised as anybody on the result of the referendum. Without question I am loyal to Europe. I have shops and showrooms across the continent, I've shown my men's collection at Paris Fashion Week since 1976 and we buy fabrics from Italy and elsewhere in Europe,” says Sir Paul Smith.
“It's impossible to anticipate what effect the exit will have on the purchasing of goods and services or on customer confidence but being an independent company we're flexible enough to weather the storm. We've been in business a long time and have witnessed many different crises,” laments the fashionable knight.
Where previously, a young London designer or powerhouse fashion brand selling to department stores or boutiques in any of the other 27 EU countries was simply making a shipment, with Brexit these goods become exports. Then there are fashion editorials. As any stylist can tell you – calling in clothes from Milan or London for a shoot in Paris is just a matter of getting DNL or Fedex to make the delivery. After Brexit, getting clothes from London will require an elaborate carnet – costing time and money.
Moreover, many British designers stage their runway shows on the continent. In Paris alone, Vivienne Westwood, Stella McCartney, Alexander McQueen and Paul Smith. Plus, each season the British Fashion Council sponsors the London Show Rooms in the Marais.
Literally hundreds of London collections come every season to present runway collections and pre-collections in Paris showrooms. Brexit will turn all these operations into logistical headaches.
Says Alice Temperley, who stages her runway shows in London, but always takes a showroom in Paris during the French ready-to-wear season: “Europe plays an important role. Temperley London sells in Europe, we work with European factories, many of our employees and partners in the industry come from Europe.
Since Brexit, the British pound has fallen making production more expensive for UK brands like Temperley, though this was offset somewhat boosting international consumer spending in the UK.
“I always believed that we're stronger together, however Brexit will be a reality soon and we need to act quickly to project and strengthen our business in this new world. I am a designer and a businesswoman. Being the creative director of a dynamic and growing company, I don’t believe in barriers,” Temperley told Fashion Network.
Weakened Sterling has also affected mega labels like Burberry. “Though Brexit wasn’t the outcome we were hoping for, it’s also true the weaker pound has positively impacted UK tourist flows and it has given Burberry a foreign exchange tailwind in accounting terms,” says Andrew Roberts, Vice President of Corporate Relations.
The European Union is the largest single market in the world. According to a recent report from the House of Lords, the EU was Britain’s biggest market for textiles and apparel, accounting for 74% of those exports. The export figure to the EU rose from £4.9bn in 2012 to £6.7bn in 2016, a 36% rise over the five-year period.
“It’s too early to comment until we know the outcome of the negotiations. We continue to focus on what we can control. Clearly, we’ve got teams across the business looking at how and where we may be impacted and we have said we would seek to mitigate any adverse cost impacts, arising as a result of Brexit. It goes without saying that as a proudly British brand, we remain committed to manufacturing in the UK,” added Roberts.
Post referendum, the rise of Jingoism throughout Britain has been bleak, with dissenters to Brexit labelled Remoaners – and the judges on country’s highest court attacked as “Enemies of the people” by The Daily Mail, after they ruled that Westminster parliament had a right to vote on Brexit. This attitude is in stark contrast to the hyper-cosmopolitan nature of the runway scene in London.
Ironically, May actually voted to remain, but since becoming prime minister has embarked on a policy of "Hard Brexit," with rigid controls on immigration and the probability that the UK will exit both the Single Market and the Customs Union.
Argues Caroline Rush, CEO of the British Fashion Council: “There are still so many unanswered questions around our leaving the EU, and Theresa May triggering Article 50 on Wednesday won’t immediately resolve them. The British fashion community did show itself to be overwhelmingly against our leaving the EU in the run-up to the referendum, but now that the decision has been made we need to focus on making sure we see our industry’s needs represented in any deal. Through a series of designer and wider industry roundtables the BFC has established some key areas of concern, which include visas, talent, tariffs, and IP. The creative industries as a whole regularly exceed the national average for economic growth, and working together with the other creative sectors is the best way for fashion to retain its competitive market position.”
Last June, when the BFC conducted its survey asking 500 designers their opinion on Brexit, a mere 4.3% said they would vote to leave. Since the referendum, the BFC has held many meetings with government ministers and round tables with parliamentarians, and made the tagline for the UK Fashion Week in September “London is Open for Business.” May even held a reception in 10 Downing Street to celebrate fashion’s “inclusiveness and education.” Though the mood at the party was largely free of celebration.
The actual vote victory of the Outers last June was narrow, 52 to 48 percent. However, with polls showing, if anything, an increase in the numbers of British people now in favour of Brexit, younger fashion houses and their designers have gone increasingly quiet about their views on this international separation.
Finally, the day before May sent her baleful missive to Tusk, the Scottish parliament voted to demand a new second independence referendum. Both Scotland and Northern Ireland voted against Brexit on June 23. Some 56% of Northern Irish voters voted against Brexit and one of their fears is that this could lead to the establishment of a hard border with the Republic of Ireland to collect customs tariffs, and prevent a backdoor route into the UK for immigrants. This would be the only land border between the EU and the UK. Anything like this will inevitably strain the Peace Process and the dividends of peace in Ulster, which only ended 25 years of bloody civil war barely a decade ago.
But in the clearest example of how Brexit has silenced the tongues of designers. Vogue Runway’s list of the ten best shows in the recent London season was topped by J.W. Anderson (Northern Irish); Christopher Kane (Scottish) and Simone Rocha (Southern Irish). All three of them declined to comment for this story.
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