London Fashion Week took place this week: ballrooms and old office blocks, disused railway arches and Art Deco hotels were taken over for fashion shows across the city.
Fashion makes over £28bn a year for the UK economy, and the growth figures are good: the Department for Culture Media and Sport say the industry had the greatest growth in employment between 2011 and 2016 at 57.4%, while the ‘design and designer fashion industry’ in particular has outpaced the rest of the creative industries in service exports and employment, as shown in the government statistics released in July 2017.
So far, so rosy.
However, for an industry founded on global talent and international supply chains, the prospect of a Hard Brexit is nothing short of devastating for us at the Fashion Roundtable, and the many businesses we have spoken with.
Off the record, some multinational businesses have discussed relocation plans into mainland Europe; while others have said there is a clear need for full customs union access through transition and beyond, and are waiting before the leap, to see what the UK and EU can agree on. Europe is our largest fashion trading partner and from almost every single angle it is in our interests as a sector for it to remain that way.
Ardent leavers like Liam Fox, Secretary of State for International Trade favour leaving the customs union, so that the UK can begin to negotiate bilateral trade deals with China, India and Latin America as part of Tories’ ‘Global Britain’ strategy.
The problem is this isn’t beneficial for the UK fashion industry. This was made clear during London Fashion week, as designers and buyers did not hesitate to express their concerns that bilateral trade deals with Latin America wouldn’t bring in all-year-round seasonal clothing (swimwear is their biggest market).
Likewise, there’s the concern that China is growing its own talent and its own fashion education; this long-term drive towards building its own fashion talent pool will head off the incentive for a bilateral deal with the UK. All this means that Europe needs to remain our largest trading partner. After all, it’s also the closest, and in trade, geography matters.
From the sizes of our clothes, to the size of our bodies, our shared history and culture, to the sustainability agenda of clothes travelling from here to Europe (as opposed to further afield to, say, Latin America), it doesn’t make business sense to lose our closest partners in a wish with crossed fingers, and hope for future ones, further away.
London Fashion Week is built on global networks: Ashish, born in Delhi, lived in London and Canada, or Mary Katzantrou born in Greece and now based here, or Erdem, half Turkish, half Canadian and based in East London, or new brand Nicopanda, launched by super stylist Nicola Formachetti, who is half Japanese and half Italian. Go back 100 years and the first couture house in Paris was launched by Charles Worth from Lincolnshire.
Fashion has always been international. The thread in your jacket, the buttons on your shirt, the leather in your shoes, all come from different countries, and any one outfit is composed of materials from numerous territories. And it’s not just clothes. Being part of a large trading bloc brings in the investment, talent and skills and EU funding which allows London to maintain its seat on the global fashion stage.
Take education for example. Bringing in European students to study at London’s top five fashion schools is not only about nurturing creative talent but ensuring students are prepared for running a business, styling and marketing.
European designers come to study at our fashion colleges and then launch their brands here. Brands such Marques Almeida, whose two designers came from Portugal to take up postgraduate degrees in fashion at Central Saint Martins college of fashion decided to base their team here.
The National Society for Education in Art and Design (NSEAD) report of 2015/16 states a reduction in time allocated to art and design for Key Stage 4 by 42% than in any other sector.
This means we won’t have the talent to take up the jobs of today, let alone tomorrow; and with UK talent being stifled by the unintended consequence of the EBacc, arts education is in a sharp freefall.
Opting for a hard Brexit could not only tarnish our global reputation, but also our high net worth brands adding value to our retail landscape, which Savills rated as second only to NYC. That’s why it makes sense to remain part of the EU’s trading bloc.
Even for Phoebe English or Edeline Lee, who are part of a rare but growing legion of designers who manufacture all of their clothes in the UK, the components are international, with Edeline using woven fabrics from Italy and France.
Fashion Roundtable have worked on a Fashion Brexit Impact assessement with Assay Advisory, whose analysis places the loss to GVA (Gross Value Added) for the fashion industry at 35% from a Hard Brexit.
That’s £8bn a year lost to the UK economy, which puts into perspective the £9bn of trade that Theresa May secured in China across multiple businesses two weeks ago. It’s doubtful that our loss will be their gain.
That’s why Fashion Roundtable are lobbying for freedom of movement and customs union access now for the fashion industry, and are publishing the results of our survey and roundtables on Brexit in the coming few weeks.
As the trade talks in March loom ever closer, it’s important that the Prime Minister listens to the voices coming from creative industries so that she can help us design a Britain that works for fashion, politics and the consumer.
The views expressed in this analysis post are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the UK in a Changing Europe initiative.