Ahead of the first post-Brexit London Fashion Week, designers and retailers including Richard Quinn, Bethany Williams, and Harry Fisher lay bare its effects on their labels
The fashion business is, notoriously, crash and burn. It’s one of the harsh realities of an industry which depends so heavily on novelty, passing over once-loved wunderkinds at the slightest whiff of the next-big-thing. While landmark brands like Burberry, Vivienne Westwood, and Alexander McQueen make up a robust skyline of UK fashion from afar, for most brands, achieving anywhere near this kind of longevity is a tall order. Today, the British fashion industry is on its knees. After two seasons of COVID disruptions, mass layoffs, and a sudden pivot to digital, the Brexit trade deal has delivered a sucker punch, which could knock many of the UK’s designers completely off balance.
“My inbox is like a therapy session” says Tamara Cincik, CEO of industry think-tank Fashion Roundtable, “it’s very, very bleak”. Although Brexit negotiators managed to secure a zero-tariff, zero-quota trade deal (a huge relief for fashion firms), other areas of the UK-EU agreement leave much to be desired. Namely, the “gaping hole where promised free movement for goods and services” should be, as an open letter to the government from Fashion Roundtable outlined. At £35 billion a year, the fashion industry is worth more to the UK economy than film, music, fishing, pharmaceutical and automobile industries combined. Yet this immense value has not been reflected in any kind of support from parliament. Meanwhile, the fishing industry has been given £23 million to compensate for losses caused by Brexit red tape. Bear in mind there are only 12,000 people that fish in the UK, which is about the same number of (soon to be redundant) Topshop employees. “Brands aren’t being heard” says Cincik and as we enter the first post-Brexit fashion week, “they’re worried they can’t keep going”.
For London’s designers, the impact of such a thin Brexit arrangement is worse than anticipated. Since January 1, brands have been lumped with unforeseen administrative duties, which now come with operating inside and outside of the EU. Excessive amounts of red tape covering complex VAT charges, new customs regulations, intellectual property applications, haulage handling, and penalty fees for getting any of it wrong. “It affects every single link in the chain” says Harry Fisher, director of Hoxton boutique htown, which stocks some of London’s most exciting brands – with Martine Rose, Saul Nash, and Ahluwalia among them. Brexit’s reams of red tape are not only “challenging for creatively minded people to understand” but “it hugely impacts the cashflow and time of these designers,” he says.
“It’s a lot to take on overnight”, says South London’s Richard Quinn, who is producing accessories out of Italy and Spain as part of his upcoming AW21 collection. “Packages have been held due to customs, and because the regulations are so new, it’s tricky to fully grasp who is responsible for what, and how to speed up the process. Timelines on shipments have been really sporadic making it increasingly difficult to plan ahead”. Haulage firms aren’t coping with the red tape either, meaning brands like Roksanda Ilinčić, who “pride (themselves) on working with artisanal companies throughout Europe” are now experiencing “unprecedented delays”. So while operational costs have multiplied, designers are also struggling to access their goods. And this doesn’t just endanger the final garment, but all the prototypes, fabric, trims, zips, and buttons that all come before. It’s a real stress, especially for the likes of Ilinčić, as one of the few designers scheduled to show on London Fashion Week’s official programme.
“The impact of such a thin Brexit arrangement is worse than anticipated. Since January 1, brands have been lumped with unforeseen administrative duties, which now come with operating inside and outside of the EU. Excessive amounts of red tape covering complex VAT charges, new customs regulations, intellectual property applications, haulage handling, and penalty fees for getting any of it wrong”
Bethany Williams, who works closely with social manufacturing projects in Italy describes the situation as “an absolute nightmare. Our main problem is adjusting to the new VAT scheme of each EU country”. Under current legislation, goods sold to the EU now arrive with added customs and VAT bills, which have to be absorbed by stores on a wholesale order or paid for by individual customers on their doorsteps. The rule differs from country to country, but the additional fees can be more than 20 per cent and it’s eating into the margins of London’s designers, who absorb the costs because they don’t want them to land on their customer. Bethany was meant to launch a web store this March, but she’s postponed the project having heard Brexit horror stories from her peers who have had to reimburse VAT bills and pay for their own returns. Many brands have even suggested it’s cheaper to burn returned clothes in the EU than deal with the red tape of getting them back across the channel. “Going direct to consumer is going to be a massive problem,” says Williams.
Although these are only the immediate impacts of Brexit, they have spun designers into prolonged jeopardy. Many of Williams’ European stockists are on “Ex Works” terms (meaning they pay for all the duties and transportation costs). “We’re worried that with an added 20 per cent from VAT that they won’t come back next season” she says. And that’s if they even arrive on time in the first place, given the extensive border delays. “Delivering on time is the most important thing for a brand,” says Fisher. “The earlier a store receives the product, the better the sell-through and the bigger the store’s budget will be for the next season as a result”. Brexit has made this all the more unlikely.
On top of this, there are long-term changes to UK policy that need to be addressed. There’s the decision to rescind the VAT Retail Export Scheme, which saw tourists able to buy fashion in the UK at a cheaper price than at home. We need European garment workers added to the Shortage Occupation List for visas, since the UK lacks the workforce to match demand. Then, we need to address freedom of movement and frictionless travel. Because “who knows what’s going to happen when we have to travel to Paris with our samples,” as Williams puts it.
While the pandemic has travel on lock, the longer term impacts of Brexit are predicted to be much worse than COVID. “We have the best designers in the world, and that’s not going to change,” says Harry – but as it stands, the UK is infertile to fashion talent and London is in danger of losing its reputation as a global fashion capital. In its place will be “more Boohoos, more exploitation” if we don’t get this right, Cincik fears, which is why Fashion Roundtable has “sent 69 letters to the government in the last year”. The initiative is working round the clock to deliver briefings and insights to parliamentarians, lobbying the government to deal with red tape issues, and advocating solutions. “But without me doing it no one would. Because no one has been checking what’s going on,” she adds. “Many people aren’t hearing from bigger organisations within the fashion industry, so they are coming to us. The industry needs to understand that to be effective, you have to engage with politics.”
It’s ironic, given just how political fashion can be, that there is such a dissonance between the two worlds. “When the media and politicians think of fashion, they only see crazily-dressed people, never the jobs or value, but the fashion industry has never really trumpeted itself other than allowing itself to be talked about during fashion week.” Even anecdotally, a very large number of designers and PRs refused to provide comment on this article, preferring to steer away from politics and matters of business entirely. “There is still nowhere for designers to get information on what to do. Even a simple Brexit webinar would be so useful,” Fisher adds. “In this industry, people are too scared to say things. It’s a culture that is holding our sector back”.
“There is still nowhere for designers to get information on what to do. Even a simple Brexit webinar would be so useful. In this industry, people are too scared to say things. It’s a culture that is holding our sector back” – Harry Fisher, htown
However, “in dark times there’s so much power in creativity. It’s really important for us to show light and hope,” says Williams, noting that not even Brexit could dull the spark of London’s hotbed of talent. It’s a heartfelt sentiment but Cincik puts it into perspective: “Where are these brands going to be in 10 years if we don’t get the right support?” “It’s important that the government take a serious look at the bigger picture and really understand how Brexit is affecting fashion houses here in the UK,” says Quinn. He’s right, but fashion needs to hold policy makers to account. Policy is business, livelihoods, and creativity. We cannot expect parliamentarians to understand a sector they have very little engagement with. The fishing industry punched above its weight with its lobbying of the government. Other creative sectors have been efficient in organising through their unions. Theatre has Equity, film has Bectu, music has The Musicians Union. Where is fashion’s equivalent? Brexit is hacking holes in fashion’s very infrastructure.
When Ilinčić first came to London in 1999 from Serbia, she found “an incredible, prospering industry where everything was in place to support someone like (her) to build a brand from scratch, employ people, and give back to society”. For the up and coming designers of today, 2021 looks decidedly different. The cracks of Brexit are beginning to chasm and they go much deeper than we had expected. At its core, fashion is relentlessly optimistic, a constant reimagining of the future, even in the bleakest of presents. But, as Cincik puts it quite plainly, if the industry and its organisations do not engage with policy, “there will be no future at all.”
Write to your local MP urging them to save the fashion industry by using the template found here, and revisit some of the most iconic LFW shows that demonstrate just how vital it is we continue fighting in the gallery below.
ALEXANDER MCQUEEN SS99
A king amongst men as far as colossal displays go, McQueen’s SS99 set-up reimagined how a fashion show might look and who might watch it (Victoria Beckham was famously denied an invite). Taking place in a former bus depot days after his guest-edited issue of Dazed hit shelves, cover star and Paralympic champion Aimee Mullins was among the models, but it was Shalom Harlow’s closing performance, which saw her placed between two robots who proceeded to spray the former ballet dancer with paint, that cemented its icon status.
CHRISTOPHER KANE SS07
While Christopher Kane’s talent was announced at the Central Saint Martins’ MA degree show, it was the SS07 collection that quickly followed which confirmed his god tier capabilities. Here, Kane tapped into the moment with bold, brilliant mini dresses of lace, plastic, and diamante. Marrying feminine notes with a fiercely modern point of view – and acid brights with more neutral tones – it was the first nod to the aesthetic duality of which the designer has since established as a winning formula.
GARETH PUGH SS07
Fresh from his three-season stint as part of the Fashion East fold, Gareth Pugh landed on the SS07 London Fashion Week schedule with a seminal show that served him a standing ovation. Wearing fetish-indebted, puffed-up latex looks bearing bold, black-and-silver harlequin motifs, models marched up and down a dramatic rippling cotton runway created by set designer Simon Costin. The finishing touches? Skin-tight masks and severe sex-club ponytails, to which the likes of Richard Quinn are heavily indebted.
HUSSEIN CHALAYAN AW00
“I feared things going wrong, but the risk was so worth taking,” revealed Hussein Chalayan just after his pioneering AW00 show – and reader, it really was. With models making their way out onto the stage in a series of chair coverings and a coffee table (do not adjust your set), the furniture transformed into four dresses and one wooden skirt in front of the audience’s very eyes. As longtime collaborator Björk so succinctly put it, the designer “raises daily life to a level of something magical. He was born with these powers.”
NASIR MAZHAR SS14
Nasir Mazhar’s London Fashion Week debut heralded a seismic shift not just in London, but around the world, as the rules around what constituted ‘luxury’ began to bend and warp. Sending a diverse, co-ed cast of models down the runway to the skewed sounds of a pirate radio station, the designer’s SS14 collection was made up of bolshy sequin-branded sweaters, oversized tees, and track pants, with many looks finished with bondage-y strap details. Mazhar may have (fairly) rejected being deposited into the ‘streetwear’ category, but there’s no doubt he helped cultivate a new design aesthetic that dominated the late-2010s.
SPORTS BANGER AW19
A slight curveball within this gallery, sure, but there’s no denying Tottenham couturier Sports Banger’s debut LFW show was a total momenté. Taking place off the official schedule and off-the-beaten track, a tiny audience including Turner Prize winner Jeremy Deller and Jaime Winstone piled into designer Jonny Banger’s equally tiny Seven Sisters studio to watch the ravey runway show unfold. Kitted out in and piano-key tracksuits and upcycled wipe-clean outerwear – crafted from leftover lilos from Banger’s Slazenger collab – models weaved their way between cardboard boxes and piles of stock, whooping and voguing as they went. Demonstrating the DIY spirit and haphazard brilliance that London was once renowned for, we called it ‘the vibiest show of Fashion Week’ – two years on, we stand by that decision.
MARTINE ROSE AW17
Previously eschewing the fashion calendar and an assortment of the industry’s other more traditional components, Martine Rose’s AW17 return to the runway was going to be big news for her fans, regardless of the venue. That she chose to show in a covered market in Tottenham, well out of the LFW catchment area, only heightened the experience, as an army of asymmetrical haircuts and shirt and tie-fits paraded down the narrow runway. “I’ve been in Tottenham for ten years, so it was time to do something here,” she told Dazed post-show.
WALES BONNER SS17
Immediately offering something new, Grace Wales Bonner’s star rose the minute she won the L’Oréal Professionnel Talent Award at CSM. Following three seasons with MAN – and a V&A Fashion in Motion presentation – SS17 marked two firsts for the designer: Wales Bonner’s formal introduction to womenswear, and her first solo show. A hold-your-breath kind of moment, this independent showing offered an exquisite take on the personal themes previously examined by the label, simultaneously highlighting just why she would, days later, pick up the LVMH Prize.
CRAIG GREEN SS15
The objective of a Craig Green show has always been greater than the clothes, as marked out at his MAN debut: no doubt those assembled still equate Green’s wooden structures with Health’s “Die Slow”. Accompanied by Enya and Wim Mertens, his first standalone show only further asserted the designer’s intentions, as the combination of emotive sounds and barefoot models left many of the front row in tears (thanks in large part to the recent passing of CSM legend and Green’s mentor Louise Wilson). The clothes themselves were similarly powerful, with soft silhouettes and an angelic palette of white and blue coupled with skillfully cut jackets and 90s cutouts.
MEADHAM KIRCHHOFF SS15
“We live in this disgusting culture where freedom is this myth that everybody sort of believes in,” explained Edward Meadham backstage, following, what it later emerged, would be Meadham Kirchhoff’s final runway show. This idea of inequality formed the basis of the collection and was mirrored in the details; ‘blood’-soaked tampons hung from trees lining the runway (a nod to The Slits and other feminist icons), while a ‘Love/Hate’ booklet was handed out to guests, a list of male stereotypes filling the latter section. A colourful display of punk with a streetcast line-up, the show joyfully echoed the political leanings previewed in earlier Meadham Kirchhoff shows.
STELLA MCCARTNEY GRADUATE COLLECTION
While celebrity today is ubiquitous – and the fashion industry one of its biggest cheerleaders – having your graduate collection arrive down the runway on the back of a supermodel is still a rarity. But in 1995 the supers were Stella McCartney’s mates, and hence a cultural moment was born. While the designer has since backtracked on the casting of Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell – “I look back on that moment and just feel a bit embarrassed that I was so naïve,” she told Desert Island Discs in 2017 – the show remains a standout.
VIVIENNE WESTWOOD SS85
Shunning the big-shoulder silhouettes that dominated the catwalk in the mid-1980s, for SS85, Vivienne Westwood turned out a totally unique collection that heralded the arrival of her signature mini-crini. Looking to the tailored coats and dresses worn by a young Queen Elizabeth for inspiration, Westwood dressed models including longtime muse Sara Stockbridge in nipped-in corsets, bustiers, and skirts that emphasised the hips and breasts. Looks were finished with the designer’s now-iconic ‘Rocking Horse’ shoes, which also made their debut around this time.