Designers and brands have expressed mounting concerns about the impact Brexit could have on the industry’s global status, as the UK gears up to welcome visitors from 58 countries to London Fashion Week.
Despite the usual buzz in the days leading up to the event on 16-20 September, designers have warned that the Brexit vote has already had a significant impact, particularly as the weakness of sterling has weighed on the cost of production.
“Our raw materials, as they are from Europe, are all more expensive now as the pound has dropped so low,” said London Fashion Week designer Phoebe English. “This has been difficult to factor in, as we have already costed our production and sold it.
“We have also lost potential sponsorship from large companies that are now more cautious about funding external parties.
“Our manufacturers are in a state of disarray and confusion about whether they can continue to work in this country, which is obviously very distressing to everyone concerned.
“We have even had some employees targeted with hate crimes and others who have just arrived with us who are now fearful they may not be able to stay here.”
Catherine Teatum, one half of design duo Teatum Jones, agreed: “Our suppliers’ prices have changed. We work with luxury mills, most of which are based in Europe. The pound being weaker means we’ve had to adapt our budgets for fabric developments. There has been a weird sensation of wariness in phone calls with suppliers – they’ve been asking, ‘Why don’t you want to be in Europe?’”
There are also concerns the UK could lose its status as a breeding ground for fashion talent.
English said: “I have had students interning for me who are now disinclined to return to England and continue studying here because they feel unwelcome in this country. British fashion is collaborative and it is international – if the government refuses to allow the freedom of movement of people, both of those things will be in danger.”
Teatum and her design partner Rob Jones won the Centre for Fashion Enterprise’s Venture Award, which is funded by the European Union, in 2013.
“It was invaluable,“ said Teatum. “It came with mentorship and a small investment, and helped us grow to the next stage. What happens to young designers if that’s wiped away? That funding needs to be protected.”
However, Peter Ruis, chief executive of Jigsaw, which is showing during London Fashion Week for the first time this season, said the industry will pull together for the event: “For London Fashion Week we will all come together. The vast majority of the fashion industry voted to remain, but from the smallest designer to the biggest retailer we all have to adapt to a new reality- whatever that is. Everyone will be making it desperately clear that the UK is still in business and we want the consumer to have fun and enjoy it.”
London Fashion Week Men’s designer Kestin Hare said there were many positives following the Brexit vote: a weaker pound has made his collection more affordable for international wholesale accounts and has also boosted interest from UK independents.
“Having just closed our order books for spring 17, we have seen an increase in both orders from the UK and internationally,” said Hare. “We were worried about buyer confidence following the Brexit vote but the weakened pound makes us a lot more attractive to our European accounts, so our business has increased there. In the UK we are seeing a lot of indies upping their orders as with us they have the security of buying in pounds.”
Jenny Holloway, chief executive of london-based manufacturer Fashion Enter, which is working with London Fashion Week designers including Matthew Williamson, agreed the weaker pound had been good for business: “We’ve been very busy with exports on the back of the pound being lower so it has had a positive impact on us.”
With regard to whether Brexit will damage the UK fashion industry she added: “I think cream rises to the top. We have cutting edge designers and they will always find access to the market place. We are un-phased by Brexit”.
The British Fashion Council, which organises London Fashion Week and London Fashion Week Men’s, conducted a series of Brexit round tables with designers and brands over the summer, and is now in discussions with the government to ensure that the fashion industry is a core priority in the negotiations.
BFC chief executive Caroline Rush is bullish about the industry’s future outside the EU: “London Fashion Week is one of the first major global events in the UK since the referendum and it is an opportunity to prove that London and the UK remain open for business and international trade,” she told Drapers.