After three-and-a-half years, two snap elections, and endless failed trade agreements, on December 31st, the United Kingdom finally made its official withdrawal from the European Union with a deal in place. It would be easy, then, to imagine that the journey had reached, if not its end, then at least a new chapter with a more clearly defined path forward. But the final hour agreement—more of a last-minute averting of total economic self-destruction—has left small businesses up and down the country scrambling to answer the question: What comes next?
The first post-Brexit London Fashion Week kicked off last Friday, with hopes that it might go some way to answering that question within the context of fashion. Because even after many weeks of coming to terms with the aftermath of Brexit, the future of the country’s largest creative industry—one estimated to contribute around £35 billion to the GDP annually—still hangs in the balance.
The neglect of the fashion industry during Brexit negotiations feels particularly stark when compared to the outsize attention focused on, say, fishing. Fishing is an industry that employs approximately 24,000 people, and has already received £23 million in relief; meanwhile, fashion’s workforce of 555,000 has been largely left to fend for themselves, particularly as high street retail has taken an immeasurable hit and resulted in tens of thousands of layoffs.
For those in power, to ignore fashion’s role in putting London on the international cultural map—let alone its financial importance, if we’re speaking a language they’re more likely to understand—is to shoot an important sector of the economy straight in the foot. But the weight of the cold, hard statistics of just how forcefully Brexit will impact one of the country’s most measurably significant creative exports appears to have done little in swaying their outlook, with the only concrete financial relief provided coming by way of a £20 million fund available to small businesses across all industries nationwide.
That’s not to say there haven’t been significant efforts to make fashion’s case as a part of Britain’s role on the global stage. It’s worth noting, in particular, the work of Tamara Cincik at Fashion Roundtable, whose open letter to the British government explaining the economic benefits of making a cash injection to the fashion industry attracted co-signatories including Nick Knight, Vivienne Westwood, and Jefferson Hack. And it was also reassuring to see many of the city’s designers strike an upbeat tone across the weekend. Any attempts to pinpoint direct references to the current challenges facing London’s designer vanguard as a result of Brexit would be trite—but even without taking into account the broader political context, it was the designers working in direct opposition to Brexit’s isolationist spirit who emerged as the week’s most exciting voices.
Simone Rocha’s nods to her Irish heritage were as compelling as ever, this time injected with a touch of ’80s Soho punk via the tulle skirts that erupted under cinched leather jackets, or made cozy via the deliberately disheveled cable knits in shamrock green. Chopova Lowena’s riotous, pattern-heavy kilts, embroidered shirts, and pouf dresses paid tribute to the Bulgarian craftspeople the designers collaborate with on the continent, here decorating a cast of crimped and curled New Romantics. Priya Ahluwalia also emerged as a standout of the week—so much so that she was awarded the Queen Elizabeth II Award for design—moving seamlessly between nods to the Harlem Renaissance and upcycled fabrics she sourced from her local market in Tooting.
It’s cheering to know that London’s best young designers are those celebrating the city’s multicultural energy and translating that into compelling and immediately wearable clothes. But how much longer will those international buyers be willing to snap those clothes up, with the endlessly byzantine new set of rules for customs and shipping between the European Union, where so many of these designers’ manufacturers lie? Already, upstart brands are having to absorb the costs of shipping and tax while transporting fabrics and samples to and from the continent, and it’s a problem that will only grow more pronounced as the first post-Brexit season of sales gets underway.
The terms have been set by Johnson’s government, so there’s no going back—the only answer is to offer the fashion industry a relief package to make it through for now, and it’s going to require international pressure to ensure that financial support happens. There are plenty of major French and Italian brands that rely on London’s status as a talent incubator to fill the ranks of their junior designers each year, or to find the creative directors whose visions have guided them into some of their most lucrative phases. To see that frittered away due to Brexit would be a loss not just to the London design community, but to the fashion world at large. If action isn’t taken, the consequences will be long-term and significant—it’s now or never.