Fashion is currently facing the fallout from a double-hit; the COVID-19 pandemic and Brexit. The leading think tank Fashion Roundtable today publish their new paper, Brexit: The Impact on the Fashion Industry, outlining the key areas of concern for fashion today, and the solutions needed survive the consequences of leaving the EU.
Fashion has always been anti-Brexit, and for good reason. When David Cameron announced the referendum in 2016, whilst many remained none the wiser, fashion quickly wisened up to the ramifications of leaving the single market, both for the economy and for the international reputation of the British fashion industry. Anti-Brexit campaigns spurted up as British fashion took a decidedly pro-EU stance, from the photographer Wolfgang Tillmans' series of posters featuring political statements, to the flurry of designers who protested on the runway, including the British fashion designer Katherine Hamnett's 'Cancel Brexit' and 'Fashion Hates Brexit!' t-shirts. The EU flag was quickly plastered over jumpers, with even the Paris-based label Vetements on our side, together with berets which became sartorial signifiers of European allegiance at anti-Brexit marches.
Tamara Cincik founded the think tank Fashion Roundtable in November 2017 in response to the feelings of anxiety she sensed amongst her peers in the industry, owing in part to the sheer lack of representation for fashion in government. In response to Brexit, Fashion Roundtable published the only policy paper for fashion, and hosted a series of panel discussions with SHOWstudio.
Fast-forward to 2021, and our industry is facing the serious threats which Fashion Roundtable predicated. Brexit has affected all areas of fashion, from freedom of movement to trade tariffs and exchange rates.'It’s forecasted the fashion industry’s £35bn UK GDP contribution could fall to £26.2bn, with both textile manufacturing and retail now highly exposed to the impact of Brexit', report Fashion Roundtable in their latest paper. Their Don't Make Fashion History campaign in February 2021 hammered this home, sending out the message that 'fashion is facing decimation'. As a result, over 455 industry figureheads including Nick Knight, Juergen Teller and Yasmine Le Bon came together to sign an open letter to the UK government asking for a roundtable discussion, and the public were given guidance on writing to their local MP. Cincik told me over a call last week that,
'For us, the Don't Make Fashion History campaign was important, because yes, it was about the stars of the show, but equally, it's also about the garment worker, who quite often as we've seen with Fashion Revolution week, aren't valued. They're all part of the same community, we're all part of the same business.'
In their new paper, Fashion Roundtable includes a survey from earlier this year, which found that 59% of participants felt that their business had been impacted by Brexit since January 2021. 48% of participants were concerned about the decision to end the VAT Retail Export Scheme, whilst as 59% were concerned that the UK's reputation as a fashion hub would be marred by Brexit. 66% are concerned about access to markets and 75% are concerned about the loss of freedom of movement for goods and services. As a result of their findings, Fashion Roundtable have pinpointed worker's rights, immigration, education, the VAT retail export scheme and intellectual property as areas for concern which must be addressed if fashion is to survive Brexit.
'Brexit’s really hard to quantify because it's going to have a long term impact. You'll either see businesses folding or relocating. It's clearly going to be quite problematic for quite a number of years for the fashion industry, because we deal so much with the EU. It's not that I want to focus just on you know, doom and gloom, but it's like, the reality is to get to the vision, you have to go through the nightmare and fix it' Cincik explains.
Maintaining a dialogue between fashion and government is the key to the industry's survival, says Fashion Roundtable. 'The fashion industry has the potential to be at the heart of the UK’s post-pandemic recovery and a shining example of how the creative industries can flourish in a post-Brexit Britain.'
Facilitating collaboration between politics and fashion is what the think tank has been predicated on since Cincik founded the non-partisan, independent organisation, and Cincik tells me that she finally feels that fashion is now taken much more seriously by government and the business press than it once was.
'It was the Wild West before I started, there wasn't enough engagement', she explains. 'They [the government] thought the sector was fine, because that's what they were being told. It's news to them as well. You know, [politicians], they're very busy people. They haven't worked in our sector, neither probably in creative industries. A visceral understanding of any complex industry is hard for anybody [on the outside of that supply chain] to understand. There has always been a kind of attitude or shift that's needed about valuing the creative industries.'
This attitude towards the arts became clearer than day in January 2021, when the UK secretary of state for education, Gavin Williamson, announced that 50% of the funding for ‘non-strategic’ subjects - including the arts, will be cut. Fashion Roundtable's paper references the Cultural Learning Statistics from 2010-2019 in England, which show that there was a 38% decline in GCSE arts entries. That leaves our domicile talent in no position to pick up the slack left by the EU garment workers on whom British fashion relies on, and who will be denied a UK visa under the new point-based immigration system. Fashion Roundtable ask that garment workers be added to the Shortage Occupation List, whilst as the Craft & Design T-Level due to start in September 2023, be brought forward.
'We’re a country of eccentrics, and eccentrics are inevitably creative, so it's part of our DNA to be rebellious and to use clothes as part of that dialogue. I feel that it’s so at odds with the jobs of the future that that's not been part of the curriculum that children have been taught, because critical creative thinking is the future of tech. All the answers that you want on innovation are already there, but we do need to address the problems that we're facing in the meantime, because that’s the vision piece right?', says Cincik.
Bridging the gap between fashion and policy-making, Fashion Roundtable have lobbied across key areas including Brexit, sustainability and ethics, and as secretariat to the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Textiles and Fashion, they regularly meet with government Ministers and Civil Servants. During the pandemic, the think tank 'worked with the UK government on their PPE procurement strategy, leading to a commitment of 70% UK made PPE'. Earlier this month, they hosted a virtual roundtable with the Shadow Secretary of State for International Trade, Emily Thornberry MP, and her team member Bill Esterson MP, offering an opportunity for the industry to express concerns regarding international trade and global supply chains, something not frequently offered. Most recently, Fashion Roundtable hosted a meeting with Paul Scully MP, the Minister for Small Business, to discuss fashion as part of the Build Back Better agenda. Cincik hopes that this is the first step towards a roundtable with the government, putting the paper's recommendations into action, and saving fashion from Brexit.
Read our short guide to the paper here.
Fashion Roundtable's key recommendations are as follows:
- Add garment workers to the Shortage Occupation List for Visas
- Reinstate the VAT Retail Export Scheme and extend to EU visitors
- Reconsider visa requirements for fashion creatives
- Close the gap on problems surrounding the rules of origin
- Subsidise or scrap ATA carnets for travelling creative
- Begin the Craft and Design T-Level course in September 2021
- Establish clarity on the issue of unregistered design rights
- Build a robust IP framework into all trade deals
- Secure a cabotage exemption for the creative and cultural sector – similar to the one that enables the
Formula 1 industry to move large amounts of equipment across borders easily
- Equal support for the fashion industry for exports to the EU as enjoyed by the fishing industry with their
£23m package for a 12,000 workforce generating £1.4bn GVA, versus £2,000 grants available for all of
the UK’s 617,600 SMEs;
- Incentivise on-shoring with tax relief for brands who manufacture in the UK, as the UK film industry