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As Brexit Looms, Prime Minister Theresa May Looks to the Future of British Fashion

In her address to the British fashion industry last night, Prime Minister Theresa May never directly addressed Brexit. Here, leading figures share their thoughts on the UK's looming split from the EU.
  • BoF Team

LONDON, United Kingdom — Just as the Marc Jacobs show was closing New York Fashion Week across the Atlantic, scores of London-based designers, editors, buyers, executives and educators — from Christopher Bailey and Dame Vivienne Westwood to Vogue's Alexandra Shulman and Browns founder Joan Burstein — assembled yesterday evening at 10 Downing Street, home of the new British Prime Minister Theresa May, as the unofficial kick off to London Fashion Week.

As the ornate room filled with people, guests wondered aloud, “Is she actually going to show up?” and if she did, “what will she say?” The elephant in the room was the UK’s decision to leave the EU following the Brexit vote on June 24. This would be the prime minister’s first opportunity to address the British fashion industry on the subject in a direct way.

Eventually, at the appointed hour, British Fashion Council Chairman Natalie Massenet ushered in Theresa May, who had just been meeting trainees and apprentices from British fashion businesses including Burberry and John Smedley, as well as a slew of designers building businesses in London. Massenet personally guided May through the crowd, introducing guests and explaining their roles within the industry.

May was dressed in black, wearing tailored Amanda Wakeley trousers with a now sold-out piece from Palmer/Harding's collaboration with John Lewis. Her typically understated look was offset by a pair of Russell & Bromley lip-motif kitten heels, once again demonstrating her knack for a statement shoe.

But there was a lot more to discuss than the PM’s outfit. "We are living through a time of remarkable transition. But also in an age of extraordinary innovation,” said Massenet in her speech to the Downing Street guests, alluding to the looming Brexit negotiations around the UK's departure from the EU, which will begin after the now infamous Article 50 clause is triggered, expected to be sometime early next year. “This is nothing new, there have been many booms and busts over the decades, but London fashion and the creative industries have endured, indeed, prospered even, in difficult times."

But while Prime Minister May talked about the significance of the British fashion industry in her own address, and had sent a strong message of support simply by inviting the industry to Downing Street, she never directly addressed Brexit.

BoF polled leading industry figures to better understand what they think Brexit might mean for the future of British fashion, and what they are looking for from Ms May and the British Fashion Council at this time of uncertainty. It seems there are still many concerns about how Brexit is going to impact the fashion sector — from access to talent to the rising cost of imports — and that a more direct approach is needed to address these important questions.

Christopher Bailey — CHIEF CREATIVE OFFICER — Burberry

“It certainly was not the result that we were looking for at all. Having said that, we do now need to make the best of it. I think the important point of all of this is to have clarity and stability as we negotiate what Brexit actually means for our country. It’s very important that we conclude that as quickly as we can. There is clearly a lot of work that the government has got to do to establish how and where this is going to impact business and of course, individuals. We trade globally as a business; we operate in all countries around the world, of course we expect some change, but, it is business as usual for us.”

Alexandra Shulman — EDITOR-IN-CHIEF — British Vogue

“We voted as a nation to leave the EU and I think that the government has to honour that vote whilst ensuring as little damage to our lifestyle and economy as possible. To this end it is important that we actively engage with communities outside the EU and build on those relationships as well as try and ensure that there is reasonable access to those within. We need to make sure that talented and skilled people from inside the EU are able to work in the UK with the minimum of bureaucracy possible, and also that they are able to come and study here.”

Anya Hindmarch — DESIGNER — Anya Hindmarch

"I think it is important not to dramatise the situation. There will be some turbulence I am sure, and some scare-mongering, but there will also be some wins, for example currency changes, making the UK better value. Most of all I feel that the fashion industry in Europe is very collaborative and respectful of each other. The UK is a big customer to Europe (bigger than they are to us). Everyone is very committed to preserving their businesses, be that my suppliers in Italy or my customers in France."

"To support the British fashion industry, the British government should focus on the ability to hire talent from overseas. Keeping red tape, customs, duties and tariffs low and simple. I think we have to be pragmatic and upbeat. [The vote result] is largely not what the fashion industry wanted, but I suspect that we will find a way to make it a success for us and for the UK as well as for our European business partners. We will make it work with respect for each other."

Caroline Rush — CHIEF EXECUTIVE OFFICER — British Fashion Council

“Over the summer the BFC has conducted a series of roundtables with designers and brands. The three main concerns were around Intellectual Property regulations; tariffs; and talent and visas. With the help of the British government we intend to ensure that we are able to protect tariff-free trade in the EU, keeping red tape to a minimum while also establishing effective trade deals in key territories outside of the EU. We will also be asking the government to provide assurances to businesses and individuals as soon as possible about the right to work and right to stay post-Brexit for EU citizens — as well as creating ways of attracting talent to London and the UK. This, however, is not just a concern for the fashion industry but for all industries here in Britain."

Paul Smith — DESIGNER/FOUNDER — Paul Smith

"There was a period of pretty significant flux across the economy but things have settled a little now. Throughout my career, Paul Smith has always been an international business in every sense from manufacturing to distribution. We sell in over 70 different countries and have offices in London, Milan, Paris, New York and Tokyo. I have shown my men's collection at Paris Fashion Week since 1976 and we buy fabrics from Italy and elsewhere in Europe. The long-term impact on purchasing goods and services remains to be seen but our independence and experience means that we will be agile enough to handle whatever happens."

Fabio Piras — MA FASHION COURSE DIRECTOR — Central Saint Martins

"I cannot deny that it is worrying to think that we will probably see a decline in graduates’ employability in the EU. I am equally concerned with the potentially decreasing numbers of EU students [applying to CSM], as they will not be able to come as freely as they can now; especially when we think in terms of lost funding opportunities such as the Erasmus programme or simply not being eligible to most of our privately funded scholarships, which at present consider home and EU students as one. Courses like MA Fashion at CSM will have to question how we deal with those funds and maybe devise a fairer way of distributing money across nationalities in a more inclusive manner. If that is not difficult enough, we will need to fundraise even more if we want to guarantee accessibility to talent no matter what background it comes from. We do take pride in being a thriving international community (students and academics) and in my view we need to do our best stay that way."

"Hopefully Brexit legislation will protect the idea that both the UK and the EU cannot, and should not, lose out on students and graduates from both sides. That to me would mean cultural and industrial impoverishment. Fashion is an industry that only exists because it accepts the idea of constant change. I would like to think that we, the fashion educators and the British Fashion Industry, are flexible and resilient enough to deal with whatever the consequences of leaving the EU might be. Whether we like it or not Brexit means moving forward."

Stavros Karelis — FOUNDER — Machine-A

"The free movement of people and goods is absolutely necessary to secure the productivity of this country. Similarly [it] will help UK businesses remain competitive in the international arena, through the free movement of their goods within the EU. Visa requirements should not be based only on financial criteria, because many creatives won’t be eligible. No one can know at this stage what will happen, but I am optimistic. The British fashion industry has managed to survive the 2008 credit crisis and bounce back to become very competitive and thriving."

Julietta Dexter — FOUNDER — The Communications Store

"I don’t think we have a clue what will be the greatest challenge that arises as a result of Britain's decision to leave the EU. My bigger concern right now is a looming financial crisis, a proper one that might make 2008 look like a dress rehearsal. But that won’t be because of Brexit alone, Brexit will just be a contributing factor. As our company becomes more international, I’d like to think we can still employ globally interesting candidates who are multi-lingual, multi-cultural and therefore multi-skilled. I hope that will never change."


"I think the priority now is that we focus on establishing the best possible terms to continue to facilitate and encourage European trade which is so important to so many international businesses, including our own. How our government manages our strong existing relationships with international trade partners is crucial so as not to isolate ourselves. How Brexit will affect travel and immigration is also a huge question mark right now. Supporting British talent is incredibly important to us, and my concern is that for those designers based here but that produce abroad there may be serious financial implications. This is particularly the case if this is coupled with increased duties on exports."

Ike Rust — HEAD OF MENSWEAR MA — Westminster University

"I still can’t believe the UK would choose not to be part of Europe. The focus on borders and ‘taking back control’ runs counter-intuitively to human evolution and design education. Any knowledge or ideas-based economy is enriched by cross-fertilisation and working outside of our known boundaries. Until we know how post-Brexit legislation impacts on the design-based industries, education, visas and permission to remain and work, the challenge will be maintaining the ability to recruit students with unique perspectives and ideas, who are attracted to London because they believe it is a centre for creativity. This is based on different communities' freedom to express, which again runs counter to the [driving narrative] behind Brexit."

Interviews have been edited and condensed. 

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