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Theresa May Fails to Grasp How Dire Brexit Will Be for Fashion

The British prime minister needs a reality check: An exit from the EU without a deal would be catastrophic for the UK economy, and would irrevocably harm the future of the British fashion industry.
Prime Minister Theresa May at Downing Street with Stephanie Phair, Caroline Rush, Anna Wintour and Edward Enninful | Source: Getty
By
  • Imran Amed

LONDON, United Kingdom — As the confetti of London Fashion Week had just began to settle, The British Fashion Council (BFC) invited fashion industry insiders to 10 Downing Street for a cocktail reception hosted by UK prime minister Theresa May.

Though the local industry was buzzing about Riccardo Tisci's debut at Burberry, Victoria Beckham's 10th anniversary show (for the first time in her hometown) and the creativity of London's roster of young designers, Brexit weighed heavily on the week. And on Tuesday afternoon, as we assembled, there was tension in the air. A quick survey of the room revealed a fashion industry worried about the UK's upcoming separation from the European Union.

The embattled prime minister May has been trying to push forward with her 'Chequers' deal — a softer Brexit option that aims to maintain Britain's economic ties with the EU, allowing the UK to retain access to the European single market — but has been facing growing opposition from all sides: the hardline Brexiteers in her own party who feel the deal does not go far enough to take Britain out of the EU, pro-Remain advocates who are calling for a second referendum due to the lack of clarity on what Chequers will actually mean in terms of this country’s future relationship with the EU, and the EU-27 (the 27 European Union countries involved in Brexit negotiations) who yesterday rejected the Chequers deal outright at a summit in Salzburg, Austria. European Council president Donald Tusk was clear that Chequers “will not work.”

Now, we are back to square one. Ms May says she is standing firm on Chequers and is ready to walk away from the negotiating table without a deal. It is time for a reality check. An exit from the EU without a deal would be catastrophic for the UK economy, and would irrevocably harm the future of the British fashion industry.

In carefully coded and highly diplomatic language, BFC chair Stephanie Phair spoke to the prime minister on behalf of the industry, but also took pains to address the assembled buyers, executives and media from international markets who increasingly see a Britain that is retreating from the open and global position that has been the cornerstone of its success.

An exit from the EU without a deal would irrevocably harm the future of the British fashion industry.

"My ask to you today is that we deepen our partnership and work together to leverage the fantastic asset that is the fashion industry for UK plc. These are challenging times and we ask that you listen to us and our very particular needs, because we cannot take for granted the position we now hold. This global message about our country has never been more important. Of all the industries, fashion excels at powerful communications and storytelling — let the fashion industry help you and the government to tell that story."

Sadly, growing anti-immigration sentiment threatens the very core of what makes London a global fashion capital. London is not a fashion capital because we have the biggest businesses. It is not a fashion capital because we have the best manufacturing. London is a fashion capital because we have the best talent from all over the world — from the EU and beyond. This is a point Ms May doesn't seem to grasp, and when she took to the podium she once again spoke in infuriatingly vague platitudes which trot out information that we in the industry already know.

"For years, London Fashion Week has showcased the best-known names in British fashion as well as the industry’s emerging talent and this year has been no exception,” she said. “British fashion is a serious business. The industry as a whole contributes £32 billion to our economy, employs over 890,000 people, and totals billions of pounds worth of exports. Our designers sit at the helm of global brands and we lead the world in design and digital innovation with names such as Net-a-Porter, ASOS and Farfetch all launching in the UK. I want to see us continue this success as we build a new future for a global Britain where our fashion industry can thrive.”

But the only way we as an industry can thrive is if Ms May ensures we will have access to the talent we need to keep London a thriving global centre of creativity, technology and business. The only reasons companies like Net-a-Porter, Farfetch — and, yes, even The Business of Fashion — were founded in London and continue to grow is because Britain was an open and progressive country that welcomed talent from abroad. Net-a-Porter was founded by an American. Farfetch was founded by a Portuguese. And BoF was founded by a Canadian. Burberry has just employed two Italians — one of whom came here as a student in the late 1990s and loved its open multi-cultural environment — to be its chief executive and chief creative officer at a time when the biggest British luxury brand is trying to redefine itself. And all of these companies employ legions of people from around the world. This is our primary strength as an industry — and a country of only 65 million people that still manages to punch above its weight because of its open and globally minded stance.

An independent report on immigration released this week underscores this, recommending removal of the government’s cap on “Tier 2” visas for high-skilled workers (currently capped at only 20,700 a year). This is the same kind of visa I was able to secure when I decided to set up my company in the UK — and the visas we have for many of our top talents from around the world.

It's time for Ms May to show some leadership and get the country out of this mess.

What we needed to hear loud and clear from Ms May was her strategy on immigration post-Brexit — including visas for creative talent. As an industry, we are already facing challenges in finding the talent we need. Getting visas for talented international employees is already difficult and we are finding it harder and harder to fill critical roles as we get closer to the country’s March 29, 2019 exit from the European Union.

It's time for Ms May to show some leadership and get the country out of this mess. We are tired of the platitudes and vague quips. With the soft-Brexit Chequers deal as good as dead, we are facing intractable gridlock in Parliament. It is highly unlikely that Ms May will get Parliament to pass a 'no-deal' Brexit or a hard Brexit because most MPs — including some in her own party — recognise this is economic suicide. The so-called "blind Brexit" is equally dangerous because it leaves the future relationship with the EU uncertain and it will be hard to find support for this too.

If Parliament is not able to ratify a Brexit deal, the best outcome would be for the UK to hold another referendum. If our government representatives in Parliament cannot agree a way forward, then the decision on how to proceed must go back to the people. But Ms May has said a second referendum is out of the question.

So today, we still don't know where we are going to end up post-Brexit. I worry for the future of London as a city. I worry for the future of Britain's fashion industry. And I worry about the fact that talented young entrepreneurs with creative potential will decide not to come here in the coming years. What will that do to the multi-cultural fabric that gives London its competitive advantage?

We are waiting for your leadership Ms May. It's time to act.

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