Brexit is a disaster for British fashion?

 Monday 17 October 2016


Hadley, you’ve written on Brexit elsewhere in the paper, but not in your style column. Why is that?

Robert, by email

You’re right, Robert! I have stayed away from Brexit in this column because that would mean looking at what it means for the fashion industry, and the answer to that is, well, no one knows. Confusion over Brexit, how strange – don’t see that in any other industry, do you?

On the one hand, thanks to the plummeting pound (boo!) luxury goods are now cheaper for tourists (er, yay?). So, for example, a Louis Vuitton Speedy bag is currently about $200 cheaper in the UK for US visitors – although I wouldn’t exactly count this as sticking it to the elites, as the leave campaign repeatedly claimed voting its way would achieve. But, someone at the back bellows, this will help the British industry as a whole. A surge of tourism! Bringing in money! To the economy! Yay!

All right, little Mikey Gove, try to calm yourself. Maybe go and have an ice cream out the back, but not Ben & Jerry’s because we can’t afford that at the moment. So some tourists might spend more at Harrods, but let’s look at what this means on a more granular level, as proper columnists would put it. Yes, British exports will be cheaper, but only if they don’t rely on imported goods and manufacturing. And, as much as it might pain certain members of the Tory party to hear this, pretty much every British fashion brand relies on those two things. This isn’t because British fashion labels are trying to chisel their own nation’s economy with cheap Chinese knockoffs and eastern European workers, but rather because it is simply not possible for most fashion labels to be entirely manufactured in this country, relying instead on European factories and skilled labour. So the net result of Brexit on all this is that British brands will become much more expensive for British customers, as companies find their costs going up and their workforce depleting. Um, yay sovereignty?

Also, let’s look at British fashion as a whole. Now, what this country’s fashion industry has always lacked in terms in of infrastructure, slickness and big-brand money, it has made up for in creativity. At least, that’s what those who work in it love to tell themselves. OK, we don’t have Dior or Calvin Klein, but look! We have the best fashion schools in the world, where the best students from around the world come to study. And look! We also produce some of the most acclaimed designers who then work at the biggest labels around Europe, such as Phoebe Philo (Chloé, Céline), Stella McCartney (Chloé), Alexander McQueen (Givenchy), John Galliano (Givenchy, Dior, Maison Margiela), etc, etc. Yay, Britain! But how, exactly, will this continue to work if it’s harder for foreign students to come here and European companies have to sort out complex visas when they hire British workers? Oh stop worrying, says the leave camp, relying, perhaps, on British fashion’s much-vaunted creativity to get around these little problems.

Finally, I’d say the ultimate problem is bigger and more amorphous than visas. So much in fashion is about image and association: buy a New York label and you’re buying into the fantasy of Manhattan dynamism and power lunches; an Italian label suggests dolce vita glamour; French labels promise chic. British labels, more than any other country’s, play on such national stereotypes: ideas of heritage (the tweed, the crown), punkish rebellion and, most of all, a kind of gonzo creativity in which Britain has always taken pride. But what image, Britain, do we have now, in our post-Brexit era on the global stage? I’d wager it has a lot less to do with enviable sovereignty and more about a silly little country that cut off its nose to spite everyone’s face. Is that the sort of look people want to buy into?

Look, as even Boris Johnson would almost certainly admit if you caught him in a rare moment of honesty, Brexit has far bigger problems facing it than how it will affect the fashion industry. But all of these issues underline the central question of Brexit, which is: what kind of country do we want to live in? Because, at the risk of tipping into pomposity, fashion encapsulates fantasy and aspirational self-image. So when a country’s fashion industry looks like it will struggle to achieve this, on both a practical and mental level, it’s perhaps time to take a good long look in the mirror again.

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