Helen Ifeagwu talks to fashion industry professionals about the impact of Brexit – and how it is already being felt.
Nestled in the heart of Soho, London, among the bustling shops, cafés, and restaurants, sits a petite shop with white-washed walls on Broadwick Street, easily overlooked. But Broadwick Silks is nothing short of a hallmark of the London Fashion industry, supplying fabrics for over 25 years. Inside, a seemingly perennial assembly of bold and opulent cloths, fabrics, and wools is stacked in sky-high piles covering every part of the walls. Each fabric is a visual identity of a different fashion period, from gilded elegant cloths that catch the spirit of ancient empires to modern geometrically patterned materials. Broadwick Silks is a popular landmark for groomed filmmakers, interior designers, fashion designers and students alike. Its selection of materials is serious eye candy to its regular clients of London’s creative scene.
As it stands, the British fashion industry is a growing market that has accounted for £28 billion added to the British economy, according to the British Fashion Council. In a study by Fashion United, an international fashion business platform, figures show the industry has also accounted for 555,000 jobs in fields related to fashion in the UK to date.
Brexit, however, could paralyse this industry’s growth.
Textiles are one form of goods that Britain imports and exports tariff-free from EU nations, some of which are the UK’s main trading partners. In such a climate rife with opportunity for trade, supply chain businesses such as Broadwick Silks have seen great success in recent years. In view of Britain’s upcoming exit from the EU, Eve Lewis, sourcing manager of Broadwick Silks, says the business has been “crippled” by the exchange rate between the dollar and pound when the pound fell just after the Brexit referendum in June 2016.
So, should businesses pro-actively plan new marketing strategies around Brexit?
“I think at the moment nobody really knows what the effect of Brexit will be on business, because we just haven’t got a clue as to what it’s going to involve,” Eve tells me, hard at work measuring fabric at the shop counter for one of her many professional clients; this one making costumes for a movie. The business, known for its “exotic” fabrics, imports most of these from China and India, paying between 8-10% duty on them, which is costed into their pricing. With a highly international customer base, Broadwick Silks could face some challenges when Britain leaves the EU.
By March 2019, the government has set the intention to stop free movement between borders as a measure to control immigration. This may have a ripple effect on trade between the U.K and EU nations. Caroline Rush, chief executive of the British Fashion Council correlates the sharp rise of “UK apparel and textile exports to the EU” from 4.5bn to 5.8bn in 2014 to the current tariff-free movement of goods between the nations. According to statistics in various trade reports, including the renowned Creative Industry Federation, the HM Revenue & Customs and the trade map by the International Trade Centre, the UK relies primarily on EU countries such as Germany and France as trading partners.
A quick trip next door from Broadwick Silks leads to Misan Fabrics, another Soho-based textile company, and also a prominent fabric supplier to the British ready-to-wear and couture fashion scene. The luxury fabric store is known for its authentic European fabrics, some of which are fine silks, “French lace, jacquards, brocades, and tweeds”. A Brexit trade negotiation could spike the costs of import taxation which may adversely affect Misan Fabric’s sales of these products. Though if a trade crisis were looming, their iota of hope is that the bulk of their product is British-made fabric produced in North Yorkshire from windmills in the Midlands.
A spokesperson for the company, which has been consistent in its success for over thirty years, remains confident: “I think if people know where it’s coming from, they don’t mind paying that extra bit. None of our fabrics are from the far east.”
If London’s top fabric suppliers are threatened by Brexit, this will inevitably have a domino effect on emerging fashion designers.
Jane Asple is an upcoming Irish designer who showcased designs by her brand, EmmaByJane, at a Fashion Week presentation. Her newest collection of dainty gold and silver accessories and her fusion pink “Emma” bomber encapsulate the loving spirit of friendship.
In terms of the future of her business, Jane Asple says she looks at Brexit from the “Irish point of view”. Ireland is integral to the Brexit debate, as it primarily relies on Britain as its largest trading partner. According to the Observatory of Economic Complexity, before the referendum in 2016, Ireland’s exports to the United Kingdom were valued at around 16.5bn. When Britain leaves the EU, and with it, access to the single market, the introduction of barriers and tariffs could increase import costs significantly for EU countries.
“As an Irish designer, we have to now look at the European market and we can no longer solely depend on growing our business in the UK,” says Jane uneasily. “As an Irish designer, I would have probably put all my eggs in the U.K basket before, and now you really have got to not focus on it.”
With plenty of grey areas in the resulting Brexit trade agreement that have yet to be clarified, Jane Asple has found a loophole. Social media allows for an international reach, so EmmaByJane has taken its sales to online platforms instead. “Online is where my business is growing and its 67% of the sales after year one,” says Jane. Perhaps online, the business could escape potential problems caused by labour laws limiting job opportunities for EU citizens, which Jane would have to face if physically
selling her products in-shop.
Also exhibiting their newest collection of jewellery at a Fashion Week presentation was Stööki, a “multi- disciplinary art collective” and fashion brand based in London. Bosola Ajenufija, one of the designers of Stööki, showcased a new selection of pieces that marry the qualities of asymmetrical geometry and natural forms. The collection features new iterations of polished and textured gold and silver rings and necklaces, catching the bold spirit of youth culture.
Stööki’s jewellery is handmade by Nadia Abbas, a jewellery technologist based in Hackney, London. As with many other emerging brands, the EU has provided financial muscle through funding schemes to boost initial growth. This has allowed Stööki to make its debut in the fashion industry with its handmade pieces, and initial success is now pushing the brand to diversify its marketing strategy in order to grow. However, as Stööki has yet to establish itself as an international brand name on the roster, Bosola worries about the future of funding schemes. “There’s a lot of fear – because we’re part of one of those programmes – that funding is going to go,” she says woefully. With potential cuts in funding, the brand may cease to grow.
However, it’s not only the market aspect of the UK’s creative industry that will have to adapt to a potentially weaker economy as an outcome of Brexit; London, as a hub for fashion education with thousands of U.K and international students flocking to its many universities, may also have to reconfigure itself. However, every cloud has a silver lining. Perhaps if the pound fell in value, studying fashion in the UK may become more affordable.
What Brexit could also mean is that “the UK has a chance to celebrate local artisans and revive hubs and factories that may have previously shut down when manufacturing shifted overseas,” says Grace Manning, 23, who studied fashion buying in Manchester. Having just finished an internship in the fashion industry, and considering the findings of her case study on the impact of a Brexit trade deal that could impose tariffs on EU suppliers now matching foreign suppliers, Grace looks to the future with optimism.
“I think fashion buying overall will change hugely with Brexit. We’ll likely see a move of manufacturing from low-cost countries like China back into the UK like it used to be,” she says. This outcome would inevitably lead to more job opportunities within the fashion industry. However, with the pound at an all-time low, brands may have to increase their prices to match the increase in costs demanded by more expensive suppliers.
Despite the uncertainty, Grace is now looking to get into fashion buying professionally.
As Eve Lewis put it, “nobody really knows because we just haven’t got a clue as to what it’s going to involve”. As long as it remains a matter of speculation whether the UK’s economy will be better or worse off, the future of the fashion industry is unclear.
We only know for certain that things will change. But will these changes see the industry rise or fall when Britain leaves the EU?
Read more from Helen at https://helenngozin.wixsite.com/helen-ngozi
Images via Pixabay