London Fashion Week brings Brexit worries to the catwalks

Fashion Week hits London, with 51 shows and 120 designers over the next five days. But some in the industry are concerned over the impact that Brexit will have on their future.
Models present creations at the Anya Hindmarch catwalk show during London Fashion Week in London, Britain, on Feb 19, 2017.
Models present creations at the Anya Hindmarch catwalk show during London Fashion Week in London, Britain, on Feb 19, 2017. PHOTO: REUTERS
A model presents a creation by Mary Goddard during the London Fashion Week, in London, Britain, on Feb 18, 2017.
A model presents a creation by Mary Goddard during the London Fashion Week, in London, Britain, on Feb 18, 2017. PHOTO: EPA
Models present creations by British designer J.W.Anderson during a catwalk show on the second day of the Autumn/Winter 2017 London Fashion Week in London on Feb 18, 2017.
Models present creations by British designer J.W.Anderson during a catwalk show on the second day of the Autumn/Winter 2017 London Fashion Week in London on Feb 18, 2017. PHOTO: AFP
Models present creations by DAKS during the London Fashion Week, in London, Britain, on Feb 17, 2017.
Models present creations by DAKS during the London Fashion Week, in London, Britain, on Feb 17, 2017. PHOTO: EPA

LONDON (AFP) - The British fashion industry kicked off its seasonal showcase Friday (Feb 17) urging the government not to damage a thriving sector by cutting immigration and trade ties with the EU after Brexit.

"Fashion week is a really great time to understand the power and influence of our industry, as well as our creativity," said Ms Caroline Rush, chief executive of the British Fashion Council (BFC).

"We hope that you'll listen as we talk to you about visas, about talent, about tariffs, about frictionless borders, and around IP (intellectual property).

"Because this is incredibly important to sustain this incredible industry, that contributes £28 billion (S$49.3 billion) to the British economy and provides 880,000 jobs."

Prime Minister Theresa May is due to start negotiations on leaving the European Union within weeks, and has already signalled her intention to impose controls on EU migrants coming to work in Britain.

She has said this would likely come at the cost of leaving Europe's single market - a major concern for the fashion industry, as the bloc accounts for about 70 per cent of British textiles and apparel exports.

Over the next five days, London Fashion Week will showcase collections by more than 80 designers and brands, from Versace's Versus to Burberry, J.W. Anderson, Christopher Kane, Roksanda, and Mulberry.

But amid the glamour and the creativity, there is unease about what the future holds.

"The overarching feeling at the moment is uncertainty," said Mr Adam Mansell, chief executive of the UK Fashion and Textile Association.

Access to the EU's single market is a key issue for the industry, but there are other concerns, such as the skilled labour used in British manufacturing, as well as trade ties with the rest of the world.

Mansell noted that British fashion is heavily dependent on imports, particularly large volumes of clothes made in Bangladesh, Pakistan, Myanmar and Turkey - all currently tariff-free through EU-negotiated trade deals which must now be replaced.

While there has been a resurgence in UK manufacturing over the past couple of years, with many high-end brands benefiting from the allure of British heritage, they are often staffed by skilled workers from the EU.

"A lot of the product that you'll see on the catwalk in the next few days is actually made in London. And I know several factories in London where the workforce is more than 70 per cent EU," Mr Mansell told AFP.

With so many Europeans living and working in British fashion, their status after Brexit has been a priority for many brands and designers, and industry bodies have petitioned ministers to guarantee their right to stay.

"Our businesses are filled with great diversity and our business leaders protect, nurture and promote that fiercely," said Ms Natalie Massenet, the founder of online fashion portal Net-A-Porter and chairman of the BFC.

After talks Friday between Mrs May and her French counterpart Bernard Cazeneuve, Downing Street said the pair discussed the importance of reaching an early agreement on the rights of EU citizens in Britain, and vice versa.

Labour shortages and extra tariffs may well lead to higher prices - although many brands, particularly luxury labels, have benefited from the fall in the pound since the Brexit vote.

Designer Anya Hindmarch noted that shoppers were flocking to London in search of a bargain.

She told AFP that even if manufacturing costs from her Italian factories rose, " there are other gains - there's other currencies that are moving, other markets to explore - and I think suppliers are very keen to keep our business".

Others were less than sympathetic.

"Maybe we'll be a little bit expensive - everything will be a little bit expensive for England," said Filippo Scuffi, the Italian creative director of British heritage brand DAKS.

"But your country decided that way, what can I do?

"Brexit is not a good thing for English people. I believe in open things: open minds, open without walls, without frontiers. Any country shouldn't have a wall. The first wall is in the mind."