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London Fashion Week was only a murmur amid the political noise of the Brexit debate, which clamoured away as David Cameron negotiated a renewed special status within the EU and announced an upcoming referendum, while the pound plummeted to a seven- year low. But what are the implications of Brexit for the British fashion industry?
“We’d have to get much better tax advice,” quipped Georgia Fendley, of the British accessories label Hill & Friends, which she co-founded with former Mulberry colleague Emma Hill last September. Like many British labels, the company uses manufacturers in the UK, Italy and Spain, and is carried by eight international stockists. “But it wouldn’t change our approach,” she added. “Our sourcing isn’t driven by cost.”
Stuart Rose, the former chairman of the British Fashion Council (BFC) and Conservative peer, believes Brexit would be a disaster for British fashion. “I’ve no doubt the costs of doing business would go up,” he said. “Worldwide tariffs would go up as well as the costs of goods, service and manufacturing. This would mean a higher cost to the consumer.”
While the percentage of exports going to the EU has fallen since Britain joined the European Economic Community in 1973, fashion exports have grown in recent years. “UK apparel and textile exports have risen 30 per cent in the past five years, from £4.5bn to £5.8bn,” said Caroline Rush, chief executive of the BFC, quoting figures from the Department of Trade and Industry. “Apparel sales in 2014 were worth £4bn, up 45 per cent on 2010 figures.”
The commercial implications may be costly, said Rose. But more important for him would be the creative fallout: potential employment restrictions and political isolation would be a huge step backwards, especially given the efforts made by the fashion council to establish London as a style capital since 1983. “Even 15 to 20 years ago, London was the poor cousin of Europe,” he said of London Fashion Week’s early commercial reputation. “It struggled to find any space, squeezed between New York and Milan. Today, London has become one of the great fashion centres of the world,” he continued. “No one would question that. And being part of the European Union has encouraged a creative freedom of movement and diversity that has only further established this reputation. Look at the wealth of young design talent, much of it international, that has flowed out of institutions like Central Saint Martins [CSM] or the Royal College of Art, and look where it has ended up. Creativity is driven by young people who can develop their talent and are able to move around without border controls or hindrance. This creative freedom is the glue that binds us together.”
The 51 labels that showed in London were testimony to the wellspring of international talent on which British fashion has built its reputation for cutting edge, innovative design: Mary Katrantzou, who picked up the New Establishment Design Award at the British Fashion Awards in November, was born in Athens and studied at CSM before launching her eponymous label in London in 2009; Erdem Moralioglu was born in Canada to Turkish and British parents and studied at the Royal College; his brand of romantic Victorian melancholia is as English as Earl Grey tea. The Serbia-born Roksanda Ilincic founded Roksanda in 2005 after graduating from CSM; 2015 LVMH prize-winners Paulo Almeida and Marta Marques of the London label Marques’Almeida are Portuguese. Even Mulberry, one of the few British luxury labels with any claim to heritage, is now overseen by the 40-year-old designer Johnny Coca, who was born in Seville and studied in Paris.
The very fabric of British fashion is a patchwork of international talent, all working collaboratively within an industry that has nurtured creative freedom both figuratively and physically. It’s what makes it so crucial and relevant. Fashion Week without its international flavour would be god-awful, just as surely as Milan and Paris would be rubbish without the design talent we have in turn exported. Which is not to say that designers wouldn’t still come and work here, but parochial little islands patrolled by borders and British disdain don’t make for such a good fit.
As for the schedule, AW16 was mixed, with individual shows being standout rather than the whole. Christopher Kane’s homage to a hoarder, “Lost and Found”, was an elegant display of technical skill and objectivity; Marques’ Almeida proved they were doing young and relevant well before Vetements hit the scene; and JW Anderson dazzled with his take on cocktail wear. Anderson’s sculptural silhouettes, quilted leathers and scalloped suedes had a bold architectural beauty. After so much focus on commodity and the “see-now-buy-now” commercial model launched by Burberry, it was a joy to see someone indulging a purely creative whim (though, for the record, his e-commerce site and store delivery times are excellently efficient).
Set design inspired at Erdem, too, where the 38-year-old called on the archives of Oliver Messel to put on an audacious show of old Hollywood glamour and sublimely wearable gowns. Kudos also to the many labels — Mary Katrantzou, Topshop, Mulberry among them — who cited Shakespeare plays in their show notes: the Bard’s 400th anniversary hasn’t gone unnoticed, even among us illiterates in the fashion pack.
The heart-stopping moment of the week, however, belonged to a foreign interloper — or should we say refugee? The British house Alexander McQueen usually shows in Paris but, owing to designer Sarah Burton’s imminent due date (she’s expecting her second child in two weeks), the label relocated to London’s Lawrence Hall. It was a beautiful homecoming, all the more so perhaps because it was the very venue in which Burton first showed with McQueen at the start of her career 20 years ago.
Burton’s AW16 collection explored surrealism and sensuality, and her muse “sleepwalked” around in a sea of silver talismans, embroidered totems and sequinned symbols. The closing looks saw a model swaddled in a great pillowy pastel eiderdown embroidered with butterflies and trimmed in pinky fur. It was literally dreamy — and the best expression of why fashion should never be subject to border control.