This is the chronicle of a predictable crisis: the combination of Covid-19 and Brexit is not doing the British fashion industry any good. The sector, that according to the British Fashion Council, had a direct value to the UK economy of nearly £21 billion, is now on its knees.
Historically fashion has always been a big business for the UK. From trading in wool during the medieval times to the industrial manufacturing boom in the 1970’s, to almost a million people currently employed in fashion, textiles and fashion retail. British labels, more than any other country’s, play on national stereotypes: they represent both the traditional British values and a multiculturalism that is absolutely fantastic. The British fashion style is varied and eclectic, and the UK has always taken pride in that. But with a year of Covid-19 disruptions, mass layoffs, and a sudden pivot to digital, the fashion industry is loosing its charm. If you then add the Brexit trade deal, you will find a catastrophic mix which could knock many of the UK’s designers completely off balance.
At the London Fashion Week, that started on February 19, women's fashion was brought back together for the first time after the beginning of the pandemic, in events with brands presenting their collections in a completely new way, with virtual runways and digital fashion shows. However, before the London Fashion Week even began, more than 450 leading industry figures sent a furious letter addressed to 10 Downing Street. The topic of this letter was the widespread concern about the impact of Brexit on the fashion industry.
Credit photo: thegryphon.co.uk
When the trade agreement was signed at the last minute, on Christmas Eve, the fashion industry, as well as others, celebrated the agreement between London and Brussels, which avoided a leap into the dark side of a "no deal" and the immediate imposition of tariffs and duties at the border. But the relief was short-lived. In the few weeks since January 1, when Great Britain left the European Union for good, British fashion designers found themselves facing a mountain of red tape, customs certificates, new rules, extra checks and delays at the borders.
The chief executive of Fashion Roundtable, Tamara Cincik, who wrote the open letter addressed to the Prime Minister Boris Johnson, said: “The deal done with the EU has a gaping hole where promised free movement for goods and services for all creatives, including the fashion and textiles sector, should be. The fashion and textiles industry is the largest component of the previously thriving UK creative industries, growing 11% annually, bringing vital jobs and innovation to the UK. We contribute more to UK GDP than fishing, music, film, pharmaceuticals and automobile industries combined. Yet we have been disregarded in this deal and our concerns overlooked in current policy decisions.”
And again: “From travelling to the EU for trade shows to large value shoots and shows happening here in the UK, red tape delays and costs are impacting our industry already, with work relocating to the EU, all impacting our opportunities to trade and travel. Like many, we heard the news that some UK brands might have to burn clothes stuck in the EU with horror.” Why is that? Because extra VAT charges and handling fees now in place have led shoppers in Europe to stop ordering or to reject deliveries.
It only took a few days to realise that Britain's decision to exit the single market and the EU customs union would impose permanent barriers to trade, seriously mortgaging the future of one of the most lucrative sectors of the British economy, which - before the pandemic - was growing at an annual rate of 11%. That is because the EU has played a key role in the UK supply chain, and is by far the largest destination for UK fashion and textile exports, accounting for 74% of its exports. The Office for National Statistics showed a precipitous 40.7% fall in the sale of goods to the EU in January; the largest decline since comparable records began in 1997. Trade groups have said that there are “fundamental problems” with new trade barriers that were “real and costly”. And those are only the immediate effects of Brexit to the fashion industry.
Credit photo: Instagram @fashionroundtable
The fashion industry, already pushed to the breaking point by the pandemic, claims the newly-negotiated Brexit deal is a disaster. What British fashion firms, from designers, to manufacturers and retailers want from the government is clarity on tariffs, exports and regulation. The sector's concerns echo those of other spaces: the new bureaucratic regime is endangering the future of domestic industries, the survival of which is now threatened.
For the time being, the government has not officially responded to the letter. Even the 2021 Budget, presented at the beginning of the month, did not mention the problems of the fashion sector, limiting itself to promising loans of 6 thousand pounds for the shops that were forced to close during the lockdowns.
There is a general perception of a lack of concrete action by the government to support the viability of the UK textile and apparel industry. Yet the only solution to prevent the sector from being "decimated" is precisely a well-thought-out and rapid intervention by the government, as clearly explained in the letter: “We note that the Government has offered the fishing industry a £23m package to support their export business. Fishing contributes as much to the UK economy as East London does from the fashion and textile industry, employing the same workforce as Topshop alone. Parity in support is vital.”
Credit photo: GettyImages
Written by Miriam Tagini