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Brexit and the cost of living have raised materials, production and transport prices for U.K. designers. Now, the British Fashion Council, the non-profit organization supporting London Fashion Week and British design talent, is calling for aid. Through a series of talks and promotions during LFW, it’s seeking support and investment from the government and the international fashion community to maintain London’s placement as the most creative fashion week capital.
Brands like Burberry and Stella McCartney make up the lion’s share of the exported high-fashion brands from the U.K. But smaller local brands including Ahluwalia and Nensi Dojaka are gaining prominence. “The reason we sit somewhat as the smaller fashion week of the Big Four is that we don’t have an export of a multitude of international British fashion and luxury brands. It is Burberry that is our key export, really,” said Jamie Gill, executive director at luxury fashion brand Roksanda, BFC chair and founder of non-profit incubation platform The Outsiders Perspective.
“As much as we see Alexander McQueen, Victoria Beckham and Stella McCartney as integral British brands, they don’t host shows here in London,” he said. McQueen and McCartney are showing in Paris this season, while Beckham has not yet announced a fall show. “Paris, Milan and New York have big international players that warrant the attention of the global industry. London Fashion Week still needs everybody’s buy-in and for people to pay attention and to focus on the talent that we have.”
With rising costs from the energy and cost of living crises, and Brexit, designers are facing a tough year. “We’ve always needed as much support as possible to allow labels to thrive here. Due to the pressures of the recession and, therefore, consumer appetites softening, the question is on how to maintain the U.K. as an area where [international] consumers still want to come to and spend,” said Gill. “This softening of the [economic] climate is going to be a real challenge for British fashion, [on top of] the logistical back office reality of what it means for a brand to deliver.”
Brands showing at London Fashion Week on Friday, including Bora Aksu and KWK by Kay Kwok, focused their collections’ presentations on accessories. This product category tends to bring in more stable sales in rough economic patches. Bora Aksu spotlighted costume hair accessories, while KWK focused on jewelry. Both brands will be selling the items direct-to-consumer. Compared to ready-to-wear, accessories including bags, charms and hair accessories are often accessible to a wider range of clients.
Without support from the U.K. government — which put an end to tax-free shopping in the U.K. in January 2021 and has neither provided financial nor educational support for U.K. designers after Brexit — the industry is struggling to maintain its creative energy. “Brexit continues to be the main thing that is making things more difficult, time-consuming and more expensive for every British-based brand,” said Patrick McDowell, designer of his 5-year-old namesake fashion brand. “The cost of living crisis and the energy crisis have also affected us as a brand. For one, they’ve made our prints and fabrics more expensive.” As of now, the brand has not yet raised its prices.
For sustainability-focused brands like Patrick McDowell and Anciela, tighter supply chains mitigate some of the issues caused by Brexit’s added red tape. Because of Brexit, the U.K. is no longer part of the Schengen zone and is therefore subject to international taxation. As such, when shipping materials from and selling to European customers, local brands now have to do more paperwork, charge higher transport fees and force customers to pay an international tax. “Luckily, because I produce things locally and have a simple supply chain, Brexit has not impacted me so much,” said Jennifer Droguett, founder of fashion brand Anciela. “However, it is much more difficult to send items to customers in Europe; it often takes longer than sending things to America. And because I use deadstock fabrics, sometimes from Europe, sourcing has become more troublesome now.”
According to the British Fashion Council, the need for government funding and recognition is a priority. “Conversations with governments continue. … We need greater investment and industry recognition from the government,” said BFC chair David Pemsel. “We need more support for international trade and tax-free shopping, and we need [to address] the challenges we all face as an industry to decrease our carbon impact.”
According to the UKFT’s Compendium of Industry Statistics and Analysis for 2020, the fashion and textile industry contributes almost £20 billion to the U.K. economy.
A successful launch pad for emerging talent in London is the BFC-funded NewGen, which supports young designers through mentoring, partnerships and promotion. The initiative is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year with a dedicated Alexander McQueen exhibition at the Design Museum. Admission supports future NewGen designers. The initiative has been key in cementing London as a creative hub and sustainable fashion leader, but it has also come under financial strain as a result of rising costs.
Since its start, NewGen has supported Lee McQueen, Kim Jones, JW Anderson, Giles, Erdem, Christopher Kane, Roksanda, Simone Rocha, Molly Goddard, Richard Quinn and Bianca Saunders. Brands are selected according to a range of criteria, including their creative merit, their contribution to the U.K. fashion ecosystem, the quality of their stockists and their ability to meet the minimum standards of the Institute of Positive Fashion’s three pillars: environment, people, and community and craftsmanship.
“In large part due to our NewGen designers, London Fashion Week is a shorthand for creative freedom, for innovation and for the future of our industry. Many members of this year’s cohort are putting sustainability, diversity and community at the heart of their businesses,” said Caroline Rush, CEO of the British Fashion Council. “This year isn’t just about celebrating NewGen; it’s also about creating a legacy for the next 30 years. We are calling on the industry to join us in fundraising efforts and to help us supercharge our mentoring program, so that London will continue to be the best place to start and responsibly grow a brilliant creative fashion business.”
“The truth of the matter is that London is not the place to set up a fashion brand with little experience, or a lack of talent or point of view,” said Gill. “We need the talent that can really change the needle internationally — brands that have a strong point of view, and are credible and intelligent.”
However, Jennifer Droguett from Anciela said the BFC should be doing more to support more diverse designers, specifically international designers also aiming to run successful businesses in the U.K. “The BFC supports the talent that they have grown and invested in since university — that is something I’ve learned here, coming from Amsterdam,” she said. “The approach toward brand support still feels very detached from true inclusivity, where you meet the individual and you understand their needs.”