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Could Brexit push British fashion past breaking point?

Already facing the negative repercussions of a pandemic, British fashion designers, manufacturers, and retailers are concerned that the new Brexit deal will only exacerbate the situation.

Fashion in the time of a global virus outbreak is definitely an unusual business.

Over the last year we’ve witnessed the industry experience huge disruptions, the long-lasting effects of which will likely stretch far beyond our return to normality.

From the cancellation of major events, to what feels like the indefinite closure of physical retail, as Confindustria Moda president Claudio Marenzi rightly predicted last March, 2020 was indeed ‘an incredibly tough year for fashion.’

On a more positive note, the pandemic did bring with it an interval of reflection in which consumers could pause and consider the current systems in place.

For fashion, it’s been a ‘reset period,’ a moment to slow down and address the industry’s out-of-date, predictive seasonal structure, to redefine business models, and build a more conscious, progressive future.

This has given way to a boom in more ethical practices that strive to generate less waste and, borne out of this, a number of burgeoning brands with sustainability at the core of what they do.

However, though already confronted with the countless hardships of the Covid-19 crisis, British designers, manufacturers, and retailers have been presented with yet another hurdle to overcome.

It’s been almost a year since the UK officially left the EU and the nation’s creative sectors are already suffering, particularly industries that are dependent on international relationships such as fashion.

‘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,’ explains an irate open letter penned by Fashion Roundtable mid-February, calling on the government to offer more support in dealing with the issues that have arisen.

Signatories claimed that the newly inked Brexit trade terms could threaten the survival of hundreds of garment businesses – those already buckling from the strain of repeated lockdowns – disregarded by the last-minute deal.

‘Brexit is rooted in belonging, social alienation and constitutionalism,’ it continues. ‘These are factors rarely considered in the fashion industry.’

This refers to ongoing apprehension from homegrown start-ups, global luxury houses, top London design schools, and rural textile producers who feel Britain is gradually losing its reputation as a creative and commercial fashion hub.

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Not to mention import issues, which are significantly hurting independent brands.

Up against insane levels of paperwork and shipping delays, the new regulations have been a source of frustration for months, especially for those without entire teams dedicated to working out how to navigate them.

To put this into perspective, Adam Mansell of the UK Fashion & Textile Association has warned that it’s actually ‘cheaper right now for retailers to write off the cost of the goods than dealing with it at all, either abandoning or potentially burning them.’

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He adds that a lot of large businesses don’t have a handle on it, never mind smaller ones, and that ‘if there isn’t a radical overhaul, British brands will die.’

But not everyone is as pessimistic, acknowledging that there are some workarounds in the meantime. Yes, the road ahead looks difficult for UK brands, but one solution may be for small businesses to make more of local supply chains and market close-to-home authenticity.

This would certainly go down very well among Gen Z consumers, many of whom are becoming appreciative of brands that chime in with their values.

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According to McKinsey, eco-anxiety and the changing mindset of shoppers has paved the way for on-shore production as an attractive pull-factor.

‘Being forced to spend time closer to home has caused people to want to support the local labels and designers they feel represent them,’ says director of brand engagement at Stylus, Katie Baron.

‘That creates an appreciation of brands – both big and small – that are capable of communicating on a much more micro level.’

For the time being, the future of British fashion operating in the EU remains unclear, and the Cabinet Office has yet to formally respond to the Fashion Roundtable letter. Amid this uncertainty, British fashion’s best bet is seemingly to focus inwards.