London Fashion Week highlights the industry’s Brexit problem

‘You go into those London factories and 70 per cent or more will be EU nationals’, Adam Mansell of trade body, the UK Fashion and Textile Association

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The Independent Online

As the jet set descends on the capital for London Fashion Week, the industry has a big potential problem: Brexit.

Fashion has been a British success story in recent years, and many of the garments being shown off on the catwalks this week are now made in London. But not, generally, by Londoners. 

“A lot of that success is because of the fantastically skilled workers we are able to access from places like Poland, Romania, Hungary,” says Adam Mansell of trade body, the UK Fashion and Textile Association.

“You go into those London factories and 70 per cent or more will be EU nationals.” 

Many of those who work in retail and logistics are also non-UK workers, Mansell points out.

The rapid growth of the industry has come alongside a corresponding increase in the number of EU nationals in the UK. 

Clothing exports expanded from £3.65bn in 2010 to £5.5bn in 2016, as the number of EU nationals swelled from 1.2 million to 2.3 million.

With Theresa May’s push towards a hard Brexit that prioritises curbs on immigration over economic growth, the fashion business needs to know if its workers can stay. 

But an amendment to the Brexit bill granting unilateral early guarantees of the rights of EU nationals already in the UK was resoundingly voted down in the Commons earlier this month.

The Government has also floated the idea of a points-based system, allowing skilled but not unskilled labour into the country, but this too worries people in the fashion industry, among others.

“We need a system that doesn’t just allow our intellectual property lawyer in but also the people who actually sit on the machine and make the goods as well,” Mansell says.

Brexit is not all bad news for fashion so far. Exporters in the business have received a Brexit boost from the pound which has lost more than 15 per cent of its value against the dollar since last June’s referendum.

Kate Hill worked as a buyer for Burberry and Marks and Spencer for 20 years before setting up her website Make it British, which offers support to small local manufacturers. She says many of her members have reported far greater interest from overseas buyers. 

“That’s mainly because of the exchange rate, but we’ve also noticed a lot more US buyers interested in buying a truly British product,” she says.

There are also tentative signs that companies could be bringing manufacturing back to the UK as the pound’s plunge makes it more affordable. 

In December, Asos announced plans to double its UK manufacturing, but it is the exception so far.

Hill says she has spoken to lots of large retailers who want to bring some operations back here but they haven’t because Britain’s clothing manufacturing base has shrunk.

This may change but without factories available to make clothes on a large scale, any benefit from manufacturing is not going to be felt any time soon and would take significant investment to get it off the ground. 

“Shirts or jeans or jacket suits manufacturing doesn’t exist in the UK so it would be very difficult for big retailers to bring their production back on-shore,” Mansell says.

Meanwhile, many of the essential items required to make finished clothes like denim, silk and zips aren’t made here and would have to be imported to support any hypothetical production boom. 

“Exporters are looking at this as being a potential boom for them in terms of brands and retailers looking to get stuff made in the UK. It’s great and that will happen”, Mansell says, before getting to the crux of the issue: “If we haven’t got the skills and talent we need to fulfil all those orders then they’re not much use.”