Harold Tillman: 'Chinese tourists can save the high street – if we let them'

Fashion Council chairman tells Harriet Walker that visa rules should be relaxed

Visa rules for Chinese tourists visiting the UK should be relaxed to boost profits at British shops, the retail boss and chairman of the British Fashion Council, Harold Tillman, has said.

In an interview with The Independent ahead of London Fashion Week, which starts on Friday, Tillman, owner of the clothing labels Jaeger and Aquascutum, said current visa restrictions were causing shops to lose billions of pounds in potential profits. Changing the rules for Chinese tourists could boost growth and bolster grim employment figures, he argued.

"We're not giving them enough in this country," he said. "It's only a matter of changing the system and getting the Government to understand we're losing billions."

Tillman, who owns a chain of restaurants as well as his fashion brands, also sits on the strategic board of the New West End Company, a firm redeveloping the shopping district around London's Oxford Street.

"In my view, the billions we're losing could be helping employment, because of all the business we could do," he said.

"It's not just about retail and fashion: it's about hotels, restaurants, theatre. And it's not just London – tourists want to travel." After heavy discounting before Christmas, some stores reported a 60 per cent increase in custom from abroad, with Chinese shoppers topping the list.

Some department stores are tailoring their services to Mandarin-speaking shoppers. By playing to such overseas markets, Tillman has boosted the profile of London as one of the four fashion capitals. It has been on his watch that the Council has arranged for young British designers to show their wares to trade and press in Paris, New York, Los Angeles and China. Tillman prides himself on having wooed some of the more lucrative American buyers and persuading US Vogue's Anna Wintour to jet in. But one of his most canny moves since he took on the role in 2008 was to instigate the Value of Fashion report, the findings of which served to cement his faith and confidence in the sector. "We are worth more than £21bn to the GDP of the UK," he said. "That's a lot. And that's fashion – plus associated industry, from printing to deliveries, another £10bn. You probably don't know this, but the chemical industry is £10bn; the motorcar industry is £10bn. We're double the size of both of those."

Tillman has risen from modest beginnings in Brixton to one of the foremost consultants to the country's retail and manufacturing industries. He opened Rumours, Britain's first cocktail bar, in Covent Garden in the 1970s and made a million, lost it, then made it again. Now he concerns himself with consolidating the UK's place in the global fashion market.

"I think we've always been seen as frivolous," he says, of the industry that he now oversees from his position as chairman of the BFC and master of ceremonies at London Fashion Week. "Exaggerated and not taken seriously. So one of things I'm trying to do continually is get the message out there about how serious it really is."

It was announced last month that Tillman, 67, had signed up for another three-year stint in the post, making him the longest-serving holder of the title.

"Every time we had the conversation about my successor, our chief executive pulled a face," he said. "And then Sam Cam came to see me, Boris [Johnson] wrote to me, Alexandra Shulman, the head of Vogue, one of the previous chairmen Nicholas Coleridge [MD of Condé Nast], Dylan Jones [the GQ editor with whom Tillman has just announced the launch of a men's fashion week in June]. I thought to myself: this is not everybody being nice. They want to me to continue trying to build what we're building. Queen and country, as they say."

Tillman chairs the board of alumni for London's University of the Arts and endowed the London College of Fashion with a £1m scholarship fund in 2006. His time as BFC chairman has been punctuated with business and mentoring initiatives.

"We've got brilliant young companies, with cutting edge creativity, rawness fearlessness," he said. "We get noted around the world. Every journalist loves to come to London for its fashion; to see what we're doing here. We've got the best colleges, all over the country, but especially in the LCF and Central Saint Martins. We create design."

He adds: "We started off a very interesting, creative culture in the Sixties that woke the world up.

"We've always been there. We're brave as a country when it comes to pushing the boundaries. We're a nation of retailers. We're probably more of a powerful retail country than many others given the size and scale. We're a very powerful nation in terms of fashion."

Of London Fashion week, he says: "We're slightly more able to make our own decisions. As opposed to Italy, say, or France, who are driven by the very powerful, big brands who tell the organisation what they want."

Chinese tourism boom: What they spend

* In total, 141,000 Chinese people visited the UK in 2010, an increase of 9.8 per cent from the 128,000 who came in 2009. Visit Britain predicts this figure could rise to 300,000 by 2020.

* The average Chinese visitor to Britain spends around £1,700 – three times more than the average overseas tourist to the UK spends (£567).

* Spending in the UK by Chinese tourists has risen from £150m in 2006 to £249m in 2010.

* According to Global Blue, the amount of tax-free spending by Chinese tourists also grew by 64 per cent between January and December 2011.

Jenny Stevens

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