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This year could be the end of London Fashion Week as we know it

Pay close attention to London Fashion Week if you want to see how the industry will tackle sustainability and life after Brexit

Harriet Hall
Tuesday 10 September 2019 16:07 BST
London Fashion Week: Model says 'Brexit is a crime' as Vivienne Westwood AW19 show turns political and ending with the designer singing bizarre song

The fashion industry is ripe for mockery and fashion month marks the zenith of the industry’s madness. At fashion week, journalists become celebrities, influencers become royalty and celebrities become deities. Where you are seated in a dark room filled with uncomfortable, too-low benches defines your value in a nonsense hierarchy; what you wear is the most important decision you will make each day and – perhaps most ludicrously – the most important people do nothing at all but turn up. The ones doing all the work – reporting, organising and liaising – are mere lackeys.

The absurdity of the month-long schedule of catwalk shows, parties and presentations that takes place across the big four fashion cities (New York, London, Paris and Milan) would be perfect sitcom fodder. I’ve seen some of the most successful people I know reduced to tears over outfits, magazine editors storm out of shows because they were sat next to someone considered less important than them and designers and stylists on the verge of breakdown over a 15-minute runway show.

Fashion week is to the fashion industry what the Venice Film Festival or awards season is to the film industry, what the World Cup is to football – where much the same mania occurs. It is a trade show that will define if a designer’s hard graft will sink or swim, if their business will prosper or fall into bankruptcy; it is a month-long networking occasion for editors, buyers and stylists to determine where the industry is going, what the prevailing mood is and where attentions should be cast.

Far beyond the peacockery of streetstyle and celebrities being papped while carrying the latest impossible-to-get-hold-of accessory, the shows are about presenting ideas (not all of which will make it to shop floors) and reflecting the social consciousness. Political statements, discussions of diversity and career-defining moments take place here.

Beyond trends, the fashion industry is big business. It’s worth over £32bn to the UK economy. Fashion week generates over £100m in clothes orders on an annual basis and – most pertinently – employs an international workforce that includes more than 10,000 European staff. Brexit poses a real risk to this structure.

This week could see the last London Fashion Week before Brexit. In the case of a no-deal scenario, a designer exodus wouldn’t be surprising – after all, 90 per cent of designers voted Remain in the EU referendum. Tariff increases on manufacturers, fabrics and imports could, the British Fashion Council (BFC) claims, cost the industry £900m. Wages will suffer, export revenues will be hit and the price of clothes will likely spike for consumers. Will these increased costs also drive manufacturing underground and lead immoral brands back to the horrors of sweatshops?

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Fashion week is also under fire by climate change groups for promoting a culture of consumption. Presenting two seasons a year for womenswear and menswear puts undeniable pressure on the high street to keep up (although the latter releases far greater and more frequent stock drops and new styles than the ready-to-wear desingers showing at fashion week do). Extinction Rebellion has called upon the BFC to cancel fashion week. Of course, fashion week isn’t the root cause of the industry’s climate impact – and arguably, it is a useful platform from which to promote more sustainable options. Last season, for example, Vivienne Westwood staged a climate change rebellion on her catwalk and Stella McCartney cast members of Extinction Rebellion in her new season campaign. The BFC has this week announced its commitment to sustainability via a new initiative: The Institute of Positive Fashion, which it hopes will set industry standards that encourage companies to champion greener business models and enable positive change.

But fashion month is a four-week long occasion that sees models, stylists and makeup artists fly all over the world and rack up great big carbon footprints; it sees cars clog up every street as press whiz around to various shows. Extravagant lighting and stage sets can’t be hugely economical either. The Swedish Fashion Council cancelled Stockholm fashion week this year to seek out more sustainable ways of promoting their industry. Will London soon follow suit?

It’s unlikely, but a tightening of schedules and a more pragmatic approach to the shows could be in order, which makes this season even more notable. Those who turn their nose up at this significant industry moment might want to consider paying more attention on Friday – London Fashion Week spring/summer 2020 might just forecast where the creative industries are likely to develop over the coming years. Diversity, politics and climate change will all be on the menu.

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