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Brexit’s Fashion Fallout: ‘We Are Seeing a Tsunami of People Panicking Here’

The British fashion industry is in freefall—and being ignored by the only people able to produce a safety net. 

The government still hasn’t responded to a letter sent 10 days ago by Fashion Roundtable and signed by 455 industry leaders. In it, designers, model agency CEOs, editors and photographers warned that Britain’s 35 billion pound ($48.3 billion) fashion and textile industry was facing “decimation” as a result of import duties, customs charges and visa requirements created by the post-Brexit trade agreement, which has pushed JD Sports to consider opening a distribution warehouse in Europe to circumnavigate tariffs and red tape, executive chairman Peter Cowgill told BBC Radio 4 on Tuesday.

“What is taking the Government so long to answer our urgent request for a meeting? We understand there is a pandemic, but the Government has met with our colleagues in the music industry since signing the Brexit deal and we urge them to meet with us as well,” says Tamara Cincik, the head of Fashion Roundtable, the lobbying firm that organized the letter.

That the fashion industry has been largely forgotten in this deal is undeniable. Fishing has received quadruple the media coverage and attention in Parliament despite bringing in less than a tenth to the economy as fashion. Both the music and film industries have been put on the critical worker list, allowing them to hire EU talent visa-free, but fashion has been ignored in this respect too. 

“We are seeing high streets decimated and the livelihoods of women put at risk,” says Cincik. “You have to remember that so many women work in bricks and mortar retail and to keep going on about fishing—which brings in about as much to this country as Harrods does—shows very clearly where the Cabinet’s priorities lie and whose jobs they believe need protecting.”

British brands are likely to lose most of their European customers as a result of customs charges that add up to 40 percent to the price of garments shipped from the UK to the EU. But Britain has been in the free trade market for decades and brands naturally rely heavily on their neighbors; now they have the option of either losing half their sales or moving part of their business to the EU. 

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The issue is that that point of origin rules—which were supposed to allow free trade between the UK and the EU—don’t really work for fashion as every element of the product needs to have been manufactured in Europe; most brands import components like zippers or buttons even if the overall garment is made domestically. 

Companies, as a result, are considering relocating from the UK to Europe. “We are struggling with shipping samples back and forth,” says Valery Demure, of Valery Demure Showroom. “The documentation is taking so much of our time and small brands are struggling with added costs and delays. A client of mine used to send 18ct jewellery samples to London for 100 euros ($121) and now it is 400 euros ($483) for a small shipment. We are seriously looking at relocation to the EU after 27 years of business in the UK.”

“The fashion industry has been totally forgotten in this,” she adds. “For me it is baffling when you know British fashion and how creative and successful it is. It is amazing to me that this government cares so little about it.”

This is a sentiment echoed across the industry—that retailers feel they have been forgotten by a political party that has always represented itself as being pro-business. Richard Ross, the founder of The Sock Company and Trotters—two successful British brands—has voted Conservative in the past and describes himself as being right of center politically. 

“I am appalled by the way retail has been treated,” he says. “It’s utterly bizarre to me that we now have to ignore our neighbours; our nearest and dearest. Europe is our biggest single export market and our own government is telling us we need to forget about doing business with them. What I don’t understand is why a Conservative government that has always been so closely aligned with business is doing this. The figures must look dreadful when they land each week on [Chancellor] Rishi Sunak’s desk. I don’t understand who they think is going to help pay our way out of the pandemic because at this rate it won’t be retail.”

The sense of being forgotten by the government has only been exacerbated by the deafening silence coming from Downing Street since the Fashion Roundtable letter was sent. Its content was covered by all major British newspapers and on the BBC, and yet the government hasn’t even released a short statement in response. 

“Delays and silence are not a way forward for business certainty,” says Cincik. “This silence from the Government is deeply concerning and I hope that they commit to meeting with our stakeholders in the coming days, as they already have with our colleagues in the music industry. We urge them to show the same levels of concern and support for all aspects of business, creative industries and export brands.

“We are seeing a tsunami of people panicking here. There are glaring gaps in the deal and it is clear that fashion as a whole has been completely ignored. Someone needs to help us—and urgently.”