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With Relations With Europe on the Skids, is China the UK’s Next Best Fashion Partner?

On the day of the Brexit referendum in 2016—as if to anticipate the blow that was coming—the British government brought a delegation of the country’s most promising designers and brand managers out to Shanghai to meet with local buyers. And while the atmosphere was tense, there was also a sense of hope that a vote for Brexit needn’t be an entirely damning result for British fashion.

Two years on and the Brexit is still a mess. However, it was never going to be enough to make fashion—one of the most left-leaning, international industries in the country—slam its doors on the world.

In newspapers and special reports and on the floor at Westminster, journalists, commentators and politicians have increasingly been saying that the U.K. should shift its trade focus from the EU towards Asia. Particularly given the trade war that is escalating between Presidents Trump and Xi and the void that will leave. But is there room for a closer relationship between Chinese and British retail?

The two countries have had a long and relatively prosperous partnership when it comes to fashion. Chinese fashion designers have been coming to the U.K. to study for decades, with many of them graduating from Central Saint Martins. These include many of China’s top names—Masha Ma, Uma Wang, Nicole Zhang and Huishan Zhang. Today there are around 150,000 Chinese students in the U.K. in total, more than any other European country.

“The presence of so many Chinese designers and students at London Fashion Week means a cultural boundary has been navigated here,” says Niamh Tuft from the British Fashion Council. “There is a lot of excitement about Chinese designers and therefore more interchange between the U.K. and China. There are now more British professors and students looking to work and study in China, which is a new, and welcome, development.”

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However, many people in the fashion industry worry that Brexit threatens not only the perception people have of British society being tolerant and multi-cultural, but also that it will become more logistically difficult for non-British citizens to work and study in London.

“If Brexit makes it harder for international talent to study design in the U.K., it will hurt the industry and diminish London’s standing as an international fashion destination,” says Liz Flora, the editor of Asia-Pacific research for business intelligence centre L2. “For the last few years, London Fashion Week has consistently had many Chinese designers participating in official or satellite shows and there are a number of very successful U.K.-based Chinese designers. But after Brexit, I noticed some Chinese designers opted to show at New York Fashion Week instead. Although New York is also going to pose less competition in the future thanks to Trump’s hard-line stance on immigration.”

Fearing the impact Brexit may have, Britain has gone into full courtship mode with China, working hard to peddle the image of British fashion as being on a par with that of France and Italy. This has come in the form of the Fashion is GREAT initiative, where Shanghai Fashion Week and the British Fashion Council agreed to promote a collaboration between the two countries.

“British branding already has a very positive, high-quality image in China and brands like Burberry have been very enthusiastic about capitalising on this with British-focused marketing, especially on WeChat,” says Flora. “The French luxury conglomerates have an advantage in terms of sheer size, but staying ahead of the curve on technology can help any brand. Burberry was named by L2 as the second most digitally competent luxury brand in China, coming in ahead of all French and Italian brands.”

But while Burberry has been masterful in capturing the Chinese market, it is the non-heritage brands that need publicity. Which is why, since Brexit, the British government’s Department for International Trade (DIT) stepped up its efforts by bringing Chinese buyers to London Fashion Week to introduce them to the famously trend-setting smaller brands. This year, they flew over buyers from Attos, Parkson Group, JinYin/Golden Eagle, Mei.com and JD.com.

And even the high street is getting in on the act. Topshop has now signed a deal with Shangpin.com to open up to 75 stores across China over the next few years. British fashion brand Karen Millen has also launched on the Chinese mainland with a first store in Beijing, another expected next year in Shanghai, and a plan to open a chain of 60 stores across the country within the next five years.

All this effort has paid off in more ways than one. Flight bookings from China to the U.K. rose by 88 percent over the last two years. There are a number of factors to thank for this, including the post-Brexit fall in value of the pound. And after years of lobbying from the fashion and tourism industries, the government has also relaxed requirements on Chinese tourism visas.

This has had particularly important consequences for the British fashion industry as Chinese shoppers spend an average of £2,000 on goods during their stay—about three and a half times the average of other visitors.

But while it is easy to put all the emphasis on the clout of China, particularly in comparison to the uncertainty in Britain, this is a relationship that is beneficial to both parties. Because not only is Britain China’s second biggest trade partner in the West after the U.S. (and that is on very shaky ground), it also brings with it cultural heft. Major e-commerce sites such as JD.com want to secure as many British brands as they can in order to get that elusive cool factor—and they are willing to spend a lot to get it. This in turn could help British brands weather Brexit storm clouds ahead.