Opinion: Fashioning Brexit – Two months on, what does it mean for fashion?

As today marks two months since the European referendum, I thought I would share my thoughts on how I think fashion education and the fashion industry itself will be affected.

Over the last two months since the Brexit vote, people have often asked what the result means for the work of the College and, more broadly, that of the fashion industry. As a Remain voter the result has made me reflect carefully on what the opportunities are and how we might take advantage of a new way of thinking and doing business. The Mayor of London’s recent campaign ‘London is Open’ is a case in point. It is an active campaign which clearly states that all aspects of the life of London is ready and open for business – for anyone around the world. Similarly, soon after the referendum the Marks and Spencer Director of Sustainable Business, Mike Barry wrote a very interesting article as a direct response to the result. In his “Brexit we need to re-double our efforts to create a better economy – one that works for all”, Barry made a series of points about how, post the crash of 2008, we haven’t made sufficient efforts to create an economy that works for everyone. That here is an opportunity to create sustainable businesses that directly relate to people’s everyday lives “a job created, a crime prevented, a beach cleaned”, which we need to directly benefit people. We need to develop a political system where we work across boundaries and, as part of this, we all have responsibility for our personal leadership – to not lament or criticise what has happened because we don’t like it but to recognise the situation and the reasons why, and to work for solutions.

Fashioning Brexit

Brexit gives us an opportunity to ask what sort of fashionable future do we want? Fashion is a bit like food- it knows no boundaries – we like what we like, wherever it comes from – after all curry is a national British dish as much as fish and chips. Fashion ideas and influences have always travelled – it’s just these days with social media we have instant access to new ideas and new sources of influences. An item of clothing shown on a runway in Shanghai or Lagos can be viewed as quickly as those from Paris or New York. Similarly, knowledge knows no boundaries- ideas and thoughts are free to travel, they can’t be tied down to national boundaries, they will always break through. But in a situation where we are being required to think about boundaries, the opportunity to redefine them for a subject such as fashion, based in an institution where the exchange of ideas around the world is at its core, has to be seen as an opportunity.

Its fair to say that the Brexit result does have the potential to undermine longstanding EU relationships. As a college, we have a significant number of EU students who bring a different way of thinking about fashion and contribute this thinking to our UK students. For a discipline such as fashion, where collaboration and being part of a business that is global – in both its thinking and production – is vital, early exposure to new ideas and different ways of thinking is a crucial part of the learning experience itself. So, post-Brexit it will be important to find ways of keeping these European students as an integral part of our overall student make up.

A related educational element is that under the Erasmus scheme, students and staff can go and spend time in another University, working and researching. At LCF we have a number of EU funded projects, which support research and enterprise initiatives. There has been much concern that UK contribution to EU research and industry development will be marginalised, as we will be no longer automatically entitled to research grants and funding once we have left the EU. But of course, there will be ways around this- institutions and people will want and need to work together. We still want to exchange ideas and experiences. We will still want to benefit from different experiences and expertise. We may have to work harder to make the alliances and projects work but maybe that will be a good thing, as we have to be sure of their relevance and significance rather than just assuming that just because we are in the EU, the partnership is strong and with clear benefits.

Fashioning Brexit

It is a similar set of issues facing the industry itself. It will need to work hard to make the case for tariff- free and barrier-free markets and to keep the focus on the regeneration of manufacturing in the UK. The issue of getting skilled labour will be critical as many of our current skilled garment makers come from eastern Europe, and they are key for the success of our London based designers- certainly as a college we are working to address this with the development of a new manufacturing unit to be based in East London to help train new garment workers in high end making skills. We don’t need border controls that will leave goods stuck in customs, as this costs the businesses and ultimately the consumer. We also need to make sure we are protecting the patents and trademarks that many new designers require to protect their newly forming businesses.  Anything that results in higher prices and costs will undermine the young businesses that London and the UK are so famous for.

Again as with education it all requires us to look at what is the most important aspect of what we do and why do we do it. We want to make sure we don’t introduce more bureaucracy that makes exchanging ideas and goods more problematic, but rather that we are leaner and more focused on what we want and how we will make it happen. We also need to be focused on what makes us unique within the global market both with regards to the fashion industry and the discipline of fashion. I believe its going to be centred around issues such as sustainability, high end manufacturing and new ideas and thoughts about how fashion can be applied to areas of our life beyond fashionable clothing. This, I think will be of real demand worldwide and will ensure all countries will want to work with us and exchange ideas, whatever the nature of national boundaries.

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