Reams of red tape and an ocean of paperwork. Deserted goods and soaring taxes. Talk of burning abandoned clothing.
These are the realities for UK retailers and designers right now. Thanks to a Brexit trade agreement that largely overlooks the fashion industry, many feel business is seriously threatened. Red Tape and new tariffs on goods exported out of the UK seem, in some cases, significant enough to render the UK unviable as a manufacturing hub. In Europe, UK-based retailers are threatening to burn stock rejected by consumers over unforeseen charges.
Is the UK fashion industry about to go up in flames?
On the 2nd of February, think-tank Fashion Round Table wrote an open letter to the government warning that Britain’s £35bn fashion industry was at risk of “decimation”. The letter, signed by 400 leading figures from the industry including such as Twiggy and design legends such as Vivienne Westwood, claims that import duties and visa requirements will cripple British manufactures, retailers and designers as well as the modelling industry.
Designer Bethany Williams, an ambassador for Fashion Round Table, was one of the many who signed. She described the situation to Dazed as “an absolute nightmare”. She explained how goods sold to the EU arrive with added VAT bills which have to be absorbed by brands or paid directly by customers at their doors. She also talked of the serious border delays currently experienced by customers waiting for clothing and designers for materials.
As a result, Williams has postponed the launch of her web store (scheduled for March 2021). She worries that her brand will be forced to reimburse VAT bills and pay for customers’ returns (she told Dazed).
Bethany is a humanitarian designer who sees fashion “as a force for change” (@bethany_williams_ london, Instagram). Her brand has a strong reliance on relationships with EU countries. She works with social initiatives in Europe, such as non-profit San Partignano in Italy, and has many European stockists. It’s not surprising, then, that Williams has found business to be a “nightmare” since the rules came into place.
Anti-Brexit sentiment has been demonstrated by the UK fashion industry long before the changes were set in motion on January 1st. British designer, Molly Goddard staged her AW/19 show in the grand Dunbar Court, in the building that houses the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The court, lined with Imperial marbles and reminders of Britain’s past, was the perfect backdrop for her practical, wrapped-up looks. Her models sported tulle worn over practical trousers, knitted socks, and balaclavas. The message was clear: we will trample through the storm. Outside the show, Brexit Means Brexit protesters raged on.
At the first post-Brexit London Fashion Week, however, Goddard celebrated British culture, exhibiting Fair Isle sweaters and tartan kilts. She told The Telegraph about the struggles of “more admin, more paperwork and more charges” associated with international sales but she acknowledged her advantage in adjusting to Brexit, having always manufactured much of her work in the UK.
Perhaps Molly’s local manufacturing strategy and regionally sourced materials are a hopeful case study in adapting to post-Brexit life. But for designers who are weary of ‘kilting up’ and leaning into their Britishisms, the current difficulties may feel like a precursor to a complete loss of long-standing, creative relationships with EU countries…
There is hope that Border Control and brands will adjust to the new rules, shortening delivery times and ironing out VAT-related issues. Currently, most small European brands have stopped sales to the UK and vice versa. It is highly likely that trade will resume once each country has learned to deal with the red tape put in place.
Currently, brands may be tripping over red tape and buried in paperwork. But it is unlikely that such a resilient and passionate industry will allow itself to be permanently burnt by this setback.