London Fashion Week: Will Brexit mean a front-row exit?
A quarter-century ago, a famed headline in The Sun – "If Kinnock wins will the last person to leave Britain please turn off the lights" – helped lead to an unexpected general election victory for the Conservative Party.
Some 27 years later, one would be forgiven for considering this weekend’s London Fashion Week as the Last Fashion Show, as the industry braces for the very real risk of a no deal. And the likelihood of a slow but sure "frexit", or front-row exit, as industry leaders spend more of their valuable front-row time outside of Britain.
Few businesses in Britain are more opposed to Brexit than fashion, especially as every show in London will source some of its fabrics, and many of its creative talents, from continental Europe.
So, as guests gather for the next London Fashion Week, scheduled for Thursday 14th to Tuesday 19th, preeminent in their mind, well before the clothes, shows and thrills, will be the fact that this is very probably the last UK runway season before Brexit, due to come into force on 29th March.
No creative endeavor has been more alarmed by the idea of leaving Europe, and few creative arts have sourced so much of talent from across the European Union. Consider this, if one were to rate the top 20 shows to attend in London, over half of them are by non-British designers. Just look at the names: Mary Katrantzou, Roksanda Ilincic, Simone Rocha, Roland Mouret and Riccardo Tisci at Burberry. Not exactly from the Home Counties are they?
And, many British designers have at least one parent born outside of Britain: like Hussein Chalayan, who celebrates a quarter century as a designer this season in Sadler's Wells.
Moreover, new fledgling designers have been increasing the percentage of non-British talent on display in the British capital. In the first 24 hours alone, names to watch include Paula Canovas del Vas and Ernesto Naranjo (Spain); Gayeon Lee (Korea); Bora Aksu (Turkey) Renata Brenha (Brazil) and Ryan Lo (Hong Kong); Marta Jakubowski (Poland); Kiko Kostadinov (Bulgaria) and Xu Zhi (China). Indeed, given the relative scarcity of major global brands compared to Milan or Paris, the whole point of going to London was to find raw and expressive fledgling talent.
Most of designers just listed trained in London’s two famed fashion schools Central St Martin and the London College of Fashion (LCF). The latter is largest fashion school in Europe, counting some 6,000 students including its masters program, and it is bracing for a massive decline in European students in the event of Theresa May’s version of Brexit; worse if there is no deal at all.
At the LCF, British students currently pay annual fees of 9,000 sterling; while fellow Europeans are charged the same rate. Non-EU students pay twice that sum, 18,000 pounds. However, post-Brexit, EU citizens will be treated like any other overseas student, meaning their fees will double overnight.
"European numbers have definitely drifted lower this year. And we expect Brexit to produce a major decline," lamented Matthew Drinkwater, head of the LCF’s Fashion Innovation Agency.
London remains a season bursting with creative talent, in many ways the envy of its Italian and French rivals, but Brexit could laser cut all that to shreds. As Europeans are forced economically to choose continental colleges in Antwerp, Florence, Milan and Paris inevitably they will start staging their debuts and building their brands in those cities.
One year ago, the Queen caused a sensation by showing up front row at the Richard Quinn show to award the designer the inaugural Queen Elizabeth II Award for British Design. Last month, she called for "common sense" and "never losing sight of the bigger picture," words that were interpreted as a request for a less toxic debate on Brexit. Since then we’ve discovered that the government has made plans to evacuate the monarch should Brexit turn ugly.
So call it playing the fiddle as Rome burns, since even with Brexit casting a huge shadow the season doesn’t lack for events: Canada, Hong Kong and India will stage joint shows; influential store Browns is hosting a Björn Borg by Robyn launch; rival Matches’ brick-and-mortar location at 50 Carlos Place will stage a fashion breakfast for Palmer Harding; The Evening Standard is planning a reception; while Fashion Scout plans to highlight a slew of Slovak hopefuls. Derek Blasberg of YouTube fame is hosting a party for David and Victoria Beckham on Sunday night. And Monday features supermodel Natalia Vodianova’s latest Fabulous Fashion Fund Fair for her foundation Naked Heart.
So, maybe the lights won’t be going off just yet. But post-Brexit expect more empty seats in the front row, as foreign buyers, editors and stylists "frexit" and follow the new generation of fashion designers elsewhere.
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