Brexit, Migration, and the Fashion Industry

The UK fashion industry faces an uncertain future after Theresa May’s Brexit deal was voted down last night. Our Sustainable Apparel & Textiles expert Charlotte Turner considers the potential implications of Brexit on migration and the fashion industry.  

While there are numerous industries that are affected by the ongoing Brexit saga, and especially its potential implications on migration, the British fashion industry in particular is at real risk, being heavily reliant on international talent, collaboration and freedom of movement.

The British fashion industry is a significant contributor to GDP, bringing a record £32.3 billion to the British economy in 2017, up 5.4% from 2016. It additionally supports an estimated 890,000 jobs in the UK, meaning it is almost as big as the financial sector. But it relies on international cooperation, and it deserves attention.

To give context, the Creative Industries Federation (CIF) released a report in late 2017 that found that fashion is the fourth-highest creative industries employer in the UK, following music and film, and that restricting freedom of movement between the UK and Europe poses a significant risk to the British creative sector in general, which is worth an estimated £87 billion to the economy. “Losing access to crucial international talent will damage our ability to produce the [work] that defines Britain around the world,” said John Kampfner, Chief Executive of the Creative Industries Federation, CIF.

Beyond its financial standing, we can’t ignore the fact that fashion is a key driver of cultural and economic development in general, as well as playing a key role in international cultural diplomacy and community. We have all seen the diplomatic power that fashion can have, from Duchess of Sussex Meghan Markle and Duchess of Cambridge Kate Middleton’s global tour wardrobe choices, to the cross-cultural Commonwealth Fashion Exchange project that we launched at Buckingham Palace last year.

Whilst the fashion industry demonstrably plays a significant role in the British economy and cultural landscape, it is heavily reliant on international talent for roles from design, textile production and garment technology, to sales and retail, employing numerous workers from abroad, including a significant number of workers from European countries.

In particular, the industry benefits from hiring European students and professionals who have been trained for technical roles, an area in which some European universities have arguably focused more than UK ones in recent years. The British manufacturing industry is now seeing a revival after decades of decline, meaning the reliance on employing skilled workers will only increase – from home or abroad. Not to mention the international creative talent that infuses such vision into the British fashion landscape – it is this collaboration that makes the British fashion industry such as success.

As well as recognising the essential role that international talent plays in the British economy, and particularly in the creative industries, the government is encouraged to support the British education system to enhance creative and technical education and skills development in vital areas such as textiles and manufacturing, to enable the domestic industry to hire creative talent and skilled workers both from home and abroad, and avoid a major skills shortage.

With yesterday’s no vote, the industry remains in limbo regarding future capacity to collaborate, work across borders, bid for funding, and continue being one of the UK’s most significant cultural and economic industries. It is essential that this issue is not ignored.

Read CEO and Founder of Fashion Roundtable Tamara Cincik’s take on the main risk factors of Brexit.