Luxury label Halpern has been a staple of London’s fashion calendar for the past four years. Now, designer Michael Halpern is grappling with whether he might have to consider relocating his business.
The pandemic has proved difficult, but the real pressure is coming from the UK’s exit from Europe. Costs to import fabric have shot up as a result of new taxes, vital orders have been stuck at customs for weeks on end, pushing back production timelines. And when the garments are finalised, the brand is forced to pay another round of tariffs to ship product to key markets like France and Italy. The designer currently remains committed to the UK, but If the pressures remain, that may have to change, Halpern said.
“That’s a really tough thing to have to deal with for a small brand [like us] that doesn’t have enormous margins to begin with,” said Halpern. “Do we need to move to Paris or Milan or Rome? That’s not a conversation I ever wanted to entertain, but now you have to think about it.”
It’s not just about the nuts and bolts of manufacturing and logistics. Engaging with critical buyers in Europe is now much harder, as are fashion shoots and trunk shows, challenges the entire industry must come to terms with as it seeks to emerge from the pandemic.
Do we need to move to Paris or Milan or Rome? That’s not a conversation I ever wanted to entertain.
It’s a dual blow that is threatening London’s position as one of the world’s great fashion capitals. Even as shops reopen in the UK, the last year of crisis has left visible scars; Topshop, once the epicentre of high-low fashion, has gone under. Meanwhile, London Fashion Week must find a way to regain its footing after an era of digital shows amplified the limits of a format already under pressure. And Brexit-related blocks to freedom of movement threaten to hamper access to international talent for shoots and shows long after travel restrictions caused by Covid-19 are lifted.
The UK’s independent designers and freelance creatives are adapting to survive, but the city known as melting pot for emerging talent now risks entering an era of creative isolationism.
Saint Luke, a London and New York-based artist management and creative production agency, typically features an international roster of designers in its shoots. But lately its work in London has relied on goods that could be sourced from within the city. “In terms of clothing, I would definitely say we are being more resourceful and looking towards local brands,” said Saint Luke director Sabrina Sarl.
Working internationally has become far more complicated, with samples routinely getting snarled at customs, according to industry insiders. “Covid and Brexit mean that shipping just generally takes longer,” said Halpern. “I’ve heard so many stories over the last few months where someone has been doing a really big production and they’re calling in stuff last minute — and then 10 boxes arrived the day after the shoot.”
It’s not all bad news. Thursday’s Child, a platform that partners unrepresented photographers, filmmakers and visual artists from across the world with brands like Nike, Depop, Converse and Maison Margiela, sees a huge opportunity for smaller scale shoots involving only local talent.
“I think the Covid-19 model of shooting locally with local teams will be a huge theme for the years to come,” said founder Jessica Bradbury. “This time has forced us to find solutions, and clients have realised that watching productions [via livestream] might be both [easier and more cost-effective] for them and better for the environment in some cases.”
Other parts of the industry are also becoming more localised. With Brexit complicating cross-border movement, small and medium-sized businesses that don’t have the resources to invest in additional paperwork or pay tariffs are restructuring their operations.
From a physical point of view, we need to be in Paris because that’s where the international buyers are.
Designer Per Götesson, for example, typically works closely with an Italian fabric mill but has found vital orders held at customs for weeks as a result of Brexit-induced customs checks. As a result, Götesson said he is looking for more local suppliers to streamline order deliveries.
“I do find myself thinking twice before ordering fabrics,” he said.
Liam Hodges, founder and creative director of his namesake luxury streetwear brand, said over 70 percent of his latest collection is upcycled, made from already available materials sourced from across the UK. The move is part of wider efforts to make the brand’s operations leaner, more sustainable and more cost-effective. “It kind of happened at the right time,” he said. “We were already localising these processes during lockdown so we didn’t have to find fabrics from elsewhere.”
An Uncertain Future
Industry insiders worry this creative isolationism will hurt London’s reputation as a fashion capital long-term. And it’s the city’s creative talent that, once again, will be hardest hit.
For instance, Hodges said the added paperwork and costs required to send samples to shoots outside the UK compounded by delivery delays as a result of custom checks means he has had added difficulty securing the international visibility that comes from editorials. “We can’t just send stuff to shoots as we wish,” the designer said. “You can understand how that affects the reach of a brand for international press: it limits it significantly.”
Creative agencies, too, have been forced to rework their budgets and redistribute resources to accommodate Brexit’s restrictions on travel, an issue that until now has been largely veiled by the pandemic. “You can sponsor around 20 people to come into the country but 20 people is one shoot,” said Thursday’s Child’s Bradbury. “I don’t know what’s going to happen with that … It’s really tricky.”
For many designers, easy travel between London and Paris is also a vital business conduit.
“International buyers don’t really come to London — everyone ends up in Paris,” said Halpern. “From a physical point of view, we need to be in Paris because that’s where the international buyers are. And if Brexit changes that in a really substantial way, that would be a really scary thing for brands.”
The city is facing mounting outside competition, too. “We’ve got to think of the globe in different ways … especially as places like Copenhagen and Berlin are becoming increasingly relevant,” said Fashion Roundtable founder and chief executive Tamara Cincik. “[London has] always had a problem converting [shows] into sales. And I think that’s going to escalate now.”
Ultimately, “if the reputation of where they’re showing is diminished because of Brexit,” Cincik said, “then the reputation of the brands that are linked to that location becomes problematic.”
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