Just before Britain officially made its European exit on 31st December, Vogue Business published an article titled ‘What’s next for fashion?’ In it, Vogue Business data editor George Arnett detailed the absolute necessities for ensuring the industry’s survival in a post-Brexit Britain. Number one was ‘keeping zero-for-zero tariffs’. In other words, the tax on the movement of industry specific commodities between the UK and Europe should remain the same: zero. Boris, however, had other ideas.
Actually, Boris didn’t have ideas at all. In fact, there were no negotiations at all over the fashion industry pre-Brexit, a surprising discovery considering it’s worth £35bn and boasts one million employees in the UK alone. This was addressed in an open letter signed by over 450 influential figures from the British fashion industry to the government this week. Iconic British designer and darling of the industry Paul Smith estimated that the changes would cost his brand “multiple millions per year”.
It recently became obvious to me how affecting this oversight has been on the small scale, too. I uploaded a jumper to social shopping app Depop and received a message from a woman asking me if I could ship to Denmark. I have never had qualms about international shipping if the buyer pays postage. So, I had a look at shipping costs through Royal Mail, whose website assured me that my knit could reach Denmark for around the £7 mark, even with tracking. I let my potential buyer know and she seemed happy. She would let me know the next day.
Meanwhile, my lockdown vice is hours scrolling through various online shops, without any real intent to buy – effectively, virtual window shopping. I’ve definitely developed delusions of grandeur in terms of what I can afford to spend on an item and found myself obsessing over some metallic trousers from Danish brand Hosbjerg (purely coincidental – this article isn’t sponsored by Denmark). The trousers themselves cost about £100 new, but were sold out on the website. Knowing I could never afford them, I decided to torture myself further by searching on Depop (again, other shopping apps are available). The cheapest pair I could find in my size were £145. My interest was piqued. I messaged the seller to ask why they were so pricey – I understand they were sold out, but a 50% mark-up seemed steep/excessive.
“I accidentally bought two pairs” she told me, “and the import tax was £80. So, I effectively paid £140 for a £100 pair of trousers!” She told me that when she first made the purchase, she had absolutely no idea about the tax since it’s a post-Brexit development. For so long we felt safe ticking that T&Cs box without actually reading the fine print, but Brexit complicates matters.
And my fellow online shopper is not the first to be surprised by huge import fees. The Financial Times reported this week about EU customers buying woollen jumpers from the British knitwear brand Country of Origin. One customer’s jumper was classed as an animal product at customs, meaning that the buyer had to pay a €200 import fee. I like a good quality knit as much as the next person; against the backdrop of sweatshop labour and an ongoing climate crisis, we should strive to invest in sustainably sourced products that will last us for longer, whenever possible. But, with no disrespect to Country of Origin, odds are that most of us don’t want to pay £300 for a £100 jumper, even if it makes us feel like a paragon of ethical shopping standards. So, while I might not be able to afford an already hypothetical pair of trousers, the bigger concern is the survival of the British fashion industry, if the government doesn’t pull its finger out.
Then, my buyer in Denmark got back to me. She was having reservations after remembering a friend recently having to pay extortionate prices for something from the UK due to, you guessed it, new import tariffs, and later confirmed that she couldn’t justify it. When I consider the personal frustration at losing one sale of one old jumper due to this political oversight, I can empathise with the British fashion industry, which is financially reliant on the exchange of goods and will struggle to stay afloat with these new duties. Designer Katherine Hamnett warned that ‘many firms could be weeks away from going under’, according to the BBC this week. If I can’t shift my jumper, I’ll forgo a Deliveroo, but if Country of Origin can’t shift 30% of their stock (the amount they usually sell to EU customers) then they’ll be much closer to shutting up shop, meaning unemployment and potential financial crisis.
I then had a peek at Zara and Mango’s UK sites, two prominent European brands that are now deeply rooted in the British high street. Their prices hadn’t changed at all – I even compared prices of garments in their Spanish branches to that of the same garments in the UK: no change. It comes as no surprise that such a transition has zero effect on fast fashion with its incredibly high yields at incredibly low production costs. Apparently, quality doesn’t outshine quantity when it comes to fashion.
In the upcoming weeks, all we can hope is that the letter has the desired effect and the industry’s demands are met. It seems prudent for the government to shoot their best shot to save an industry which can still thrive during a pandemic that has so profoundly affected most sectors. Of course, defending our fishing territory was a perfectly viable reason to deploy no less than four navy ships in case of a no deal Brexit, but did Boris think about the potential cost of sourcing a new ill-fitting suit if he made no negotiations over the fashion industry?
So, while we wait in hope that the sector will emerge from the post-Brexit wreckage, we should strive where possible to spend on British brands, until the day that EU citizens are once again proudly purchasing British knitwear, and I can imaginary-buy my dream trousers without a silly import fee.
Affordable British brands can be found here!
By Katie Ross
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