LONDON — If there was ever a moment for British brands to Keep Calm and Carry On — a phrase coined by the U.K. government to raise morale ahead of World War II — it is now.
While the U.K. isn’t headed into war — except maybe civil war given the bitterness between the squabbling parliament and a government dead set on a no-deal Brexit — designers and manufacturers are having to take up arms, prepare for the worst and market their spring 2020 collections with gusto.
There is even more uncertainty about Britain’s future now that Boris Johnson has become prime minister and locked horns with parliament: Can the U.K. leave the European Union on Oct. 31 with a deal? Would the EU agree to another deadline extension? If so, would it be long, or short? Will Brexit even happen?
The questions go on and on: Will Johnson break the new law that rules out a no-deal? Will there be another general election? And, if so, when? Will there be another Brexit referendum if a new government takes over?
It’s a grim time for Britain, but there are a few bright spots for the fashion industry: The Brexit-bashed pound is now trading at $1.23, lower than the post-referendum low of $1.30 in the summer of 2016, and far lower than the $1.48 just before the milestone vote took place.
The pound is worth 1.12 euros, compared with 1.18 euros six months ago, meaning that British goods are looking cheaper to the rest of the world, and to the U.S. in particular.
“During Paris Fashion Week, we’ll be saying to people, ‘buy from us,’” said Paul Alger, international business director of the U.K. Fashion and Textile Association, adding that while the weak pound will boost exports, any volatility could be detrimental.
“Of course some people will think the pound will continue to be weak, so this is a good time to buy from the U.K. and we will certainly try to capitalize on that. There will be others who will be more cautious, given the pound’s volatility,” added Alger, who promotes British brands from the showrooms of Paris, to the trade shows in the U.S. and China.
“It is the caution, the doubt, the lack of clarity that is the biggest danger for our exporters,” he said.
Linda Laderman, cofounder of Textile Forum, the high-end fashion fabric show that’s set to take place here on Oct. 16 and 17, said Brexit uncertainty is only exacerbating underlying issues with retail.
“For the bigger British retailers and their suppliers, it is the downturn in consumer spending driven by changing shopping habits that is causing the most pain. But the level of pain is heightened with all the uncertainty around Brexit and the infighting among our politicians. It is just so negative, and it hampers planning,” she said.
Laderman added that while the weaker pound might make some British fabrics more competitively priced, “many (local) fabric suppliers are buying fabric and yarn from abroad, so they are getting less for their spend. As a result, there will be some price increases.”
Fabric suppliers are gaining an edge in other ways, too. “They are attending more trade shows and improving their online presence with transactional web sites that have all the bells and whistles and customer service levels that can be found when buying from leading online traders,” said Laderman.
Industry bodies, too, have been doing what they can to help designers, brands and manufacturers maximize their assets in these uncertain times and prepare for what many view as the worst possible scenario, a no-deal Brexit. No deal would bring even more uncertainty, not to mention a disruption to exports, compromised policing and security and an even more fractious relationship between Britain and the EU.
Add to that supply chain disruption, immigration issues, and higher tariffs for goods coming and going from the EU and other countries as the U.K. would be forced to default to World Trade Organization rules.
Earlier this month, the British Fashion Council laid out the consequences of a no-deal Brexit. It said that based on UKFT export figures from 2018, switching to WTO rules would cost the fashion industry between 850 million pounds and 900 million pounds. WTO tariffs on clothing are around 12 percent.
“As designers prepare to sell their collections, which may well be delivered after we have left the EU, they need to factor in the potential of WTO tariffs — so they need to look at pricing, and really look at their contracts to understand whether they — or the retailers — are paying duty,” said Caroline Rush, chief executive of the British Fashion Council.
“It is all that you can do at this moment — prepare, prepare, prepare. Of course, for small teams that are short of resources, that is a significant challenge in itself,” she added.
Alger of UKFT said designers and brands also have to think about how they’re going to get samples back and forth across the U.K. border when they attend trade shows post-Brexit, if there is no deal. They’ll also be forced to convince clients in foreign markets that they will deliver at the right price, and on time.
“We live in a world where international trade is very price-driven, and needs to be very responsive. Anything that makes British products more expensive on shelves in another country, or takes longer to get there, is going to make those retail buyers — in an already very difficult retail environment — think twice,” about buying British, he said.
He believes the short term will continue to be difficult, given all the question marks and the fact that government and parliament remain at odds. Johnson has suspended parliament — it remains unclear whether he’s done that lawfully or unlawfully — until mid-October when he plans to push through a splashy new budget.
“I think we are in for a bumpy couple of months, and I very much hope that some common sense will start to come through. I personally hope that it gets sorted out, but I think it is going to be difficult because of all the rancor,” in the Brexit process so far, Alger said.
He believes the medium-term will be rosier. “Business will adapt as soon as we know exactly what it is that we are dealing with. It will absolutely adapt to whatever the new reality is,” Alger said.