LONDON — Move on.
It’s the mind-set of London’s fashion industry — and other businesses — as many recover from the shock of Britain’s vote to quit the European Union and prepare for the increasing uncertainty the Brexit process will bring.
As the first post-referendum London Fashion Week opens, designers, the British Fashion Council, businesses that serve the industry — and especially Prime Minister Theresa May — are eager to telegraph their message worldwide that Britain is open for business.
In a recent first for a British prime minister, May has ushered in the week, hosting a cocktail at 10 Downing Street on Thursday night with BFC chairman Natalie Massenet and members of the industry in attendance.
Although former first lady Samantha Cameron regularly hosted similar events at Downing Street, May’s move on Thursday night spoke volumes about her support for the British fashion business in a new world.
“Fashion is a vibrant and important industry for Britain, contributing 28 billion pounds [$42 billion] to the British economy,” said May, addressing a crowd that included Cameron, and designers such as Erdem Moralioglu, Mary Katrantzou, Sarah Burton, Charlotte Dellal, Giles Deacon, Stephen Jones, Jason Basmajian and Molly Goddard.
May, dressed in a white cotton Palmer Harding for John Lewis blouse, black Amanda Wakeley trousers and Russell & Bromley flats, added that in changing times, “it is really important that we work with you” to help expand sales and exports to ensure that Britain remains “a leading trading nation.”
“Thank you for what you are doing for British business out there, across the world. Long live British fashion,” she said.
May’s words echoed the mood in London, where shows will run from today through Tuesday. Although most designers were disappointed by the result of the vote in June, they’re now looking for future opportunities.
On Friday, the BFC is set to hold a briefing emphasizing that U.K. fashion is ready to do business, with designer Anya Hindmarch and Justine Simmons, London’s deputy mayor for culture, among those expected to speak.
Over the summer, the BFC met with designers and organized meetings with law and accountancy firms with the aim of helping them navigate their way through the initial uncertainty. Issues such as the weaker pound, the possibility of manufacturing more goods in the U.K., future tax breaks, new investment and intellectual property challenges were all on the table.
“The majority of our industry weren’t pro-Brexit, but it’s happened, we live in a democratic country, we have got to move forward. Like anything, you have to look at what positives will come out of it rather than dwelling on what the negatives might be,” said Caroline Rush, the BFC’s chief executive officer.
She said the immediate challenge and opportunity is “reaffirming as an industry that we operate internationally, that we value our international partners, that the U.K. remains open and one of the most collaborative nations and that we want to continue in that vein. The decision by the British public to leave the EU doesn’t fundamentally change where we sit culturally — and in business.”
Business opportunities outside the EU are already percolating. The Beijing-based e-commerce giant JD.com will hold its first LFW event, an off-schedule fashion show on Monday that will feature several Chinese fashion brands. Guests are expected to include Chinese news and business media and international retailers.
Lady Barbara Judge, a U.K. business ambassador and a founding member of the U.K.-China Business Leaders Club, is hosting the event at the Institute of Directors in St. James’, a business association and lobby of which she is chairman.
“I think that, especially after Brexit, the U.K. must show the world that it is open for business. China is one of the biggest markets and it’s appropriate for the U.K. and China to be seen to be doing early deals with each other at this time,” she said.
“We [in the U.K.] are very well-respected internationally as a creative place. And the Chinese are also very creative, and to be seen to be working together is one of the best ways to start a new era of the U.K. after Brexit.”
Others argue that British designers’ and creatives’ work will endure, no matter what. “You can’t stop people from talking to each other or teleworking together. Also, by the way, we’re still in Europe. We can’t move the island,” said M&A specialist Beth Pickens, managing director at William Blair, the boutique investment bank.
With regard to M&A activity pre- and post-Brexit, Pickens said investors will continue to rely on the fundamentals of businesses and look for breakout stories. “Those opportunities may be slightly sweetened by a temporarily depressed [British pound], but the thesis should still remain the same,” during and after Brexit.
It’s been business as usual at the property and development company The Crown Estate, which has been pushing ahead with retail deals despite the uncertainty after the referendum. This week, Polo Ralph Lauren opened its European flagship on the street, a 17,561-square-foot space spanning three floors.
“It is as if nothing has happened,” said David Shaw, head of the Regent Street portfolio at The Crown Estate, which is owned by the British sovereign with all profits going to the U.K. treasury.
“The level of demand for the space is — luckily — where it was before Brexit. We’ve not had a single transaction go wrong because of Brexit, and most interestingly for me is that there has been no change in the terms of the transactions that we’re doing,” he said.
Designers admit that adjusting to the weaker pound and coping with all the uncertainty has been a challenge, but they are steaming ahead.
Alice Temperley said the weaker pound has been impacting her company’s margins and foreign payments, “although everything is sort of leveling itself out pretty much. The Italian mills produce for us, and we’re still getting all the fabrics there. We’re coping with it,” she said.
Henry Holland said, on a production level, he’s been stung by the weaker pound due to the timing of orders and payments and added that he’s concerned the U.K. will face month after month of uncertainty as it negotiates its way out of the union.
“In business, nobody is good with uncertainty and the wholesale market is driven by fear. Wholesalers, department stores, buyers — they’re always nervous — and anything to encourage their neuroses is not good for business,” he said.
Holland remains at least partly optimistic. “The global market is so wide-open now with e-commerce, that it’s just about finding new room to market. I think everyone is in a period of adaptation and evolving and Brexit has only served to speed that up.”
Christopher Raeburn said that while he was disappointed by the referendum’s result, “as always you look at everything and work out where the opportunities are. I think for us, as a business, there’s a real agility.”