Brexit's Impact on Fashion: Caroline Rush Pens Open Letter To Boris Johnson

by Hetty Mahlich on 8 January 2021

The British Fashion Council's CEO has called on the government to recognise the importance of the fashion industry to the U.K economy, and to start listening to what we need to survive post-Brexit.

The British Fashion Council's CEO has called on the government to recognise the importance of the fashion industry to the U.K economy, and to start listening to what we need to survive post-Brexit.

In 2016, the results came in: the U.K would be leaving the EU. Four years later and we've left with a deal by the skin of our teeth. In 2019, the U.K fashion industry contributed £35 billion to U.K GDP (according to data collated by Oxford Economics and released by the British Fashion Council), more than the fishing, film, music and automotive industries combined. And yet, the sector has not been fairly considered throughout Brexit and trade negotiations. According to think tank Fashion Roundtable, who wrote the only fashion industry focused Brexit paper in 2018 (which you can read here), 96% of the fashion industry voted to remain in the EU. Now we've left, the transition period is over, and the reality of what Brexit really means for fashion is starting to crystallise. In response, Caroline Rush (CEO The British Fashion Council) has penned an open letter to the U.K government and Boris Johnson.

Leaving the EU and the single market threatens the international nature of fashion. To travel or work in the Schengen Area, you may need a visa or work permit if your activities are not covered by the member state's visa-waiver or if you're planning on staying longer than 90 days in the space of 180. U.K nationals are able to travel visa-free to the area for short-term visits for tourism and business meetings, conferences, training, cultural events and short-term studies. However the lack of a pan-EU visa still leaves things murky as to how easily those working in the fashion sector can move from one place to another. Think about fashion week (trade show classified) for instance, during which you might want to go from London, to Milan then Paris. Well now you may need paper work for the basis of your visit to each individual member state. Access to creative talent is also threatened under the new guidelines. Don't think you'll be able be accepting any more of those 24 hour notice job calls, or calling in models and photographers from abroad last minute either (the majority of jobs in our sector work on this basis, and freelancers in particular rely on it).

'Creatives and brands will have to decide whether staying in the U.K (especially as we are all in lockdown mode, where the potential excitement of living in any city is somewhat abated) is worth it compared to...if you live, or headquarter your business inside the EU. This is not down to a lack of knowledge of what the sector needs. It is either political will, or a massive oversight, and I hope that a visa which meets market needs above policy agendas is forthcoming very soon' Tamara Cincik recently wrote.

Fashion Roundtable
Caroline Rush

The point based system for skilled workers, and new citizenship fees for internationals together with the U.K government's push towards STEM education leave our domicile talent vulnerable. Although there are no tariffs or quotas on most goods, U.K businesses will have to certify the origin of their exports to qualify for tariff-free access to the EU, with limits placed on what proportions of goods can be assembled from parts made overseas in order to quality. It really gets you thinking about all the different parts that go into a piece of clothing, and where they come from. Think about this: you're a brand who produce very basic, simple button up jackets. Because you get your buttons from a country in the EU (we don't have the best button production here in the U.K), now you might need to pay tax on those buttons, meaning you're paying a whole lot more on production, just because of those all important buttons!

The disregard for the fashion sector can be seen plain and simple in recent months. Creatives including filmmakers and production staff are listed as critical workers but only when working within film. For fashion, the same rule doesn't seem to apply.

Caroline Rush's letter to Boris Johnson couldn't be more prescient. Read the contents below, taken from GQ where it was first released. For more information on how Brexit might affect your business, read the British Fashion Council's Brexit rules here, visit Fashion Roundtable's updates, and explore FR's SHOWstudio takeover from 2020 which covered all of the key issues facing fashion today.

Dear Prime Minister,

It is 31 December 2020, the day before the United Kingdom will leave the European Union. This is a day we have talked about for months and months.

I’m writing to you both in my role as the CEO of the British Fashion Council and as a proud citizen, who is equally proud of the industry of which I am custodian. 

To give you context, the fashion industry has been preparing for a No Deal Brexit for the past three years. We hadn’t planned for anything else due to the fact that there seems to have been zero traction in discussions on the key challenges concerning the fashion industry, namely free and easy movement of goods and samples, protection of intellectual property and access to talent, both to universities with lower EU fee banding and for talent – from seamstresses to multilingual retail executives – into businesses.  

While we are pleased that goods can move tariff free and, of course, will get to grips with the significant paperwork that allows that to take place, we remain concerned about the cost and impact of Brexit on the fashion industry.

We still urgently need a solution to the issue of unregistered design rights that aren’t addressed in this deal, rights that are key for both British and EU fashion businesses to effectively trade in both markets. The EU has timetabled a review of simultaneous disclosure and I encourage the UK to do the same, as a reciprocal agreement on this is essential.

We are deeply concerned about visas and how these will affect access to skilled workers, creative talent and models, all essential to retain the UK’s position as a leading fashion nation and London as global creative capital.

There have been multiple seminars, briefings, roundtables and webinars to ensure businesses are as prepared as they can possibly be. And as we go into January we will continue to deliver these for our designers, with updated information already available at

As we head into what looks like a prolonged period of fashion retailers being closed, we ask you again to reconsider your position on tax-free shopping. As an industry, we have provided multiple points of evidence why removing tax-free shopping will have a detrimental effect on businesses operating in the UK and on further investment and capital expenditure in this country. We keep hearing that you are listening, but we aren’t seeing much evidence of having been listened to.

As I have stated, I am very proud of the country we live in and the fashion industry – which in 2019 contributed £35 billion to the UK economy and employed 890,000 people. I very much want the UK to continue to be the best place to do business. However, with the aforementioned challenges in mind, we need the government to work with us to put in place measures to ensure that this remains the case. I am usually a “glass half full” person, so despite these challenges I have great faith in our resilient entrepreneurial fashion businesses and urge you to work with us to find and secure global opportunities for these businesses going forward.

For example, the numerous trade deals that are now being done in readiness for a post-Brexit world need to create a strong and robust global intellectual property framework that makes the UK a true competitor. Designers need to feel secure that their creativity is properly protected and nurtured on the world stage. There needs to be confidence that the UK has a broad vision for the future – not consumed by the detail of negotiation – and that the bigger picture of what you as a key advocate for Brexit promised is possible.

We need to make sure the UK is attracting global tourism, global investment and that our own home-grown businesses from all over the UK are supported in exporting products, services and cultural programmes.

As 2020 comes to an end, and it has been a long, hard slog of a year, I believe more strongly than ever that the British fashion industry is one we should be proud of. The vast majority of brands have hustled to remodel their businesses to save jobs. Indeed, many have even used their limited resources to source, create and distribute PPE. It has been an almighty effort that the whole of the UK should have great pride in. 

Our own London Fashion Week was the first of the four global fashion weeks to go digital. The Fashion Awards – in which you had your own cameo – also went digital and took a look at this year through the eyes of fashion. We also celebrated global leaders of change who have raised the bar of how to do things differently, leaders in innovation, sustainable practices and collaboration.

I ask that your government starts listening to and working hand in hand with the fashion industry – an industry that straddles big businesses and creativity, that reaches all ages, genders, races and countries and will have to change significantly as we address our impact on the environment, people and communities. If as one country of four nations we are to truly blaze a trail for our businesses globally, the fashion industry needs to be front and centre, for both its soft power to win hearts and its business welly to create global partnerships and prosperity in the UK.

Caroline Rush, CEO, British Fashion Council



Brexit: The Impact on the Fashion Industry

22 May 2017
Concerned for the fashion industry, SHOWstudio questions the vote for the United Kingdom to leave the political and economic union of 28 member states, as well as providing a space for debate and discussion.
Image Gallery

Day 1: Is Policy Important For Fashion

01 December 2020
The first day of 'From Front Row To Front Bench' asks if policy is important for fashion.
Image Gallery

Day 3: Brexit and the Fashion Industry

03 December 2020
For the third day of Fashion Roundtable's takeover, guests share their thoughts on Brexit and its impact on the fashion industry.
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