This morning, the world woke up to the news that the UK had voted to leave the European Union. It’s a historic, unprecedented decision, and the long-term results are currently the subject of much debate. But here are the facts so far. Following the announcement of the referendum results, David Cameron, who has served as Prime Minister for the past six years, and was a leader of the “remain” campaign, announced his resignation. The global markets went haywire. The pound lost eight percent of its value, plunging to a 30-year low. And a search for “What is the EU?” became one of Britain’s most Googled questions. (Apparently, the US isn’t the only country filled with ill-informed voters motivated by sensationalized media reports.)
Perhaps, without the EU, the UK will rise to become a great economic and political superpower. Perhaps its choice to Brexit will cause the implosion of the UK, the EU, and the global economy. There are plenty of great articles written by political and economic analysts out there discussing these topics, and I’d encourage you to read them. But what I want to discuss here is what this means for the fashion industry, and more specifically, how this vote impacts London’s emerging designers and vast student population. After all, with Central Saint Martins, the London College of Fashion, and the Royal College of Art all located in London, the city is largely regarded as the fashion education capital of the world.
After the vote, Professor Jeremy Till, the head of Central Saint Martins, sent out an email to the school’s staff, which began as follows: “I am writing this note in the street, looking at the list of names of students from the brilliant MA Material Futures cohort. From a rough guess, well over 50% of them are European, and it breaks my heart that what happened today may restrict such a diverse and wonderful intake in the future, on this and all courses in CSM.”
I attended London’s Central Saint Martins for my master’s degree, and was lucky enough to be there with a number of designers who have gone on to achieve incredible success in the UK and globally. Many of the talents I studied with were European—not British—and have either built their careers and livelihoods in the UK, or credit the school with helping them find placement at major European fashion houses. Had the UK not been a member of the EU, many of the brilliant, determined individuals I encountered at CSM would not have been able to attend, due to the fees international students at British colleges and universities are charged.
“It’s a sad day today for me as a French and a European,” noted Coline Bach, one of my former classmates who has set up shop in London and gone on to build an editorial styling career, and work with stars like Years and Years, Kiesza, and Zebra Katz. “Everyone is unclear about what exactly is going to happen to us Europeans living in London, but I’m considering applying for British citizenship, seeing as I have been living here for over five years,” she said. “At the same time, it poses a big dilemma: Do I really want to apply to be a citizen of a country that does not want me here?” (It’s worth noting that Boris Johnson, the leader of the Brexit movement, insisted this morning that the UK was not “turning its back” on Europe, even though that’s pretty much exactly what just happened.) She went on to assert that this uncertainty was made worse by the fact that she is self-employed.
But it’s not just Europeans in the UK who are concerned about what the Brexit means for their future. Levi Palmer and Matthew Harding, the couple behind emerging label Palmer//Harding, relayed that they “woke up feeling sick this morning.” Palmer, who is American, and Harding, who is British, are based in London, and said that their business relies heavily on Europe. “It’s scary to think how this will affect us,” Palmer said. “These effects include possibly having to increase prices due to new import taxes, and the concern of staffing, specifically with sewing technicians. From our experience, the majority of the best ones are from Eastern Europe. Also, the drop in the value of the pound [is problematic]. While this is good for selling to the USA and other countries such as Japan, it’s not so great when purchasing from suppliers abroad and will increase the cost of goods or eat into our margins.” The designer also said that he feels the Brexit is a step backwards. “The Brexit campaign built its argument on fear mongering of immigration, not on facts from global leaders on the subject. I think the fact that the UK has left is of course sad for our economy, but even more sad for the image of our citizens as it brings to surface a deep-rooted fear of integration bordering on racism.”
Numerous big-name London-based designers, including Mary Katrantzou, Henry Holland, Sibling’s Sid Bryan and Cozette McCreery (who wore t-shirts emblazoned with “IN” during their finale bow at LC:M), Burberry’s Christopher Bailey, Christopher Kane (who told the New York Times that, if the UK voted Brexit, “The fashion industry is not going to know what hit it. It’s quite scary.”), and more have expressed their desire to remain in the EU, either on social media, via petitions, or in the press. There was a great deal of mourning in my personal newsfeeds today, which isn’t surprising, considering that, according to a poll taken by the British Fashion Council, the majority of the UK’s fashion set felt it was essential to remain in the EU.
No one knows what the Brexit, which won’t fully take effect for two years (there’s a lot to sort out here), is going to mean for fashion, the UK, or the world. I won’t attempt to make some kind of grandiose statement here. But there was a beacon of hope in that aforementioned email from Central Saint Martins’ Professor Till. “As Head of Central Saint Martins, however, I wanted to say that I and the senior management team will be vocal in our support of our EU students and staff. I think it is very hard to argue against the cultural and educational benefits of exchange and collaboration within Europe and beyond. We will therefore be making the strong case for…unfettered entrance for European students to the UK, and for the continued engagement of UK universities in European research and teaching networks.” What’s more? The school will commit to “holding tuition fees at the same level as is paid by UK students,” for those European students who are set to begin studying at CSM in the 2016/2017 academic year. It’s a small consolation. But it’s a start.