The points-based migration system risks killing the UK fashion industry

By cutting off access to young EU workers, the government is severing a lifeline for British fashion.

by Mahoro Seward
10 March 2020, 8:00am

Over the last month, countless buses, planes and high-speed trains have shuttled fashion professionals -- from editors to stylists and salespeople -- around the European continent, all to keep a global industry ticking along. Though IRL fashion weeks have come under increased scrutiny for the footprint they leave, they’re living proof of the industry’s international status, and the extent to which free movement across borders is imperative to its smooth running.

This spirit of borderless camaraderie is not, however, felt quite as strongly by the governments that rule in the cities that fashion calls home -- London being a case in point. As a consequence of Westminster’s rediscovered vigour to #getbrexitdone, our great British government has announced its plans to ‘streamline’ the process for those looking to come to the UK to work. As had been feared, the knock-on effects are particularly grave for those that were previously able to do so under the remit of the EU’s freedom of movement policy.

On 1 January 2021, a points-based system is set to come into effect, in line with which all visa applicants will be assessed against the same criteria, regardless of their nationality. So far, so fair, many would argue.

A glance at just how points are allocated, however, and it quickly becomes apparent that the scheme has been devised with a distinct prejudice towards certain sectors in mind. With 70 as the minimum tally required to apply, points are awarded for having a job offer (20 points) at “an appropriate skill level” (20 points) ahead of your arrival, speaking English (10 points) and earning above £25,670 a year (20 points). Should you be in the mood for a dreary read, you can find the full breakdown here.

For anyone that’s ever worked in a sector that isn’t finance, you’ll know how unrealistic a standard this is, particularly at entry level. Despite the fact that it contributes an estimated £26 billion to the UK economy, fashion is one of the industries particularly threatened by the proposed system. Workplaces offering a starting salary above the stipulated figure are next to non-existent, and there’s also the fact that fashion relies heavily on the presence of a dynamic freelance workforce. For the many EU-citizen photographers, stylists, writers, independent designers and technical professionals that might have been considering a move to the British capital, the stated requirement for a job offer at “an appropriate skill level” is likely to have caused them to reconsider. All in all, the imminent policy paints a pretty bleak picture for tomorrow’s British fashion industry, effectively refusing entry to a significant portion of the labour market on which it will rely.

“At the beginning, it looked pretty rough. I pretty much had random work here and there while I was still establishing myself, and definitely wasn’t earning above the £25k mark,” explains Victoria Pietrasik, a London-based freelance pattern cutter and Polish citizen. Moving here from Berlin a year-and-a-half ago for the comparative proliferation of opportunities, she now counts some of London’s most commercially successful young talents like Mowalola and Chopova Lowena among her returning clients. Though her independent practice now enjoys success, she’s one of the countless EU-citizens that would have been barred from making their vital contributions to London’s young fashion economy had this draconian policy been in place when they arrived. “You have to be here in London to get yourself set up. In fashion, people want to work with people who are already based here,” she continues. “A year and a half ago, I definitely wouldn't have been able to apply for a visa. It’s only now, having had the chance to move here and prove my skillset, that I’d be in a position to apply. It would've been their loss!"

"London is so DIY, and it’s the 'lost' young people that come here, not quite knowing what they want to do, that give it life. They create something new and unconventional: something that you won't see anywhere else.” -- Karl Felix, German citizen based in London

Rather than a vaunting of her own triumphs, Victoria’s story is a testament to the fact that it takes a village to pull a collection together. While we’re often inclined to focus on designers, it’s very rare that they operate as one-man bands, capable of producing showroom-ready samples at the drop of a hat. "So many of the amazing seamstresses that are hired by large and smaller brands are from outside of the UK,” says Fabian Kis-Juhasz, a young London-based designer, citing her native Hungary as a case in point. “There are so many Hungarian seamstresses and technical people working in the industry. If the UK were to bar entry to them, it would be detrimental.”

The seasonal, freelance nature of such work aside, the paths that the careers of many skilled tradespeople take are often informal -- learned on the job, for example. Future technical workers that lack formal accreditation of their skills are therefore likely to fall afoul of the government’s blanket ban on visas for what it describes as “low-skilled” workers, a category it has been willfully vague in outlining. “We will not introduce a general low-skilled or temporary work route,” the official report reads. “We need to shift the focus of our economy away from a reliance on cheap labour from Europe and instead concentrate on investment in technology and automation. Employers will need to adjust.”

“Fashion, especially in London, is an industry built on a foundation of work and practical skills that aren’t considered ‘skilled’ in line with visa criteria,” responds Natassa Stamouli, the director of 1 Granary Showroom, and a Greek citizen. “Most of the people that support this industry aren't eligible for the Exceptional Talent Visa, for example,” she says, referring to the pathway that allows a strictly limited number of (predominantly) designers, stylists and photographers from outside the EU to temporarily settle in the UK. “It's an industry that relies heavily on an accessible workforce and their labour, which is something that we tend to ignore a lot. What they bring to the table is still talent -- it’s just not the sort the government would be willing to recognise in a visa interview.”

A corner of the sector that risks being particularly hard hit is image-making -- an area in which London has a proud history of incubating stylists and photographers that have gone on to lead the field. With careers that often germinate from casual assisting jobs commonplace, Europeans looking to pursue a similar path are likely to face insurmountable barriers in their attempts to build their names in one of the global capitals of fashion image-making.

"It'll disrupt young people's dreams so much that they have to completely reconstruct them." Natassa Stamouli, Greek citizen based in London

“Objectively, I think the points system is fair in so far as that it's going to be the same process for everyone, regardless of where they come from,” says Karl Felix, a photographer and brand director originally from Germany. "But it will kill the freedom that young people have to discover without having to immediately commit, which is so important in our industry. The truth is that in fashion, at the start, many people aren't exactly sure of what they want to do,” he continues, stressing that it’s exactly this sense of freedom to explore that draws the young creatives that give the city its identity in the first place. "London is so DIY, and it’s the 'lost' young people that come here, not quite knowing what they want to do, that give it life. They create something new and unconventional: something that you won't see anywhere else.”

One thing that will inevitably continue to stoke the city’s creative scene is its well-subscribed educational system, given that the proposed system has little direct impact on those coming to the UK to study. Even before Brexit was but a whisper, London’s popularity with students from beyond the EU-bloc was common knowledge. All the same, it’s worth noting that EU students make up a significant proportion of the international attendees at London’s leading schools. With the increasing likelihood of heightened fees for EU students -- who currently enjoy home fee status -- the demographics to which our schools are financially accessible are likely to substantially shrink. With increased provisions made for graduates from UK institutions to remain afterwards, Karl argues that access to London’s fashion industry “risks being limited to financially privileged students at the art schools, as many Europeans aren't going to be able to pay the potentially elevated tuition fees.” Such a situation, he continues, would actively discriminate against those in the industry that didn’t pursue higher education. “There are so many people in the industry, especially here in London, who don't have a degree, but managed to make it. And many of those people are here because of freedom of movement. That's why I came here in the first place,” he says.

“Britain has always been quite elitist and classist, and I think that the proposed policy will only help to perpetuate that,” concurs Jorinde Croese, the associate editor of System Magazine. “It's a shame, because people have historically looked to London for its sense of creativity, energy and opportunity." Upon her arrival in London from The Netherlands in 2012, her initial plans to formally study fashion journalism swiftly altered, and she then took agency-based temp work in high-end fashion stores around the city -- a job likely to be ineligible for EU candidates under the new system. While the path Jorinde took to her current position may not have started in a place that would have allowed her to apply for a visa under the new system, her trajectory is one that’ll be familiar to many.

"If I were moving to London now, I... I just wouldn't, to be honest, in light of this ruling.” -- Ottilie Landmark, Danish citizen based in London

It’s precisely this freedom for the EU citizens in the UK to grow at a self-determined pace that she fears will be halted. "People won't really have the choice to grow creatively -- it's just going to close off the industry,’ she says, drawing links between this latest government posture and a deeply ingrained, particularly British sense of bureaucratic conformity that affects day-to-day life in the UK. "There are so many stylists and writers, for example, that have such a flexible way of living. I think that British bureaucracy has always had flaws with failing to recognise that not everyone works in accordance with a set way of thinking. Just look at things like Universal Credit [the UK’s recently reformed social welfare system] -- it's just very rigid. It demonstrates a lack of understanding that people can lead different lives,” she says.

“You're asking people to give up their vocational freedom,” says Ottilie Landmark, a freelance photographer from Denmark, based in London for the past three years. Going beyond the obvious complaints regarding the policy’s effects on personal labour preferences, she stresses that UK companies will ultimately bear the brunt of its impact. “Most companies in the creative industries work with freelancers, as they want to have control over how and when they hire people. I'm really interested to see how companies will adapt to not having as wide a pool of freelance talent available to them. If I were moving to London now, I... I just wouldn't, to be honest, in light of this ruling.”

It’s a sentiment that Natassa echoes, extending the argument to those who might wish to take on full-time staff, too. “Independent publications, for example, aren't just going to be able to magic money out of the blue to hire people at £25k,” she says. “It'll disrupt young people's dreams so much that they have to completely reconstruct them,” she continues, ultimately inhibiting their ability to consider the UK as an option in the first place.

There is, some might say, a silver lining. Not for those marooned here, of course, but for those on the continent. As with many other business sectors across Europe, the forced career reassessment that this shortsighted governmental decision will trigger among many of Europe’s youth could boost the development of scenes on the continent beyond the industry’s traditional centres -- even if that flourishing comes at the UK’s cost. “It's a bit old fashioned to think that big dreams in fashion should only exist in big capitals,” says Natassa. “It doesn't make sense anymore, it's just not relevant.” Well, given how keen the government seems to slam the door shut on British fashion’s future, here’s hoping that many more will open in its wake.

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