Photography Mitchell Sams

how tight borders affect fashion

With Brexit looming and the opportunity for students to forge careers in London after graduating even less feasible, we look at the implications on the fashion industry of stricter borders.

by Alysha Lee
15 October 2018, 9:17am

Photography Mitchell Sams

Is a fashion degree worth the money in 2018? As a new wave of students enroll and apply to colleges, i-D and 1 Granary take a closer look at fashion education and beyond, to better understand how to make it in one of the toughest industries to crack.

Mid-last month, Riccardo Tisci presented his highly anticipated debut collection for Burberry. Amidst Tisci’s vision of the cornerstones of British heritage and culture, one reference in particular stood out: the replica of British passports hanging from the models’ necks. To some, a birth right; to others, the gateway to a better life, or a hot commodity. Tisci’s inclusion of this small but significant detail is an unambiguous reminder of the country’s present political turmoil, and within the context of the runway show, highlights fashion’s relationship with citizenship and borders.

Up until Brexit, fashion — and the creative industry in general — has scarcely had to address the impact of borders on the industry's diverse outputs. Within Europe especially, and since the formation of the European Union, fashion houses have enjoyed a mutual exchange of its citizens. And when they were not freely traversing each other’s borders, the appropriation of styles and symbols from cultures beyond the continent generated the impression of a cosmopolitan microcosm. As Alexander Fury’s AnOther review of the Burberry show notes: “There are no border controls in fashion, after all.”

Yet for many, including myself, that certainly isn’t the case. Growing up with the internet, having access to a world of imagery opened up new ideas for possibilities, dreams and a life that would transcend borders and boundaries. Despite being physically worlds apart from the media consumed, its presence before me made it tangible as a reality. Dominant fashion imagery always has and continues to emerge out of four major cities — London, Paris, New York, and Milan. Here, designers of all backgrounds and ages unfold their narratives in an aspiration for recognition. Beyond the contentious mechanisms of the industry, fashion is often perceived as a utopia where freedom of expression, nonconformity, and non-dominant narratives are embraced. And indeed it is, to some extent. To those who live or subscribe to such values, reaching this place of yearning remains life’s objective; and for many, education represents not only an opportunity to migrate, live abroad and experience personal growth but a stepping stone towards professional success.

"Close to the expiration of my Tier 4 Visa, a series of potential work opportunities began falling through due to my ineligibility to work in the UK."

London’s existing diversity and creative landscape — no matter its insufficiencies or how much it may currently be under threat — makes it an unquestionable choice for anyone with high hopes and ambitions, especially within the arts. The capital city’s relatively liberal creative industry and considerable support (if not top-down, then bottom-up) for young creatives add to its appeal. Yet, finally living the image one aspires to for so long can involve moments of desolation. Beyond a surface of fantasy and play lies disappointment, exasperation and a sense of humiliation. These grim sentiments occur as an anticlimax to a painfully naive impression of the world as a free and open place.

One of the first instances of confronting my own naivety was the moment it occurred to me that, as a non-EU citizen, remaining in the UK beyond my years as an international student wouldn’t be as straightforward as I had hoped or imagined. This reality turned more concrete during the tail end of a prolonged moment of diminishing hope, where close to the expiration of my Tier 4 Visa, a series of potential work opportunities began falling through due to my ineligibility to work in the UK. Despite being quick to accept my fate, what struck me in this scenario was an opportunity’s blatant dependence on rights and citizenship, rather than hard work and personal capability.

The fragmentation of this starry-eyed optimism is perhaps unsurprisingly commonplace amongst the young, as evidenced in Georgina Yi’s marvelous 2017 documentary China Heart. Filmed between the UK and China, the documentary encapsulates the ambivalence and despair faced by fashion design students from China who had hopes to remain, but were forced to leave due to “an ever-tightening immigration policy coupled with a saturated fashion industry”. Willie Walters, former program director of fashion at Central Saint Martins, shares her views on international students in the documentary, saying: “I think students, if they come from China or they come from Northern Ireland, they all are hopeful, they've got their eyes fixed on the stars and they all hope they will become the next Galliano. Obviously, life isn't like that.” As if students from Europe don’t share similar ambitions.

Would Riccardo Tisci be where he is today if he had enrolled at Central Saint Martins hoping to be just another designer? Would London be the place where he “got his push to get on with his life” and secure his current position if it weren’t for his right to do so freely? Tisci is certainly aware of this, and the passport charms at Burberry is his tongue-in-cheek critique of national borders, its isolationist views, and what it means for the future of creativity and cultural diplomacy.

"If corporate sponsorship or spare change of £2 million for a ‘golden’ visa are out of the question, that simply leaves you with accepting your fate and moving on."

Now, more than ever, it is clear that national borders and migration aren’t the best of friends. Borders are elusive, but they’re there, and their reality is especially hostile for those who are forced to confront them. A Guardian article earlier this year on UK visa caps state that while “the minimum salary for a job to qualify for a skilled work visa was normally £30,000, or £20,800 for a graduate recruit”, this amount had been raised to as much as £55,000 in December; and in January, “Tier-2 visa applications for jobs paying less than £46,000 a year were refused unless they were PhD-level roles or were for jobs on the official shortage occupation lists,” all of which makes the likelihood of sponsorship an absolute joke for anyone familiar with the industry’s proclivity for unpaid/underpaid labor.

These hurdles that non-EU citizens go through engender an extra layer of precariousness. What shall I do next? Having been here for so long, what’s there for me back ‘home’? Will I ever see my friends here again? With Brexit less than six months away, and a post-Brexit agreement on the free movement of people, services and capital as clear as mud, such hurdles might regrettably involve a larger pool of people, ultimately affecting the city’s rich and diverse landscape. On the other hand, expectations to stay can appear undeserving in light of issues such as the Windrush scandal, while a conversation on a “forced” return home may appear tone deaf when considered in relation to the 68.5 million people worldwide who have been forcibly displaced. But that’s another story.

For those who face the challenges of socioeconomic migration, there are no immediate solutions to defy the system. If corporate sponsorship or spare change of £2 million for a ‘golden’ visa are out of the question, that simply leaves you with accepting your fate and moving on. At this point, it’s worth noting the value of patience in terms of realizing one’s dreams and ambitions. While the urgent desire to develop a career has to do with the pressure mounted by student debt, it’s also led me to question if the cult of growth, speed and youth — especially within the fashion industry — is partly to blame for this latent anxiety about 'making it'. And who or what are the players we depend on to do so? The infrastructure and institutions readily available in Europe (and the US) makes it a seductive prospect for young and eager ‘creatives’; but can we be less reliant on presently hegemonic systems to make a case for success?

The more complex the world, its people and their identities become, the stronger the need for places and spaces to recognize and embrace such complexities. It’s not about having one or the other, but how multiple models are able to coexist concurrently. I dread to think of a future where people are forcibly sedentary and cultures are simplified. National borders may be a limit, but that doesn’t mean our efforts and ideas should abide by a wall, map, border, identity document, or legal regime. There are no border controls in ideas, after all.

This article originally appeared on i-D UK.

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