what's the future for london-based designers working in a globalized fashion industry?
Get off the internet and travel, explore the world and speak to people; in an increasingly global fashion world, young designers need to expand their horizons.
Discussion around the UK's relationship with Europe seems to have reached a crescendo in the past year, but little attention has been given to the impact that policy decisions could have on creativity. As we inch closer to an election that will be fought on (largely irrelevant) immigration debates, its time for those working in art, music and fashion to speak up about the importance they place on feeling a part of the international community.
While the Conservative Party hasn't actually proposed plans to leave the EU, they have said they'll embark on a series of hard negotiations for what they see as more favorable membership terms for the UK. They are also pushing for an in-out referendum on EU membership before 2017. They boast that Britain has already absolved itself of Eurozone bailout obligations and tightened migrants' access to benefits. What they fail to mention however, is that by continuing to restrict the free movement of people to the UK, they are playing a dangerous game with UK citizens' own rights to travel to and within the continent. When your career depends on regular meetings in Paris, Milan and other major European cities, this could pose something of a problem.
Not to mention that leaving the EU would have a huge impact on the diversity of university student bodies and UK students' own access to Erasmus schemes, for instance. Dr. Djurdja Bartlett, a research fellow and specialist in European fashion from the London College of Fashion, made clear to me that leaving the EU would be catastrophic for UK students and recent graduates.
"It would only reduce our international academic impact and damage our income, which heavily depends on international students and bring more legislation and administration barriers to hosting international students," she explains. "As Director of Studies for a couple of international PhD students, I can say that non-EU students are already treated quite unfairly by the current visa system. If such a stringent system suddenly applied to all international students it would certainly undermine this country's global reputation and competiveness."
For others, the debate surrounding the EU is less urgent than the necessity for students to begin focussing their attention further afield.
Bill Webb, a senior lecturer in retail management also at the London College of Fashion, argues that UK designers especially should avoid engaging preferentially with "the most traditional and slowest growing" part of the world. Instead he advocates looking to the global community beyond.
"In general I'd advise young designers to group together to spread cost and add impact," He says. "Look beyond the EU to other interesting markets such as Brazil, Colombia and Argentina, which are culturally grounded and fast growing."
There's been a lot of hype around the rise of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) states and the opportunities they present to young businesses. With so many emerging powers and growing economies, artists and designers from the UK and the West more broadly, need to listen up and improve their business know-how in these regions if they are going to survive; and not just survive, but thrive. It's never been more important to engage with audiences in China, India, Brazil and Africa, not just on an economic level, but culturally speaking too.
Resistance to the US-European hegemony is happening throughout global politics and economics and its time for designers and artists to follow suit. That's not to say that we should ignore our heritage or national identity, but understand its waning supremacy as we hurtle towards the mid-Twenty First century.
"Take a leaf out of Paul Smith's book," Webb continues. "He has visited markets for himself since starting out, especially Japan, so that he could "feel" the temperature. Many developing countries offer opportunities for foreign brands to enter via on-line portals, boutiques in hotels, airports and concessions in department stores. In some countries, for instance Indonesia, you still need a partner for local knowledge."
The internet isn't enough. Neither is learning about the global market through the very limited view given by European and New York fashion weeks, Western art galleries and films. That's not to say you have to spend thousands of pounds traveling the world, but make friends with foreign students on your course and explore the overlooked territories of Eastern Europe too, including the Baltics, Austria and Hungary.
"Limit the digital stuff!" He adds. "Talk to customers and professionals locally and remember to always to produce something that is relevant but different. Get you brand known for something focused - the Burberry Trench, the Hermes Scarf, the Hunter Boot, for instance. Be streetwise and have a lawyer and accountant check your strategy. Secure your supply chain - "it is better to under promise and over deliver" - customers are unforgiving if you let them down. Walk the streets and observe everything critically. Make sure someone is taking care of the Home Market while you give this your full attention."
A casual scroll through Tumblr is no substitute for travel, research and time spent talking to people from outside of the London/New York/Paris/LA bubble. Economies are moving in this way and you should too. Use the Internet as a tool for discussion, not as a window via which to passively consume pixelated data about the outside world. Try always to understand how your immediate surroundings relate to a global context. London is becoming an increasingly hostile environment to young artists, designers and musicians. Understanding why will be crucial to their survival.
Text Nathalie Olah