What will Brexit mean for the Irish fashion industry?
Hard or soft, deal or none, Britain's exit from the EU presents a major conundrum for the Irish fashion industry, and consumers face an impact too, writes our Fashion Editor
London Fashion Week is less than a month away but, with Brexit on a knife edge, many designers and small-time manufacturers showing on the fringes are conflicted about whether the bi-annual catwalk event will hold anything for them.
A slowdown in customer spending on the high street has triggered similar cautiousness in the rag trade. Luxury retailer Harrods says it is increasing its spring/summer stock in order to protect more exposed areas of its business ahead of the March 29 deadline. Its strategy was confirmed on the Business of Fashion website, which pointed out how the UK fashion sector fears disruptions to key imports and losing access to international talent if the UK fails to reach a deal to soften the country's exit from the European Union. (At the time of Weekend going to print, which Brexit option the UK would choose remained unclear.)
Meanwhile, this side of the Irish sea, designers, manufacturers and retailers are concentrating on dealing with new worries, such as getting their heads around what customs clearance means and the challenges around pricing, tariffs, sourcing production and fabrics that would come with a No Deal Brexit. And then there's the prospect of carnets coming back - those international customs and temporary export-import document fashion veterans remember with distaste.
It's one massive headache and for the fashion-loving consumer there's the annoying prospect of increased costs, potential shipping and customs delays to hit delivery times. For online shoppers, there's the added disappointment of an end to free delivery from some sites.
Eddie Shanahan is a highly experienced retail consultant and founder of the Council of Irish Fashion Designers (CIFD) which is made up of many one-person operations trying to survive the rigours of a tough retail landscape.
Last season Eddie led a group of Irish designers to show in London. Their enthusiasm was high and not even annoying flight delays on the day could dampen their spirits. After a hugely successful show in aid of the London Irish Centre in Camden, however, their optimism about how they can now tap into in that market is tinged, naturally, with concerns. Eddie says: "There are upsides and downsides to what might happen. For example, if there is a No Deal Brexit, it will probably impact severely on the value of sterling. That would be a disadvantage to Irish designers trying to sell into the UK because, in addition to the exchange rate, you would have to add tariffs, so that would make it very difficult for them to compete profitably.
"On the other hand, in that scenario with a weak sterling, it would be very difficult for UK manufacturers to buy fabric and to source production across Europe. They, too, would be paying over the odds for goods and services and when they in turn came to export, they would be paying tariffs on exports to the EU."
In short, a double blow for the consumer.
Designer Heidi Higgins (pictured arranging her rails before the CIFD London show) told me: "I am not sourcing fabrics or producing in the UK, so, for the main part, I am not affected as much as other colleagues in the business. At the moment, we are distributing to a small number of retailers in Northern Ireland so we will have to wait and see what happens there."
However, for Heidi and other brands many of us have hanging in our wardrobes, Brexit could hit deep on their direct sales. After being sensible and building up online relationships, while at the same time keeping a watchful eye on her bricks and mortar offer, Heidi says: "It's the sales with the consumer through our online store that will be our main challenge but I hope the existing agreements should remain in place between Ireland and the UK and a favourable exit will be reached soon."
Designer Niamh O'Neill (pictured above in purple with fellow designers Caroline Mitchell, Sarah Murphy and Sara O'Neill at the CIFD show) acknowledges that Brexit is creating uncertainty for small business. She says the big fear is tariffs which could push up prices, something savvy designers won't want to pass onto fashion consumers. But will they have a choice?
"Importation costs would increase with the introduction of tariffs. For example, whilst most of our fabrics come from Italy and France, we have our silks printed in UK. We have discussed the possible impacts of Brexit with our print company and we are both hopeful that we will continue to be able to work together in a post-Brexit scenario. However, we have had to look at other options for printing within the EU if it becomes necessary."
Niamh explains: "We send approx 15pc of our e-commerce orders to customers in the UK, it's a substantial part of our business. At the moment we offer free shipping to customers in Ireland and the UK. With shipping costs estimated to rise by 30pc post-Brexit, this rising cost will become difficult for a small business to absorb," she warns.
The prospect of increased costs on favourite British labels will immediately jump out at fashion customers. For those harbouring dreams of going into the industry, business uncertainty is enough to dampen dreams. For students already on the academic ladder, buying fabrics for end-of-year or graduate collection could be hit too. The modus operandi has been for many students to buy their fabrics through wholesalers in Britain.
"Many colleges would have brought them over and brought them to a wholesaler but that leg up now will be taken away," says Eddie, warning that extra tariffs would simply make it too expensive.
At the opening of the Showcase Irish Creative Expo in the RDS last Sunday, Heather Humphreys, Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, recommended that designers diversify as much as possible and to not have all their eggs in one basket, so to speak.
Diversification is something that the FeeG label from Dublin, run by husband and wife team Don Gormley and Fiona Heaney, has been successful with. They have grown their markets outside the UK which, Don says, was sluggish even before Brexit. They have got a foothold in Italy and in Jewish markets in Israel and, now, New York. Brexit will mean having to look at a whole different transport system and instead of going through Holyhead and the land bridge, they will instead use Irish ports.
When asked about her Brexit plans, Dublin designer Jennifer Rothwell (whose work is pictured below) reports that she is focusing on exporting to the Middle East, Dubai in particular.
Jennifer says: "Brexit should not massively affect my UK sales as my brand/market is high-end luxury and I am also planning some US pop-ups later in the year to continue my brand expansion in the US."
Luxury knitwear designer Ros Dukes (whose work features in our main photo) was one of the small operators whose work was very well received at Showcase, and she has already built up a loyal customer base in the US.
Knitwear designer Katie Hanlan, whose crochet dress (pictured below) is a star of the new Fí fashion movie commissioned by the Design & Crafts Council of Ireland, has already stepped beyond the European and US market and her work is collected by clients in Shanghai.
Last week, amid the chaos of Brexit, Michael Walsh, marketing director of Dubarry of Ireland in Ballinasloe, Co Galway, reported good news for the Irish fashion industry with a "double Irish" success. Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, appeared at her first engagement of 2019 wearing the Dubarry 'Bracken' tweed utility jacket, made in tweed from John Hanly & Co in Nenagh. There has been a notable uplift in Dubarry's website traffic this week, particularly from the US. The jacket sold out but should be available again in April. The company is very well placed in the current Brexit impasse because it already has business systems in place on both sides of the Irish sea.
"We already have our own operation in the UK so all of our websales we fulfil from our warehouse in the UK. We carry stock over there and we service our UK retailers from Ballinasloe. We do a lot of events in the UK and all of that stock is handled from the UK warehouse."
For sheer enterprise, Bernie Murphy deserves applause. She was made redundant after 21 years working with Fruit of the Loom in Co Donegal. Her skills were garment technologist and product development and she went back to college as a mature student. Two years ago she launched her own fashion label starting with a distinctive smocked scarf followed by striking tweed pieces for which she sources her fabrics and yarns in her own native county. It is a huge asset as Brexit looms, one that fellow designers must envy. Bernie's fashion tale is a positive one in an industry where so many designers have had their creative impulses cut to the quick by fear.
In Britain, the legendary designer Katharine Hamnett has done what she does best. She has produced a politically charged slogan T shirt. Two powerful words: Cancel Brexit.
If only they would.
Kate Middleton wearing Dubarry's 'Bracken' jacket in John Hanly & Co tweed from Co Tipperary which sold out on the Dubarry website, with particular interest from the US.