How Brexit changed British fashion

4 Mins read

In the past, Cool Britannia ruled, but Brexit has made Generation Z cynical towards the British fashion industry.

British pop culture has made its way across the pond many times in history. In the 60s, Swinging London shot The Beatles into stardom, and in the 90s, Britpop and The Spice Girls dominated the charts, creating the Cool Britannia trend.

This extended to fashion too, with Mary Quant’s mini skirts leading Mod style. Later, supermodels Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell dominated runways. These moments created patriotism, making people proud of British cultural exports.

However, this sentiment does not seem to be present with younger generations today. Living through Brexit has meant the more politically-aware Generation Z is cynical towards Britain and its culture.

Supermodels Cara Delevingne and Kate Moss taking a photo
British supermodels from different eras, Kate Moss and Cara Delevingne. [Flickr: Walterlan Mendanha]

In 2012, the London Olympics put Britain on the world stage once again. The opening ceremony, which was a performance of different eras and notable moments in British history, contributed to patriotism as the British public were reminded of reasons to be proud of their country’s history.

Union Jack prints were trendy to wear on T-shirts and leggings, and in online spaces British celebrities became fashion icons. Harry Styles, Suki Waterhouse and perhaps most notably Alexa Chung led trends during this time.

TV presenter Alexa Chung’s ‘twee’ style, consisting of polka dots, knee high socks and brogues, was everywhere, also introducing Glastonbury festival as the UK’s answer to Coachella fashion.

Hypebae reported on Chung’s relationship with British designers: “she was also a massive fan of Christopher Kane, back when his galaxy-printed dresses were all over Tumblr. In 2010, Alexa followed in the footsteps of Jane Birkin, playing muse to Mulberry and earning herself a namesake It bag.”

Legacy brand Burberry saw a boost in popularity in this decade too. British supermodels Cara Delevingne, Kate Moss and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley starred in campaigns, and the brand’s embrace of social media such as livestreams and Instagram put them ahead of other fashion brands at the time.

London as a fashion capital was exciting and multicultural. It was more edgy than New York’s fashion week, and younger and fresher than the traditions of Paris or Milan. Designers Alexander McQueen and Simone Rocha, graduates of Central Saint Martins, proved Britain’s fashion education as some of the strongest in the world.

However, the Brexit referendum threatened London’s multiculturalism and the fashion industry. Optimism about British culture and exports began to fade in 2016 as right-wing politicians supported stricter immigration laws and a departure from the EU.

a tweet saying "The fashion industry In London is drying up, blame Brexit, inflation etc etc. time to go back to NYC I think"
The fashion industry has been affected by Brexit [X: @jonomxr]

Generation Z, without being able to participate in the referendum, is now having to live with the consequences. The Best for Britain campaign group polled 18-24 year olds on the topic, finding that 58% of them wanted a closer relationship with the EU. Much older generations were the main demographic voting to leave the EU, making Generation Z unhappy with how Brexit has affected their adult lives.

This extends to fashion students studying in London right now. As costs rise to export goods from the UK, the fashion industry’s sales have taken a hit. Undergraduate fashion students are worried about where that leaves them in a city that used to be known for up and coming talent, which is now incredibly expensive.

“I’m not really sure where I’ll end up after uni. It’s so expensive to live here so I’m just enjoying being here while I can. I’d probably have to do an internship to get experience and they don’t pay very well. It’s so competitive as well, so many students here who want the same internships and jobs as you,” says Anna, a London fashion design student.

“I think there was a period where the fashion industry didn’t really know what was going to happen after Brexit because international shipping became really expensive and people weren’t buying from the UK anymore.”

Anna might not be able to start her own brand because of the costs. “I would like to have my own brand, but it costs a lot to do. I think instead I’ll try and work for an existing brand and maybe in the future I’ll be able to do my own thing.”

Anna continued: “I think it’s definitely harder now. The cost of living has risen so much and I think that’s partly because of Brexit. Loads of people move to London to go to uni here, so there’s so much competition. I guess it probably was easier when London wasn’t quite so popular for fashion students.”

EU flags and a "tories out" sign being flown in London.
Young people are pro-EU [Flickr: Stephen Darlington]

It is no wonder the Union Jack print has fallen out of fashion — the Conservative party’s austerity measures have disillusioned people. Generation Z are less likely to be able to afford luxuries than older generations with more disposable income. With costs rising, contempt for luxury brands has risen even further.

For example, Burberry held a pop-up store in Norman’s Cafe in September 2023, a high-end greasy spoon. The cafe is modelled on small, family-run caffs found in London which often serve the working class as the meals are usually affordable.

However, Norman’s Cafe’s prices are much more expensive than normal caffs — an English breakfast costs £25. X user @140bpmahns says: “why is the luxury world trying to appropriate working class food in its brand campaigns?” Particularly as Burberry has a history of disdain for ‘chavs’ wearing their iconic plaid print, the campaign seemed tone deaf.

Chanel has also been accused of appropriating working class culture. The brand’s most recent fashion show was held in Manchester, unheard of for most fashion shows, let alone a Parisian luxury brand. While some residents were excited that the brand was bringing recognition to the city in a montage of Mancunian cultural references, others felt it was insensitive.

X user @glamgroupie_ commented: “a homeless man was found dead in a doorway in Manchester city centre today, in a few days Chanel will hold their show here which will be attended by celebrities/millionaires, that will no doubt mean a ‘clean up’ in the area. How many more people need to die to ignite a change.”

It is still unclear exactly how Generation Z’s adult lives will be affected by Brexit. Perhaps the cost of living will continue to rise, causing fewer international students to study in London. This may mean less competition for domestic students, but it could spell the decline of London’s dominance in fashion.

If brands continue to appropriate working class culture, once-loved fashion houses may not be able to draw in younger customers. With less money and less loyalty to the UK, Generation Z might force the British fashion industry to change drastically to appease them.

Featured image by Andy D’Agorne on Flickr.

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