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London Fashion Week puts on brave face following Brexit




British fashion put a brave face on Brexit on Friday as it began its first catwalk shows since the vote, citing a surge in sales on the weak pound despite fears that leaving the EU will hit exports and increase costs.

"It might not have been what we wanted, but I think there's actually a sense of confidence," said British designer Anya Hindmarch, one of hundreds showing their wares at London Fashion Week.

Organisers are hoping that the five-day event, which includes catwalk shows by Burberry, J.W. Anderson and Topshop UNIQUE, will help alleviate Brexit blues in an industry that overwhelmingly wanted to stay in the EU. "We have to look at the positives. Over the past few months, our luxury and retail has seen a bounce in terms of sales in the UK," said Caroline Rush, chief executive of the British Fashion Council.

"We're very much open for business, we're known to be collaborators with the rest of the world and I think it's an opportunity for us to really demonstrate that over the next few days."

Retail sales in Britain have largely held up since the June referendum vote to leave the European Union, easing fears of an immediate loss of consumer confidence.

Analysts said this partly reflected falling prices, while the dramatic drop in the value of the pound has particularly boosted luxury items, which are now cheaper to tourists. But the weak currency will also make it more expensive to import goods from overseas, with high street giant Next among those warning of a rise in prices next year.

Hindmarch, who has stores around the world including in China, Japan and the United States, said she believed the overall impact would be "negligible". "Suddenly we're 10 percent cheaper to sell -- so we're going to be selling more," Hindmarch told AFP.

"We might be four percent more expensive to buy, who knows? It's all swings and roundabouts, it balances. I really don't think it's going to be mathematically a big problem."Rush added: "The industry and businesses really need to focus on their margin, really need to focus on their price and really think about that to protect themselves.

"Many of our businesses currency hedge in any case, and for those that "Many of our businesses currency hedge in any case, and for those that don't, it's made them think about it."

Nervous Italian suppliers

The potential loss of access to the European single market is a big concern, however, as the bloc accounts for about 70 percent of British textiles and apparel exports equal to 5.8 billion pounds , according to the UK Fashion and Textile Association.

"We are seeing strong retail sales and consumer spending at home, our brands continue to perform well in export markets and London is still home to the best talent in the global fashion industry," said Rush. "Retail sales suffered only a slight dip in August after a strong July, while analysts said the weaker pound since the referendum had boosted sales of luxury items by foreign tourists by making them cheaper."

"My biggest concern is my Italian suppliers, who are very nervous," added Hindmarch. "I make almost everything in Italy, so many people do here." There is also the risk that restricting immigration into Britain -- a major issue in the referendum campaign -- will deter the foreign talent that has helped turn London into a unique creative melting pot.

"Many of our young designers weren't necessary born in the UK, but they came here to study, they wanted to stay and build businesses and they're now employing hundreds if not thousands of people," said Rush.

Prime Minister Theresa May held a reception of key industry figures on the eve of Fashion Week, following the example of her predecessor's wife, Samantha Cameron, who attended Thursday's event at Downing Street.

May sought to reassure the fears of the industry while giving little away on her plans for Brexit. "From our home-grown start-ups to international fashion houses -- every business in the industry will play a major role in ensuring we make a success of Brexit," she said.

Rush said the sector has sent a clear message to the government about its concerns, but had also raised the potential opportunities. "There was a lot of talk about whether this is going to see a resurgence in manufacturing within the UK, how can we put investment into that," she said.

One size of fashion

Over the next five days, an array of up-and-coming designers, high-street names and luxury brands will seek to banish the Brexit blues with shows across the capital. T hey include Versus and Mm6, diffusion lines of international brands Versace and Maison Margiela, Kering-owned Christopher Kane, Paul Smith, Roksanda and Mulberry.

Burberry joins a growing list of designers including Gucci, Tom Ford and Vivienne Westwood by showing men and women's clothes together for the first time on Monday. Confirming another trend, Topshop's UNIQUE collection will be available to buy immediately, addressing customers' impatience at having to wait months before catwalk clothes hit the shops.

This represents a fundamental change in the way fashion is delivered -- and women's rights campaigners have also seized it as a chance to address a long-held issue with the industry. The Women's Equality Party has started a campaign on social media, #NoSizeFitsAll, to persuade London designers to offer larger sample sizes for all their collections to encourage the use of "more healthy-looking models.

"We aim with this campaign to bring an end at last to the idea that there is only one kind of body and one size of fashion for all," said Sophie Walker, the leader of the political party that was founded last year. They reject the suggestion that this is impractical, pointing to the trend towards "see-now buy-now" collections.

The clothes are already there -- they've just not being shown on the catwalk," spokeswoman Catherine Riley told AFP.

Photo: BFC - Prime Minister Theresa May, Natalie Massenet with BFC/Vogue Designer Fashion Fund Winners and Fund Supporter, Christopher Bailey; from L-R: Peter Pilotto, Christopher De Vos, Mary Katrantzou, Prime Minister Theresa May, Natalie Massenet, Christopher Bailey, Sophia Webster, Nicholas Kirkwood

The international Fashion Week season for women's ready-to-wear kicks off in the month of September, with all eyes set on New York, Paris, London and Milan for next seasons latest trends. For all the women's wear catwalk season must reads, click here.

Christopher Kane
London Fashion Week
Paul Smith
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