Author: REBECCA THOMSON
Immigration was one of the biggest factors in the Brexit vote. Yet British fashion retail would be much poorer without the people who came to settle here
The UK is set to leave the European Union in March 2019, and the exit is likely to have a detrimental effect on freedom of movement into the UK. From hiring models or creative freelancers at short notice to finding store and Warehouse staff, the impact of Brexit on retailers’ operations could be significant.
Over the longer term, curtailing immigration could have a more fundamental impact on the UK fashion landscape. Many of today’s biggest brands and retailers are run by people who were not British born, or by their children or grandchildren (see box, below). The UK’s high street and etail landscape would be very different without the fresh ideas and entrepreneurialism immigration has brought.
As Daniel Rubin, founder and executive chairman of the Dune Group, says: “It is difficult to think of an industry that has been more affected by immigration. The Jews from Russia and eastern Europe in the early 20th century, the Italians, Turks and Cypriots in the middle of the century, and the Indians and Pakistanis later on have been key drivers of fashion in the UK. They brought with them artisan skills and experience.”
Immigration has been a part of life in Britain for thousands of years, but the French Huguenot refugees in the 1700s are thought to be the first of significance for fashion.
The Huguenot community included Samuel Courtauld, who in 1794 founded a textile business that existed until 1990 when it was sold, and whose great nephew, also Samuel, founded London’s Courtauld Institute of Art in 1932.
Beatrice Behlen, curator at the Museum of London, also says another significant chapter in UK immigration for the fashion industry was the arrival of around 100,000 Jewish people between 1881 and 1914. Entrepreneurs from this community, mostly from eastern European countries, started brands such as Marks & Spencer – founder Michael Marks was a Polish migrant – and the descendants of this group have become a driving force in the UK fashion industry by creating businesses that employ thousands of people.
Some Jewish migrants were skilled cobblers. Dune Group’s Rubin is the grandson of a Russian Jewish migrant who came to London from Lithuania in the 1890s, got a job in a shoe factory, and later set up his own in the East End of London with his three sons, of whom Rubin’s father was the youngest.
Rubin says: “There’s no doubt having a family history in fashion shoes has influenced me. Going from a manufacturer to an importer to starting Dune would not have happened if it hadn’t been for my grandfather. Apart from instilling a strong work ethic, it has also nurtured my passion for product, which is an essential ingredient for a successful footwear brand.”
Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi families moved to the UK throughout the 20th century, and many of today’s most successful, fast-growing retail brands, from Quiz to Boohoo, have emerged from these communities.
Sach Kukadia started flash Sales website SecretSales in 2006 with his brother, Nish. His parents, who are of Indian descent, moved to the UK from Kenya and his father become an early shareholder in Pepe Jeans.
He says: “In many cases immigrants came to the UK came with nothing, and, as a result they were obliged to deliver, not just for themselves but also for their families. My father, for example, came over alone at the age of 16 and worked wherever he could to pay for his family to come and join him.
“The UK is now made up of extremely diverse cultures. Within each culture lie values, conventions and ideologies that mould how people are taught and think. Both my parents are from Kenya and instilled in me a number of core competencies and expectations that drive me today.”
He says migrants tend to be creative and hardworking because “you have to be creative to find work when everything is so alien”.
The Caribbean community is another important element of the UK’s immigration history. These families, now known as the Windrush generation after the ship some travelled on, came at the request of UK industry from 1948 onwards to help rebuild the post-World War II economy. They worked in the public and private sectors, and many also brought with them advanced dressmaking skills. Most of the smart dresses and suits worn in Windrush pictures were handmade, and large numbers of the group knew how to free-cut, meaning they could cut the fabric for a dress or suit by hand, without the need for a pattern.
Many Caribbean families took these skills into the communities they settled in, in areas such as Brixton in south London, starting businesses that grew through word of mouth.
The Caribbean community, alongside the wider British African diaspora both already in the UK and who also moved here throughout the 20th century, also played a central role in shaping street style and young fashion trends. In 2004, the Victoria and Albert Museum charted this influence with its exhibition “Black British Style”, and ideas from this community continue to underpin large swathes of popular culture and mainstream fashion design.
Yet despite this enormous impact, Caribbean and African names are notably absent from the CEOs and founders of today’s big fashion brands, and black Britons have in general not profited as other ethnic groups have from their cultural clout and creativity.
Teleica Kirkland, creative director at the Costume Institute of the African Diaspora and a lecturer at the London College of Fashion, and the grand-daughter of a Windrush family, says this community has faced more challenges than most as a result of societal and institutionalised racism, and the economic disadvantages it brings. “The circumstances and systemic racism they faced meant few felt empowered to scale their businesses,” she says.
This continues to make itself felt, and Kirkland believes more work and support is needed to tap into the talents of British African and Caribbean designers and entrepreneurs.
As Kirkland says, many migrants still face challenges when starting businesses in the UK. But our list of brands that were founded by migrants, or family members up to two generations later, shows how fundamental they have been to the UK fashion industry.
The list is not comprehensive, neither does it include chief executives who moved to the UK to work here, or reflect the role migrant workers play in the wider industry at all levels. But as a snapshot of the creativity and innovation that emerges from migrant communities, it goes some way towards demonstrating how much the sector owes to their grit and entrepreneurial flair.
As Rubin says: “Immigration has been a crucial factor in the growth of the fashion industry.” It will remain essential as retail continues to evolve.