If you haven’t ventured into central London yet, I’ll fill you in on what you’re missing. Oxford Street is as wide and empty as a prairie. The few people that venture down it are wide-eyed and skittish, dancing around one another in a sort of two-metre foxtrot. Few carry shopping bags. Fewer still stop to linger in shop windows. No one, it is clear, has fashion on their mind. I ventured inside one store at lunchtime and the sales assistant looked at me as though I was the first person she’d seen in months.
It’s an even sadder story as you wander off the main tributary. Remember the lovely little Oliver Sweeney store on Conduit Street? Gone. Or how about Oasis on Argyll Street, the scene of every teenage girl’s first run-in with a pair of denim hot pants? Also gone. Then there’s Warehouse, a stalwart of the British high street for more than 40 years whose store, also on Argyll Street, now sits in darkness after going into administration in April. Oasis and Warehouse are owned by Icelandic bank Kaupthing, which has as yet failed to find any buyers for either brand; Oliver Sweeney is still rallying, albeit online after calling time on all five of its stores. So if you’ve ever wondered what a fashion apocalypse might look like, London is doing a pretty good impression of it right now.
It’s not just in London. This month the British Fashion Council announced that 240,000 job losses across the UK are predicted to hit the fashion industry in the wake of Covid; a huge number by anyone’s standards, but deeply shocking when you consider the British fashion industry currently employs about 890,000 people — so the jobs losses are over a quarter of the workforce. It’s a bit like taking three wheels off a car and still expecting it to run. It won’t.
It’s just fashion you may think. Just clothes. It’s not. The British fashion industry’s heartbeat can be felt across the entire country. It’s the farmers whose sheep’s wool is used to make our coats. It’s the workers who bend and toil to make those coats. It’s the thousands of shop assistants who sell those coats to hundreds of thousands of tourists who come to Britain each year to buy those coats on our world-famous high streets.
British fashion is the teachers in our design colleges, some of the best in the world, who bring in millions of foreign investment each year through the international students whose dreams and talent they tend to. And it’s our designers — Molly Goddard, Richard Quinn, Simone Rocha to name but a few, whose work helps to give our nation its energy and creative edge. So the next time you hear yourself thinking “it’s just clothes”, stop. Those clothes not only employ the biggest creative workforce in the UK (a workforce that is largely young, diverse and from all corners of the country) but also plays a leading role in helping to create the cultural image we project to the world. That image is one of boundless creativity, innovation and talent. Fashion helps to keep Britain as the mad creative genius at the global dinner-party table. And that counts. You lose that, you lose even more than a quarter of a million jobs. You lose part of a country’s soul. But you can do something. Start by shopping. Online. In store. Doesn’t matter. Just shop (giving special love to those brands who put sustainability at the heart of their business if you can because we need to keep our eyes on the planet as well as the economy). Shout about it too. Social media has endowed us with the power to become our own mini media agency. Use that power.
Here’s what else we need to do: pressure the Government. Behind the flashy proclamations of support (and the £1.57 billion package for the creative industries is hugely welcomed) there are smaller, grainier issues even the smartest Spad on the block may not have thought about. Shop leases and rents being one of them. With no tourists and almost no footfall into our high streets, businesses can no longer justify pre-Covid rents. Interest-free loans and grants will go some way to helping keep businesses alive and entire towns from shuttering. Ditto grants and interest-free loans for small and medium-sized businesses (of which fashion has many) who are not eligible for many of the proposed government measures.
But most of all don’t be ashamed about caring about clothes. Don’t bat them away as some frivolity. Care deeply. Care that without them, this country will look very different indeed.
Farrah Storr is editor-in-chief of ELLE UK and a social mobility commissioner