Two of my tweets last Thursday afternoon might seem completely unrelated to some but in my head, I’ve since been trying to connect them. I congratulated Grace Wales Bonner upon winning the LVMH Prize, marking the third successive British-based winner of this prestigious and necessary funding. Two minutes later upon reading about the shooting of Labour MP Jo Cox in Yorkshire, and about the possibility (now all but affirmed…) that the shooting was in any way politically-motivated in amidst the debate about Brexit, I tweeted that this wasn’t a Great Britain I recognised anymore. It scaled from elation about a deserved designer – a rising star in the London fashion industry, to utter despair about a side to Britain that I won’t/don’t connect with.
It’s difficult to wade into politics on a fashion blog without being told that you’re not qualified to speak or you don’t have your facts straight. Or indeed, that your privilege makes your voice less valid. Framing the EU debate within a fashion context might not seem immediately obvious either but the fashion industry has clearly made a stand. Key players have made their position on the debate clear by standing by Remain, with the likes of Alexandra Shulman of Vogue UK, Dame Vivienne Westwood and Imran Amed of Business of Fashion having signed a letter to keep Britain in the EU. The argument? “Britain leaving the EU would mean uncertainty for our firms, less trade with Europe and fewer jobs. Britain remaining in the EU would mean the opposite – more certainty, more trade and more jobs. EU membership is good for business and good for British jobs.” The economic uncertainties post potential Brexit is the main thrust being put forward.
Steve Salter (aka my other half)
But we all know that the EU referendum goes far beyond facts, figures and statistics. When experts are being “dismissed” and emotions are riding high, threats of imminent recession, loss of jobs and a plummeting £ all seem to be falling upon deaf ears. People are going to vote with an idealised vision of this country in their head and sadly many have built a battleline in their head where they are “us” and everyone else is the “other” or “them”. And so it is with ideology that I vote for Remain at the polling booth tomorrow morning. Because the Great Britain of my reality is one where we celebrate and cooperate with the “other”, not merely tolerate it.
Wales Bonner S/S 17
When it was announced that Wales-Bonner had won the coveted EUR300,000, prize I thought about her eye-opening, mind-expanding ideas that have led to us to ponder the idea of black male sexuality and masculinity. Her borders span far and wide as for her S/S 17 collection, she was looking at the crowning of Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia in 1930. Her influences have long been concerned with the black male diaspora, spread across expanses of Africa, the Caribbean, India and Europe. They’re both real and imagined journeys, resulting in clothes that whilst rooted to certain geographies and histories, are also original in its inspired ceremonial pomp for the 21st century. As a British-born half English, half Jamaican designer, Wales-Bonner isn’t necessarily directly related to the EU conversation, but the fluidity of borders expounded in her work, feels pertinent somehow. That Britain can foster designers like her make you somehow hopeful that fashion as a creative outlet still is an outward-looking and progressive beacon.
And then those thoughts were quashed by a disturbed man who reportedly yelled “Britain First” or “Put Britain first!” before firing shots at a woman, who had spent her entire working life thinking about the bigger picture – one filled with compassion. The horror. The despair. At the time, I was preparing to go out and see the Raf Simons show in Florence but found myself crying uncontrollably in my hotel room. This quote from Cox’s maiden speech, has since taken on a memorable significance: “We are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.” Then why is it that within communities, we’re finding ourselves with self-imposing divides placed in amongst us.
As the rolling news played out, I then thought about fashion as a facilitator of open-mindedness and freethinking creativity. At least, that’s the fashion that I fell in love with as a young teenager, when hemmed in by pressures to perform well academically and to be “normal” or “attractive” by society. I thought about free movement being more than just people moving from one country to another for economic and benefits gain (although whilst we’re at it, it bears repeating that immigrants to the UK put in more than they take out). It’s also about a movement and exposure to cultures, ideas and ways of thinking.
If Brexiters can deduce immigration to “those bloody Polish shelves in Tesco’s” then I am free to equate Remain with values of openness, tolerance and partnership. When applied to fashion, this is in evidence not just in the designers that we have come to call our own, whose origins are in the EU – Mary Katrantzou, Marios Schwab, Faustine Steinmetz, Astrid Andersen, Marques Almeida, Marta Jakubowski and Peter Jensen to name but a few, but also in the countless graduates, stylists, photographers and make-up and hair artists that benefit from free movement and ability to ply their much-needed trade in this country. The result? A richer, more diverse and creative industry that thrives on collaboration. The flow of ideas in the British fashion industry has never been so vibrant, even amidst talk of a tumultuous industry in flux or a shrinking social mobility in fashion education impeded not by the EU… but by our own government.
And that’s just the peeps from the EU contingent. London’s fashion community has of course become home to many from outside of Europe and that’s where it becomes scarily problematic. Who’s to say that Leave voters’ fear about immigration doesn’t just stop at the borders of the EU. That they want England for English people only (people polled through various BBC Breakfast/Today programmes – their words, not mine), defined in the only way they see fit. Leavers will say they are not tainted by racism and xenophobia, but why is it that the rhetoric being heard on the streets, on social media and even from the official Leave camp people (*cough* Nigel Farage), is dangerously designed to inspire hate and ire against “them foreigners”.
I echo Polly Toynbee’s thoughts as she gives her final boost of belief towards Remain. “I don’t believe those politics of isolation will win on Thursday. I can’t and won’t believe it – and if I’m wrong then being wrong is the least of the despair I shall feel.” Because say what you want, a post-Brexit Britain will inevitably project the idea to the world, that British people are inward-looking self-interested little Englanders, even if that isn’t necessarily the case. That creative to-and-fro flow, a bi-directional conversation between Great Britain and continental Europe, that we have taken for granted for the last forty years, will stutter, splutter and maybe even slowly ebb away, as students from the EU are deterred from studying in the UK and visa impositions will make working/living here much more difficult.
This will inevitably read like wishy washy twaddle spewed by a media “luvvy” but it’s an opinion that’s no less valid than the woman in Solihull telling foreigners to get out, as she drags her shopping trolley on the high street. The so-called “Project Fear” levied at the Remain camp isn’t just about economic-based projections, but it’s the fear of a country slipping into an abyss of no return.