Debra Hepburn, RBH

22 September 2016 | By Jackie Storer

As London Fashion Week draws to a close, the managing director of Midlands-based creative agency RBH and founder of Young British Designers challenges the UK to better support its fashion industry

The UK should go back to its manufacturing roots and create a fashion epicentre in London, the founder of Young British Designers has said.

Debra Hepburn, also managing director of creative-communications agency RBH, says a manufacturing hub in the heart of the capital would encourage more people into the fashion industry, which last year contributed £28bn to the UK economy.

She believes a centre for fashion excellence would in some way ameliorate the impact of the Brexit vote – which many blame for causing retail sales to plunge.

She also called for the government to rethink plans to squeeze out the arts and creativity from the national curriculum, in favour of subjects such as science and maths.

Hepburn spoke out at the end of London Fashion Week – the biannual fashion event of the season, showcasing new styles, such as Christopher Kane’s revamped Crocs.

She also hammered home the message last week during a Downing Street reception celebrating UK fashion, hosted by Prime Minister Theresa May and Dame Natalie Massenet, chairman of the British Fashion Council.

Tough beginnings

Hepburn’s Midlands-based agency, which specialises in retail, fashion, automotive and travel, is featured in the CBI’s All the World’s a Stage report, which looks at the growing demand for the UK’s creative industries overseas.

Hepburn says while many people want to be involved in the fashion industry, it’s difficult for them to find well paid jobs.

Even the minority that manage to create their own collections and sell them worldwide “are still not making a massive income – they are living hand to mouth, often with mum and dad,” she said.

A lack of manufacturing facilities or support services means it is difficult for would-be designers to run a business from the UK, she said.

While YBD puts designers in touch with each other, so if they do find good suppliers within the UK, they can share pattern cutters, silk screen printers, leather manufacturers and weavers, “more needs to be done” to create truly home-grown fashion, she says.

“We’re so obsessed, and quite rightly, with the whole digital economy – we have so many brilliant incubators and hubs where young companies are mentored and share learning and ideas – but we’re not doing that in fashion.

“If we could get these fashion manufacturing hubs in London, where designers could go and create their wares for the first three to five years, where creativity could flourish, and they were supported and nurtured, we would go a long way towards boosting the contribution designers make to our economy.”

Fashion capital

After all, Hepburn points out, London retains the kudos of being “the most creative fashion capital in the world” – something she argues is epitomised by London Fashion Week, described as “a massive and very positive PR exercise”, attracting the attention of 35 million people worldwide.

While other cities, like New York, have their own fashion weeks, they do not have the impact or reputation of London, she says.

“Here we rip up the rule book – we do something to show and amaze and capture the world’s attention. We could use that powerful force to create this epicentre of fashion in London.”

Hepburn says the end result would act as a “wonderful launch pad” for the designers of tomorrow, with mentors, a digital infrastructure and support for apprentices and those who also want to become involved in the sales and marketing of fashion.

It would promote established skills like embroidery and pattern cutting, but also contemporary ones, like 3D printing.

“It takes seven years to become a tailor – the same as a doctor – and yet we’re losing those service-led skills,” says  Hepburn.

She claims the EU referendum vote has heightened the need for Britain to once again dominate world trade with its own manufactured goods.

“Brexit caused our sales to plunge overnight in Europe and the UK, and we’re only just seeing them start to pick up,” she said. “People don’t speak about it, but we have lost some of the cool in our Cool Britannia brand.”

For example, she says, Brexit and the resulting fall in the value of the pound, has forced up the price of leather goods and shoes by 45 per cent.

“Brexit needs to be resolved quickly and efficiently in a manner that keeps the UK’s reputation and is seen as a win, win, particularly for the fashion industry,” she said.

“We might be able to rely on the EU in terms of supply chains, so we need to ensure we’re more in control that we can make something good come out of this situation.”

Hepburn says she is also concerned that the arts and creative subjects are now seen more as options in schools, which means fewer young people emerging with the skills necessary to enter the fashion world.

“I think it’s an amazing industry – it's growing year on year – it’s something we do really well, so if we could put the backbone back into manufacturing, we’d be phenomenal,” she says, adding: “If we do that, the world will have nothing to compare with the UK and the wonderful talent we have.”