There is a new trend greeting shoppers this season but it’s not billowing cords or ruffle blouses: it’s the fashion industry’s attempt to counter hostility towards immigrants since the Brexit vote.
Last week the high street chain Jigsaw put its head above the parapet as it filled shop windows and billboards with posters emblazoned with “♥ immigration”. In its accompanying “manifesto” the retailer says: “Without immigration, we’d be selling potato sacks,” adding that “fear, isolation, and intolerance will hold us back”.
Peter Ruis, chief executive of Jigsaw, which has a workforce drawn from 45 countries, said: “Why has the word immigrant been demonised, when it simply means coming to live in another country? People who work for us are leaving every day. Some have had abuse in the street, either because of how they look or because of their accent.”
The London mayor, Sadiq Khan, and the pro-Remain MP Anna Soubry were among the thousands who took to social media to applaud the campaign. “We couldn’t agree more that people need to see the debt that we owe to immigration,” said Khan.
Delhi-born designer Ashish, whose grandparents fled Pakistan during partition, tried to tackle the issue last year after feeling that he was “not welcome” in the UK, despite having lived here most of his adult life. In protest he took to the stage at his London fashion week show wearing a T-shirt with the word “immigrant” across the front.
“There is a wave of racism and xenophobia sweeping the world, even more so now after the US election,” the designer said at the time. “If I can use my work to voice my dissent, that is my way of speaking up.”
Ruis said that the reaction to Jigsaw’s campaign had been overwhelmingly supportive, with one fan hugging him in the street.
“I’m not trying to speak for all my customers or the people who work for us … but [I] want to start a conversation from the point of view where immigration is seen as a positive thing,” he said. “We are all part of a vibrant, tolerant, global Britain. These are things we believe in as a brand.”
Lorna Hall, at trend forecaster WGSN, says: “Artists and creative people are reacting to the fact that some of the rights and ideas that we have taken for granted are coming under threat. Fashion is really sensitive to the wider world.”
In the wake of Donald Trump’s refugee travel ban, more than 80 of fashion’s biggest players, including the designer Diane von Furstenberg and Grace Coddington, US Vogue’s creative director at large, gathered at New York fashion week to make a video diary for W magazine, in which they took turns to state: “I am an immigrant.”
During the same fashion week event, the American designer Prabal Gurung sent his models down the runway in T-shirts stamped with political slogans that included “The future is female” and “I am an immigrant.”
In a similar vein, the actress Kathreen Khavari attended the premiere of Big Little Lies, the HBO series that swept the Emmys, wearing a T-shirt dress printed with “my Iranian immigrant mother teaches your kids how to read”.
“Lots of brands are deciding to take a stand around certain things because they believe that their customers would want them to,” says Hall. She points to the example of the upmarket jeweller Tiffany & Co, which used an Instagram post to urge Trump to keep the US in the Paris climate agreement, as the “disaster of climate change is too real”.
Brexit is posing difficulties for Jigsaw, according to Ruis. His business is struggling to fill vacancies, and the collapse in the value of sterling has pushed up the cost of imported goods.
“Everything we buy [from overseas] is 20% more expensive and that has created a big challenge for our business model,” he says.
But can campaigns such as Jigsaw’s change the tenor of the immigration debate? A recent study by academics at the University of East Anglia found that, while prejudice towards EU immigrants was a powerful predictor of support for Brexit, positive contact with immigrants led to increased support for Remain.
“These kinds of campaigns can raise awareness and make people have more positive attitudes towards immigration,” said Charles Seger, who co-authored the UEA study.
“We know from psychology that very subtle cues can shape people’s attitudes even if they are not aware of it. People become more accepting … if they see immigration in a positive, non-threatening context.
“It’s like the nudge theory guy Richard Thaler, who won the Nobel prize last week – small things can have big consequences further down the line.”