The capital’s pioneering and avant-garde contribution to the world of fashion is celebrated in all its glory in Rebel: 30 Years of London Fashion, a riotous new exhibition at the Design Museum. Launching to coincide with London Fashion Week, the show shines a light on the cohort of 300 designers who have been supported by the British Fashion Council’s NEWGEN scheme over the last 30 years. Read on for our first look review of the show.
“Every single look in Rebel: 30 Years of London Fashion – and there’s about 100 of them – was made when the designers were emerging and in their early 20s,” says Tim Marlow, director of the Design Museum. “The show is about the moment their talent was recognised. It’s about their fearlessness and energy and vitality. It’s about London as a creative powerhouse.” And while there are plenty of big names on display – from Alexander McQueen and Christopher Kane to Erdem and Giles Deacon – it’s the mix of boundary-pushing pieces from lesser-known designers that really bring this exhibition to life.
The designers’ audacity can certainly be felt as soon as you walk into the exhibition, where you’re met with a section entitled ‘Colour Explosion’. There you’ll find a revolt of colour, print and pattern, with one of Mary Katrantzou’s kaleidoscopic digital printed pieces shown alongside the voluminous flower-patterned Richard Quinn gown that swept past the Queen as she sat front row at his show in 2018.
This bold introduction sets the tone for the rest of the show, which offers up a joyous romp through London life in the Nineties and Noughties, exploring how the capital has been able to produce such genre-defying designers time and time again. But instead of a chronological retelling of the last 30 years, the show aims to capture London’s explosion of freedom and creativity in a more holistic way.
“We’ve set up the exhibition so that you are sent on a journey,” says the Design Museum’s senior curator Rebecca Lewin, who co-curated the show alongside veteran fashion journalist Sarah Mower. “We’re not telling the story of how fashion has altered decade by decade, but rather placing at the forefront the repeated challenges that designers have met and overcome with their talent and creativity.”
One of those designers was Alexander ‘Lee’ McQueen, who was one of the first recipients of NEWGEN funding back in 1993 (the British fashion house also sponsors this exhibition). On display in a circular room, you’ll find the story of McQueen’s first collection, Taxi Driver, named after the famous 1976 Martin Scorsese film.
Created while McQueen was living with his friend and collaborator Simon Ungless in a council house in Tooting, the collection was unveiled to buyers on a rail in a hotel room at the Ritz in 1993, before the pieces were later lost outside a nightclub in King’s Cross. For the exhibition, Ungless has painstakingly recreated some of the techniques and shapes first developed for the collection, which include moulded bodices, graphic prints and McQueen’s notoriously low-cut bumster trousers.
An ‘Art School’ section is devoted to tutors from institutions including Central Saint Martins, Westminster and the London College of Fashion, many of whom were directly responsible for nurturing much of the talent on display. Stacked high with books and sketches, the mannequins here showcase viral designs that have launched students into the public eye – Molly Goddard’s electric blue tulle tiered dress, which was worn by Rihanna, is suspended from the ceiling, while SS Daley’s upcycled flared trousers, worn by Harry Styles in his Golden music video, are given pride of place in the centre of the room.
Once you’ve reached this part of the fashion exhibition, it’s almost impossible to ignore the thumping music coming from the neighbouring section, dedicated to the pivotal role London’s club scene had in inspiring the city’s fledgling designers. The show’s most outlandish pieces are to be found queuing for an all-night rave, with Marjan Pejoski’s infamous swan dress (worn by Björk to the 2001 Oscars) standing in line next to Gareth Pugh’s black cartoon-esque poodle suit and the latex balloon trousers by Harri, worn by Sam Smith to this year’s Brits.
Wander through the nightclub itself – soundtracked by a video that blends dancehall, grime, garage, electro-clash and nu-rave music – and you’ll emerge backstage at a fashion show, where rails of clothes by Giles Deacon and Richard Nicoll are accompanied by pieces from some of the UK’s most innovative jewellery and accessories designers, including Shaun Leane, Holly Fulton and Nicholas Kirkwood. An interactive element, where you can sit in front of a mirror to virtually try on key catwalk hair and make-up looks, including Gareth Pugh’s monochrome chequered face mask from 2007 and Henry Holland’s tartan eye patch from 2008, is a fun touch.
The penultimate room is dedicated to the runway show itself, dominated by a full-sized iron catwalk, which showcases five of the most influential fashion shows by London-based designers. There you’ll find sophisticated pieces by Grace Wales Bonner, one of the first designers to make her British-Jamaican heritage a focal point of her collections, and body-positive dresses by Irish designer Sinéad O’Dwyer, whose 2023 NEWGEN show celebrated sizes 6-30 and people who use wheelchairs. They’re shown alongside looks from Christopher Kane, Craig Green and Meadham Kirchhoff.
While the show’s final room, entitled ‘Change-Makers’, may not be quite as visually striking as some of the other displays, it remains one of the most impactful. There, a range of different designers are spotlighted for their work that rebels against norms, barriers and the fashion system itself, from Priya Ahluwalia’s upcycled patchwork denim jacket and Nensi Dojaka’s barely-there creations to one of Connor Ives’ ‘reconstituted’ gowns, made from vintage printed scarves.
Sustainability is a key focal point here, whether it’s Helen Kirkum’s sneakers made from discarded trainer-parts or the labels used in Phoebe English’s latest collection, which highlight the zero waste pattern cutting techniques and natural dyes used to create each garment. “The last room [in the exhibition] really sums up all of these amazing, highly rebellious designers, ones that are creating the future as they rise to those challenges and rebel against the status quo,” says Lewin.
Ultimately, the show pulls together many disparate threads and designers to showcase one unifying theme: the pure, unbridled creativity that this great city has given rise to. As Caroline Rush, CEO of the British Fashion Council, said: “London’s designers and their teams are absolutely unique. Over the last 30 years I have had the privilege of witnessing this constant stream of rebellious creativity from the British fashion community, and it’s something that I genuinely don’t think we see anywhere else in the world.”
‘Rebel: 30 Years of London Fashion’ is on show at the Design Museum from 16 September until 11 February 2024