In 1993, the United Kingdom was in the depths of a brutal recession. Unemployment rates were high, the economy was stagnant, and the city’s creative enterprises were suffering. With London Fashion Week reduced to a handful of shows that year, the British Fashion Council decided to give the city’s young designers a lifeline: it invited them to present their collections on clothes rails at the Ritz. One such designer was Lee Alexander McQueen, whose subversive ‘Taxi Driver’ collection was made from fabric purchased with dole money from his council flat in Tooting Bec, where he lived with printmaker Simon Ungless. Inspired by the clubs, bars, energy and exploits of the city as a young gay man, his show marked the arrival of a rebellious, underground talent that would influence London fashion forever. “If I leave without emotion, I’m not doing my job right,” McQueen once said of his intimate shows. “I want you to leave shocked or delighted: as long as it’s just emotion.”
Inside ‘Rebel: 30 Years of London Fashion’ at the Design Museum
Three decades later, this informal event at the Ritz has evolved into the behemoth that is the BFC’s Newgen programme, a fashion incubator that has helped shape the careers of more than 300 designers in Britain, from McQueen himself to Kim Jones and Grace Wales Bonner. By Christopher Kane. Curated by Sarah Moore and curated by Alexander McQueen, the Design Museum’s sprawling new exhibition, Rebel: 30 Years of London Fashion, celebrates the anniversary of the initiative and the bold creative forces that nurtured it.
A wide range of designs, video footage and ephemera are carefully collected in its rooms, telling the stories of the young minds who have transformed contemporary British fashion through raw explorations of identity, calls for social change and sustainable innovation. As the exhibition notes indicate, these were makers who “anticipated new ways of dressing, new ways of being seen.”
Rather than a chronological reveal, “Rebel” offers an immersion in the places from which this creativity emerged, taking visitors on a journey through the capital’s fashion schools to the sweaty dance floors and the runway itself. “There are so many memories and powerful fashion moments from the last 30 years sprinkled throughout this exhibition,” BFC chief executive Caroline Rush says of the exhibition. The famous swan dress that Björk wore to the 2001 Academy Awards, designed by Marjan Pejewski, and the pink Richard Quinn gown that she presented before Queen Elizabeth II in 2018.
“It takes me back to the 1990s when I was 20, making my way to the Lee McQueen show without a ticket. “I’m really impressed by the incredible craftsmanship, diversity, culture and creativity on display – it’s a real testament to UK fashion, and I encourage everyone to go,” Rush adds. To see it for themselves.”
Beyond the eye-catching designs, “Rebel” also highlights moments of quiet resistance and personal discovery. Molly Goddard’s stunning blue seven-layer tulle dress floats proudly above the ‘Art School’ section, as the designer recalls her days as a student: ‘I remember my teacher Sarah Gresty saying: ‘Just go a size up and explore!’ I realized that there are no any kind of boundaries.
Elsewhere, the show features a look from Craig Green’s set that brought the entire audience to tears; A specially commissioned film directed by Priya Ahluwalia that documents how five designers grew their brands from bedrooms to corporate; and a thriving club room in which archival footage from parties and raves is played frequently, acknowledging the enormous influence of music and nightlife on London fashion.
“Being part of Newgen has been a whirlwind experience,” designer Bianca Saunders tells Wallpaper*. “Seeing the exhibition made me look back and see how far I have come.” Featured in the exhibition are a range of the designer’s works, including a moving documentary examining black masculinity filmed while she was completing her MA at the Royal College of Art, and her signature Jamaican ballroom-inspired Autumn/Winter 2020 collection, which ignored the static display format typical of models’ vision They dance in divided booths.
“I wanted them to dance like they were enjoying themselves in their own spaces. It was very sexy, and captured the feeling of the clothes. It was nine o’clock in the morning, and I remember Sarah Moore being a little shocked, but in a good way, because she remembers it well. She wanted to be in Exhibition.
Newgen was founded in tough economic times not very different from those we live in now. Darkness always seems to spark new light in creativity and rebellion, pushing forward ideas for a better future. The collection that makes up Newgen’s 2023 program is a testament to this determination and creativity, from Sinead O’Dwyer’s celebration of body shapes rarely seen on the runway, to British-Yemeni designer Kazna Asker’s pioneering fusion of sportswear shapes and hijab dresses.
“The more you show your personality, the more interesting the work becomes,” says Saunders, reflecting on what makes London a special place for emerging talent. “People from all over the world come here and want to tell a story about where they come from, who they are as people, and I think that’s very important.”
“Rebel: 30 Years of London Fashion” exhibition at the Design Museum, London, curated by Alexander McQueen, runs from 6 September 2023 to 11 February 2024.