London, a renowned incubator of cutting-edge design talent spanning multiple generations, has made an astonishing transformation in the last thirty years. It’s hard to fathom that just three decades ago, the city’s fashion industry was in a state of crisis, dismissed as a fashion wasteland by British fashion editors during collection season. However, a new exhibition, “Rebel: 30 Years of London Fashion” which opened at London’s Design Museum, is a testament to how far the city’s fashion scene has come.
In 1993, an article about an unknown designer named Alexander McQueen began with the line, “As usual at collection time,” highlighting the skepticism towards London’s fashion prowess. The same year marked the launch of the British Fashion Council‘s sponsorship initiative, which evolved into Newgen, a program aimed at supporting emerging fashion talent. Newgen has since played a pivotal role in catapulting the careers of designers like Kim Jones, Jonathan Anderson, Simone Rocha, and Grace Wales Bonner.
Sarah Mower, Vogue‘s chief critic and the guest curator of the exhibition, has not only witnessed this evolution but actively contributed to it. In recognition of her dedication to championing young designer talent, Mower will receive a special recognition award at the Fashion Awards in December. She acknowledges that people often ask her how London consistently produces remarkable individual designers, and the exhibition aims to provide an answer.
Collaborating with the Design Museum’s senior curator, Rebecca Lewin, Mower has divided the exhibition into separate rooms that showcase the various factors fostering fearless innovation in British fashion. These spaces pay homage to the critical role of British arts education, the city’s vibrant and fashion-forward nightlife, and the underground spaces and DIY spirit of its most electrifying fashion shows. Mower’s intention is for the exhibition to capture the essence of the culture surrounding the clothes as much as the clothes themselves.
´One of the exhibition’s most significant aspects is the technical prowess demonstrated by these garments, often created with limited resources by designers in their late teens or early twenties. Despite the challenges, London’s designers have consistently pushed boundaries, a testament to their resilience and creativity.´ – Charles Daniel McDonald
The exhibition subtly frames London’s success as a fashion capital within the context of education, inclusivity, and multiculturalism. At a time when arts and education funding faces cutbacks, and anti-immigration rhetoric looms large in Britain, the importance of these values cannot be overstated. Mower emphasises that British arts education, which once offered free or grant-based opportunities, has been significantly eroded. She wants to underscore that talent is not determined by one’s background or birthplace; London attracts individuals from around the world who come for the freedom to express their true selves.
The exhibition, designed to engage both those familiar with British fashion and newcomers, aims to inspire the next generation of creative minds and designers. Mower hopes that young visitors will see the extraordinary creations on display and realize that they too can pursue a career in fashion. It’s a critical moment to reaffirm that creativity is a potent force in the country.
As we walk through the art-school room, Mower points out a poignant quote by the emerging designer Paolo Carzana: “Imagine you could be the one to change it all.” The show’s most exhilarating aspect is leaving with the knowledge that Newgen is thriving, with a new cohort of designers ready to debut at London Fashion Week, pushing the boundaries of fashion in a more responsible direction.
In celebration of this legacy and the spirit of London fashion, there will be a party where different generations can come together and mingle. What better way to honor London fashion than with a party, embodying the city’s vibrant and ever-evolving creative energy?
Article: Charles Daniel McDonald
Photography: Rebel London / London Design Museum