How London’s young upstarts shaped 30 years of fashion

We speak to curator Rebecca Lewin about what makes an iconic London fashion moment and the changing landscape for young designers

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We speak to curator Rebecca Lewin about what makes an iconic London fashion moment and the changing landscape for young designers

By Sophie Lou Wilson14 Sep 2023
8 mins read time
8 mins read time

London is famous for a few things – the rain, the royals, and its status as a fashion capital, buoyed up by its legendary art schools, graduate funding programmes and young design talent.

One such programme, the British Fashion Council’s NEWGEN initiative, which provides financial support, showcasing opportunities and mentorship to emerging designers, is the subject of the Design Museum’s latest exhibition, REBEL: 30 Years of London Fashion.

Combining immersive catwalk and nightclub experiences, the exhibition plunges into London’s rich fashion landscape to highlight key moments that changed the way we think about fashion. Casting its gaze across three decades of London fashion, from Alexander McQueen to Sinead O’Dwyer, it only features work created by UK-based fashion designers at the very beginning of their careers, while they were still receiving NEWGEN support. This means most of the work shown was made by designers in their 20s, many of whom went on to achieve even bigger things further down the line, a fact that's sure to galvanise any aspiring fashion students who pay the space a visit.

London has always been a hub for young creatives, drawing in masses from around the world who dream of working in fashion. However, rising tuition fees and costs of living threaten the future of London's fashionscape. This exhibition highlights the importance of nurturing young talent and proves how this isn’t something to take for granted. If these opportunities are only accessible to the privileged few, then we risk missing out on some of the greatest culture-defining fashion moments of the next 30 years that makes London the buzzing fashion capital that it is.

We sat down with The Design Museum's Senior Curator Rebecca Lewin to discuss curating the exhibition, London’s role in global fashion and what to expect from the next 30 years of emerging designers based in the UK.

How did you select which pieces to include in the exhibition?

We only show things that were made by designers while they were receiving NEWGEN funding. Even if someone has gone on to have an enormous career and be extremely well known, we only show designs that survived from that NEWGEN period so everything in the show was designed by people in their 20s, right at the start of their careers. We had to go to every single designer and ask what they have. There was no guarantee of a full archive being kept by all of those individuals. Some people really didn't know what they had kept or what had survived, so it was a bit of an investigation for them as well. It was a real collaboration with all of the designers involved.

What are some key moments in fashion history that feature in the exhibition?

The most iconic moments are where something particularly extraordinary or shocking took place that had an impact on style or the way that a show is presented or cast. For the part of the exhibition that has been reconfigured as a catwalk experience, we selected designers based on what they did that was different about presenting a catwalk show. There's Christopher Kane, Meadham Kirchhoff, JW Anderson, Sinead O'Dwyer, Craig Green and Wales Bonner.

Other iconic moments are ones that crossover between the fashion world and the music industry. That immediately gives that design huge visibility because it's worn by someone who’s already got a large platform and fans and wider awareness so everyone remembers that. There are a couple of outfits that may be quite well known to people. We've got HARRI's inflatable suit that we borrowed from Sam Smith that they wore to the Brits earlier this year. We've also got the swan dress that Bjork wore to the 2001 Oscars, that was designed by Marjan Pejoski and we've got an outfit that includes some trousers that were worn by Harry Styles and designed by S.S. Daley.

London is such a rich and multicultural city. How do you think London's cultural and social history shapes its fashion identity?

We're asking visitors to pass alongside a club queue, where we put 12 or 13 looks. This is where the HARRI outfit and the swan dress is on show and then there’s a little club experience as well. We're really thinking about the fact that London is multicultural and what that means in terms of being able to express oneself through dress, through dance, through performance, through culture.

"We're really thinking about the fact that London is multicultural and what that means in terms of being able to express oneself through dress, dance, performance and culture."
Rebecca Lewin

What do you think differentiates London from other major fashion capitals like Paris, Milan or New York?

London has a much bigger support network and ways of getting funding. There’s an expectation that when fashion designers graduate, they will much more commonly start their own brand. There are more forms of funding and support and platforms that are geared towards young designers, like NEWGEN, but also like Fashion East. There is a higher expectation that very young designers will start their own business that will present a few times and then get more support to keep going, as opposed to the expectation that might happen more in Paris or Milan, that you enter a different fashion house, get more experience working there, and then start your own brand later.

How has the landscape for young designers in London improved or worsened over the past three decades?

There are different parts to it. The obvious difference, which is true of all creative industries, is how much more expensive it is to live in the city and how much more expensive it is to attend art school, given that it was free 30 years ago. That is a huge barrier to a lot of individuals to enter into particular forms of education. On the other hand, there is more self teaching and sharing of knowledge. Making your work visible is much easier.

Something that we really noticed from talking to people from different points in this period was the impact of the internet and the onset of fashion blogs and around 2000 through to the onset of social media in 2010. Having places like Instagram, where you're posting images, first and foremost, rather than only being able to show your work should it be picked up by a magazine, means you have control over how your work is seen and who buys it. You have more of your own ability to get that out into the world. That's not to say that those two things balance each other out, but just that there are different elements of what it takes to be working professionally as a fashion designer that have shifted wildly in that period. It's a really, really interesting career to be looking at.

What excites you most about the current generation of young London designers?

I think they think so much more holistically than anyone ever before, which is to say that there's not a separation between what fashion is versus what production is versus what sustainability or ecological responsibility is. They are looking at their role within that much wider network, from sourcing materials to how they present themselves and share their work online to much bigger picture questions. Even in the face of the pandemic, they were finding new ways to produce and present, virtually and online, and taking that challenge up. There's a kind of adaptability to very, very different circumstances that are getting thrown at them, which is seriously impressive.

Is there a piece that you're excited for other people to see that's maybe more underrated, a piece that might not be as recognisable as Bjork’s swan dress or Sam Smith’s inflatable HARRI suit that you’re excited for people to see?

I think someone like Sinead O'Dwyer, who's one of the most recent recipients of NEWGEN, is a really interesting designer, hiven everything else that you will have seen in the show up to that point, which talks about how you might enter into the process of becoming a designer, what you learn at art school, how you begin your business. How she has approached, not just her style as a designer, but how she's thought about who she's designing for, what bodies are represented on her catwalks and who her customers might be, and how to design for them in a completely different way than just sizing up from a sample size and insisting on presenting all of those forms, in a really very beautiful way, is a great example of that. She wouldn't be so well known, I think, as some of the other names on the show, but she's up in that catwalk section alongside JW Anderson and Christopher Kane.

"I think the fact that everything in the show is designed by such young designers reminds you that with great talent and imagination, it's possible to shape your identity."
Rebecca Lewin

How do you envision LONDON FASHION evolving in the next 30 years and what do you hope to see?

It's becoming more possible for designers to shape their own ways of working which will enable them to live in different parts of the country so that they're connected to but not necessarily bound to London. I think that more and more designers will continue the work of embedding principles of ecological responsibility within their practice to the point that it won't need to be spoken about. It will be a given that the inventiveness, the precision, the skill, and the imagination will all go to the service of producing very beautiful clothes that think about how they are made, where they've come from, and where they end up after the customer is finished wearing them.

REBEL: 30 Years of London Fashion, Design Museum, September 16 to February 11, 2024