A Look at Rebel:30 Years of London Fashion at The Design Museum in London

The “Rebel” story told from the mainstream perspective. 

By Zara Korutz

Rebel:30 Years of London Fashion commemorates 30 years of The British Fashion Council’s NEWGEN program. It’s an initiative that supports emerging UK fashion designers with grant funding and business mentoring. The exhibition is guest curated by Vogue.com’s Chief Critic Sarah Mower and includes fashion looks from a variety of NEWGEN recipients. These include British fashion designer heavy hitters A-COLD-WALL, Christopher Kane, Craig Green, HARRI, Bianca Saunders, Richard Quinn, Mary Katrantzou, Duro Olowu, S.S. Daley, JW Anderson, Grace Wales Bonner, to name a few, and Alexander McQueen who is also the exhibition sponsor.

Clothes, films, and interactive displays are placed throughout the space in well-thought-out thematic categories, including “Colour Explosion,” “Art School,” “Start-Up Culture,” “Club Scene,” “Backstage Pass!,” “The Show” and “Change Makers”. The engaging style and format of the exhibition create a fun atmosphere. The digital make-up station in “Backstage Pass!” is a must-do. Visitors can interact with the display by creating various digital make-up looks on themselves—simulating a model backstage—a social media savvy moment.

Image credit: Photography by Andy Stagg. © the Design Museum

As you enter the exhibition doors, you are greeted with a beautiful array of fashion entitled “Colour Explosion.” At the same time, a melodious voice draws you into the circular Alexander McQueen display as sorcery draws you in with spells. McQueen, who was part of the first NEWGEN cohort, is prominent in the exhibition. 

Image credit: Photography by Andy Stagg. © the Design Museum

The voice you’re hearing is that of Simon Ungless—who is not a NEWGEN recipient but perhaps, via his early work with McQueen, can be considered an “honorary” member– narrating a 16-minute, 14-second video loop. It tells a first-person account of Central Saint Martin’s students living an art-inspired lifestyle of clothes-making days and nights fueled by dancing. This display is a walk down memory lane with personal stories, news clipping images, and Ungless’ recognizable pattern on tapestry, along with McQueen bumster pants, a tailored blazer, and a hair-locked fabric dress. 

The Club Scene with silk banners by Bianca Saunders | No Stupid Questions by Louise Gray. photos: Zara Korutz

The rebel aspect of British fashion is found explicitly in the “Club Scene” section, featuring a ‘Club’ neon sign, ropes, black curtains, and silk banners by Bianca Saunders. The display includes the latex design of HARRI worn by Sam Smith, the exaggerated black poodle-inspired Gareth Pugh, and the famed swan dress by Marjan Pejoski worn by Bjork. Behind the curtains is a commemorative video featuring various nightclub scene footage.

The UK has over 100 universities offering fashion courses; however the “Art School” section of the exhibition credits only Central Saint Martins, Westminster, London College of Fashion, and the Royal College of Art. The display highlights include the socially conscious 2017 MA thesis video directed by Bianca Saunders titled Personal Politics, which questions the idea of Black masculinity in relation to queerness. 

The constructed plywood “Art School” structure has a workbench display design that emulates the aesthetic of Central Saint Martins, but this doesn’t fully capture the raw process and creative energy of fashion students. Also noticeably missed is NEWGEN recipient and Central Saint Martin’s MA Fashion course leader Fabio Piras. 

However, the work of Louise Gray, multi-disciplinary artist and Stage 2 Leader, MA Fashion at Central Saint Martins, has several items on display, including a motivational graphic that says, “There are No Stupid Questions.” 

Different generations of NEWGEN designers: HARRI’s design for Sam Smith on the left, Alexander McQueens for Taxi Driver collecton on the right

Is the exhibition worth the hype? Hype is a funny psychological process whereby expectations are inflated; which can lead to disappointment. In this case, the show checks all the hype boxes. While the exhibition examines rebel ideology from the mainstream perspective, it weaves in British counterculture via the fun and engaging narrative it creates. The story line touches on critical social aspects of fashion communication, including inclusion, race, sexuality, innovation, and history. 

Note: The exhibition is mostly accessible. However, the sound component of the McQueen video did not include captions; therefore, it is not accessible to the hearing impaired. 

Design Museum, London From September 16, 2023- February 11, 2024; Designmuseum.org 

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