Inside the Design Museum exhibition celebrating 30 years of energetic, rebellious London fashion

As London Fashion Week arrives, here’s our insider’s tour of ‘Rebel: 30 Years of London Fashion’ at the Design Museum, which celebrates the British Fashion Council’s career-starting Newgen scheme

Rebel 30 years of london fashion at the design museum
A display featuring pieces from Alexander McQueen’s ‘Taxi Driver’, first shown in 1993
(Image credit: Photography by Andy Stagg. © the Design Museum.)

In 1993, the UK was in the depths of a brutal recession. Unemployment was high, the economy was stagnant, and the city’s creative institutions were suffering. With London Fashion Week reduced to a smattering of shows that year, the British Fashion Council decided to throw the city’s young designers a lifeline: inviting them to present their collections on clothing rails at The Ritz. One of these designers was Lee Alexander McQueen, whose subversive collection ‘Taxi Driver’ was crafted from fabric bought with dole money out of his council flat in Tooting Bec, where he lived with printmaker Simon Ungless. Taking inspiration from the clubs, pubs, energy and exploits in the city as a young gay man, his display marked the arrival of an affrontingly rebellious talent that would impact London fashion forever. ‘If you leave without emotion, then I’m not doing my job properly,’ McQueen once said of his visceral shows. ‘I want you to leave repulsed or exhilarated: as long as it’s an emotion.’

Inside ‘Rebel: 30 Years of London Fashion’ at the Design Museum

Rebel 30 years of london fashion at the design museum

The infamous swan dress Björk wore to the 2001 Oscars, by Marjan Pejoski, features in the exhibition

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

Three decades later, and that informal event at The Ritz has evolved to become the behemoth that is the BFC’s Newgen programme, a fashion incubator that has helped forge the careers of over 300 designers in Britain, from McQueen himself to Kim Jones, Grace Wales Bonner to Christopher Kane. Curated by Sarah Mower and sponsored by Alexander McQueen, a sprawling new exhibition at the Design Museum, titled ‘Rebel: 30 Years of London Fashion’, celebrates the initiative’s anniversary and the fearless creative forces that it has nurtured. 

A vast collection of designs, video footage and ephemera is thoughtfully grouped in its rooms, which tell 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 state, these are makers who have ‘predicted new ways to dress, and new ways to be’.

Matty Bovan Runway

The S/S 2019 collection from Matty Bovan, one of the designers featured in the show

(Image credit: Photography by Rebecca Maynes)

Rather than unfolding chronologically, ‘Rebel’ presents an immersion into the places from which this creativity has sprung, taking visitors on a journey through the capital’s fashion schools to sweaty dance floors and the runway itself. ‘There are so many memories and powerful fashion moments from the last 30 years scattered throughout this exhibition,’ Caroline Rush, chief executive of the BFC, says of the show, which includes culturally significant pieces such as McQueen’s provocative 1990s ‘bumster’ trousers, the infamous swan dress Björk wore to the 2001 Oscars, by Marjan Pejoski, and a floral gown from the collection Richard Quinn presented in front of Queen Elizabeth II in 2018. 

‘It transports me back to the 1990s when I was 20 years old, blagging my way into a Lee McQueen show without a ticket. I am truly blown away by the incredible craftsmanship, diversity, culture and creativity on display – it is a true testament to UK fashion, and I encourage everyone to go see it for themselves,’ adds Rush.

Rebel 30 years of london fashion at the design museum

The ‘Art School’ room. In the background, a shocking blue dress by Molly Goddard features

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

Beyond headline-grabbing designs, ‘Rebel’ also shines a light on moments of quiet resistance and personal discovery. Molly Goddard’s shockingly blue, seven-tiered tulle dress floats proudly above the ‘Art School’ section, under which the designer looks back at her days as a student: ‘I remember my tutor Sarah Gresty saying, “Just go bigger, explore!” It was very much fun, realising there was no kind of limit.’

Elsewhere, the show displays a look from a Craig Green collection which reduced an entire audience to tears; a specially commissioned film directed by Priya Ahluwalia that documents how five designers grew their brands from bedrooms into businesses; and a booming club room in which archival footage from parties and underground raves plays on loop, recognising the immense influence of music and nightlife on London fashion. 

Wales Bonner runway shoe

Grace Wales Bonner’s work also features in the expansive exhibition

(Image credit: Photography Marcus Tando, courtesy of Wales Bonner.)

‘Being a part of Newgen was such a whirlwind experience,’ designer Bianca Saunders tells Wallpaper*. ‘Seeing the exhibition made me look back on how far I’ve come.’ An array of the designer’s works appears in the exhibit, including a moving documentary film investigating Black masculinity shot during her MA at the Royal College of Art, and her standout A/W 2020 collection inspired by Jamaican dancehall, which ignored the typically static presentation format to see models dancing in partitioned booths. 

‘I wanted them to dance like they were enjoying themselves in their own spaces. It was very sexy, and it captured the feeling of the clothes. It was at 9am, and I remember Sarah Mower being a little bit shocked – but in a good way, because she remembers it so well. She wanted it to be in the exhibition.’

Rebel 30 years of london fashion at the design museum

The ‘Start-Up Culture’ room

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

Newgen was founded in dire economic times not too dissimilar to those we are living through now. Darkness, it seems, always sparks new light in creativity and acts of rebellion, pushing ideas forward for a better future. The cohort that makes up 2023’s Newgen programme is testament to this grit and ingenuity, from Sinead O’Dwyer’s celebration of body shapes rarely seen on the runway, to British-Yemeni designer Kazna Asker’s pioneering marriage of sportswear shapes and hijabi dress. 

‘The more you show who you are, the more interesting the work becomes,’ Saunders says, reflecting on what makes London such a special place for emerging talent. ‘People from all over come here and want to tell a story about where they came from, who they are as people, and I think that's very important.’

‘Rebel: 30 Years of London Fashion’ at London’s Design Museum, sponsored by Alexander McQueen, runs from 6 September 2023 – 11 February 2024.

Orla Brennan is a London-based fashion and culture writer who previously worked at AnOther, alongside contributing to titles including Dazed, i-D and more.