“Imagine we could be the ones to change it all”, a thought scribbled across a page in the sketchbook of one of the British Fashion Council’s young graduates, Paolo Carzana, and now on display as an exhibit in the Design Museum. This poignant remark instilled in me a feeling of confidence in the abilities of our generation to make positive changes in the world through the fearless creativity and originality that Gen Z represents.
Rebel: 30 Years of London Fashion features nearly 100 innovative designs from budding, young creatives who were supported by the British Fashion Council’s NEWGEN scheme. Founded in 1993, this scheme offered support to designers based on outstanding talent and financial need. At a time of serious economic downturn, the hope of NEWGEN was to restore London as a centre of creative power, attracting the interest of both national and international buyers and journalists. The scheme proved to be a huge success in supporting now-famous designers at the beginning of their careers, one of the most notable names to emerge from the programme being the late Alexander McQueen.
The exhibition credits art schools, including Central Saint Martins, London College of Fashion, and the Royal College of Art, as institutions where young people can form their identities, augment their creative ideas, and build collaborative relationships with one another. These London-based schools are admired as enlightened environments where students are encouraged to push boundaries and engage in critical thinking, producing ground-breaking designs.
Immediately walking into the exhibition, I am met with an explosion of colour emanating from a display of vibrant and ornate designs. This first room is a joyous celebration of the early 1990s revolt into colour, print, and decoration which rejected previous fashion trends such as 1980s minimalism and 1990s grunge. The kaleidoscopic, outlandish designs capture the dynamic energy of London as a city that openly embraces eccentricity and difference.
The beginning of the exhibition is complemented by a timeline pinpointing key moments in the development of the NEWGEN scheme alongside relevant events that either worked to bolster or impinge upon the creative careers of young designers since 1993. This timeline elucidates the scheme as a rare instance of an organisation that was working for, not against, the younger generations. The programme's growth occurred within a similar time frame to the Labour and Conservative parties’ introduction of incremental changes to university fees, highlighting just how difficult it was, and still is, for young designers to have access to the education and resources they require to succeed.
Another room decorated with heavy black curtains and a wall collaged with bright, illustrative posters credits the 90s London clubbing scene as a source of inspiration for many famous British fashion designs. The pulsating background music immerses the audience in the scene, generating a visceral reaction to the astonishing talent in the room. The formidable, black latex suit, ‘Harri’, created by NEWGEN designer Harikrishan Keezhathill Surendran Pillai for Sam Smith’s appearance at the 2023 BRIT Awards, steals the spotlight. Bright, flashing lights reflect off the latex fabric, making it quite literally shine in a way that the neighbouring pieces do not. The lighting works to cast a large shadow behind the construction, enhancing this masterpiece's rather intimidating and looming quality.
The stand-out room is the ‘REBEL fashion show’ where you are invited to witness six pioneering collections from young designers, such as Christopher Kane and Craig Green. Mannequins are set out on a long, perforated runway and positioned as if they were strutting behind one another. It feels like a privilege and an honour to get close to such world-changing designs, an experience often reserved for the extremely wealthy or talented. The whole exhibition has an ambience of inclusivity; not only the inclusivity of London in embracing nonconformist and daring young designers but also in the sense that the exhibition provides an opportunity for the masses to see such high fashion designs in an intimate setting.
REBEL invoked in me several emotional responses. It made me feel proud to have grown up in London, something I never take for granted and to be part of such a dynamic, diverse, and artistic city. It also instilled in me a sense of hope that our generation, just like the audacious young designers that took part in the NEWGEN programme, holds the ability to confront conformist ideas and catalyse change.
The exhibition’s air of creativity is infectious; I left feeling very inspired to pursue my creative inclinations. Whether you are interested in fashion or not, I can assure you that this exhibition will intrigue you in one way or another and fuel your inner and perhaps latent creativity.
REBEL: 30 Years of London Fashion is at the Design Museum from September 16th 2023 until 11th February 2024.
Students can buy tickets from £12.00
Edited by Megan, Fashion Editor