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Harry Styles, Bjork and celebrating fashion’s rebels

by Zoe Whitfield, CNN

London (CNN) — Around the time of 2003, as the British Fashion Council’s talent-fostering initiative Newgen turned 10, the UK was involved in a number of era-defining events: Britain invaded Iraq under the orders of Prime Minister Tony Blair; legislation banning local authorities and schools from ‘promoting homosexuality’ was repealed; and social media site Myspace launched — changing the way we connect online forever.

These events — and plenty more, such as the arrival of online fashion shopping via Net-a-Porter in 2000, the introduction of tuition fees for university students in 1998 — are all acknowledged in a timeline at the Design Museum’s new exhibition, “Rebel: 30 Years of London Fashion”. Their inclusion is highly significant, underscoring the backdrop against which the city’s fashion scene has evolved over the past three decades, from a lackluster showcase of few designers to an internationally recognized hub of new talent.

“Newgen was initiated in 1993, really as a response to the fact the UK was in a recession,” Rebecca Lewin — who co-curated the exhibition alongside Vogue critic Sarah Mower — told CNN in an interview. “The expectation amongst designers coming through schools (in the UK) were that jobs were elsewhere, in fashion houses abroad.” Thus, the British Fashion Council (BFC) resolved to conserve said designers, showcasing six young labels to press and buyers in a suite at The Ritz during London Fashion Week. Newgen was born.

“Lee McQueen was in that first cohort,” continued Lewin, referring to the late Alexander McQueen, whose brand today is one of the British fashion industry’s biggest successes (and also the show’s sponsor). “While the collection was lost, his story is really indicative of what it takes and means to start out, and gives a flavor of London in the early 1990s.”

Specifically, “Rebel” showcases garments and ephemera made by some of the 300 designers at the start of their careers, when they were being supported by Newgen funding – the likes of Grace Wales Bonner, JW Anderson, Kim Jones, Mary Katrantzou, Duro Olowu, Richard Quinn and Simone Rocha. Elsewhere, McQueen’s friend and collaborator Simon Ungless has reproduced pieces from that lost first collection, displayed alongside previously unseen photographs of Lee with his debut, voice recordings and early media coverage.

Why London loves a rebel

Using London itself as a framework, the show examines why these creatives chose the city, and why particular spaces inspired them (the city’s club culture is pored over in particular, with old posters and video footage highlighting the tight relationship with young designers like Martine Rose, Charles Jeffrey’s LOVERBOY label, and Nasir Mazhar).

Indeed, few of the designers started out in London, more often moving to attend institutions like Central Saint Martins, University of Westminster and London College of Fashion: such was the chase for Harikrishnan Keezhathil Surendran Pillai (who designs under the moniker HARRI), from India, SS Daley’s Liverpool-born Steven Stokey-Daley, and Marjan Pejoski from Macedonia. Two current Newgen recipients and a 2001 recipient respectively, their bold designs – worn by Sam Smith to the Brits, Harry Styles in the video for Golden, and Bjork’s iconic swan moment at the Oscars – are amongst the nearly 100 looks on display.

While geared toward the fashion conscious, Lewin emphasized an affinity with the broader visual memory, attributed to the role of newspaper coverage pre-Instagram, and a sense of discovery within the show. “Christopher Kane’s amazing neon dresses were made of lace, lingerie and elastic bought at a market in east London,” she explained. “If you know (the area), you know those stalls, but it may never have occurred to you to make amazing bodycon dresses. Now you’ve seen those things are accessible, I hope it ignites a sense of possibility.”

Moreover, the advent of social media and style blogs was a crucial moment in the trajectory of London fashion. “Up until the year 2000 the only way for people to reach the cutting edge of what was happening was going to a show or waiting months for magazines., as a resource, had a huge impact – immediately designers could understand how many people they were reaching,” said Lewin. “Social media then meant more outlets for designers, communicating their work more directly. Those technological shifts had an enormous impact.”

While the array of garments – beautiful, innovative, sometimes totally otherworldly – is perhaps the show’s big sell, its wider stories and the variables that have informed each piece is a major factor notes the curator. “Same as every other creative industry, changes in the education system and the cost of living have ripple effects on the way designers function within a city like London,” she said. “These designers have challenged how fashion has been made, rebelling, saying ‘I want to do something different, better’.”

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