Rebel: a scintillating celebration of the people who make London so chic

Ahluwalia's Spring/Summer 2022 collection
Ahluwalia's Spring/Summer 2022 collection - Laurence Ellis

In June, Pharrell Williams – newly anointed as the head of Louis Vuitton’s menswear – staged his debut in a catwalk spectacle on Pont Neuf, shutting down central Paris and inviting Beyoncé along for the ride. It was a perfect encapsulation of where fashion it now “at”: noise, celebrity extravaganzas and social media takeovers. Which means the smaller names in the fashion ecosystem can become lost in the fanfare. But the new Rebel exhibition at the Design Museum, celebrating homegrown talent that emerged through the New Gen funding initiative from the British Fashion Council, is a forceful reminder of the power and creativity of independent London designers who don’t need a hashtag to shake up the status quo.

Curated by veteran fashion journalist Sarah Mower MBE, a longtime contributing editor to American Vogue and passionate supporter of new talent in the capital, the exhibition marks 30 years of the New Gen project as the city gets set for London Fashion Week, which kicks off this Friday.

Kim Jones is one example; the reigning king of international fashion now runs Dior menswear and Fendi womenswear, but he got his break – like so many before and after him – by showing a collection via the New Gen showcase. One of his early outfits forms part of the exhibition, alongside work by designers who benefitted from the support in the early years of their career: Alexander McQueen, Matthew Williamson, Antonio Berardi, Giles Deacon, Christopher Kane, Erdem, Roksanda Ilincic.

“Rebellion is a creative process, and it felt like the right moment to underline how boundary-pushing these designers have been in a climate where they’ve had to fight to be heard,” says Mower. The exhibition is deliberately non-chronological, starting with a series of wild outfits from a range of different designers to demonstrate their common language of experimental expression, from a Jonathan Saunders kaleidoscope-print dress to a Louise Gray chaotic lost-and-found ensemble.

There are sections devoted to designers tackling socio-political issues such as sustainability and protest, the “start-up culture” that propelled so many young graduates to launch their own brands – no mean task against backdrops of austerity and cuts in art school funding – and a segment devoted to London’s most renegade and runaway son, Alexander McQueen, with early pieces from his debut collection, Taxi Driver, and audio from his then-flatmate talking through the process of designing it while living in a chaotic Peckham flatshare.

Sam Smith at the 2023 Brit Awards
Sam Smith at the 2023 Brit Awards - Steve Bealing/Landmark Media/Alamy

There are tender nods to the tutors who mentored these fledgling fashion forces; the late Louise Wilson, as feared as she was feted as the course director at Central Saint Martins MA, gets mentioned in quotes that dance across the walls. Ensembles worn by various celebrities – from Björk in her Marjan Pejoski swan dress to Harry Styles in his upcycled SS Daley – add a dose of stardust, but the real A-listers are the designers themselves, many of whom might not have become household names but lending themselves to the fabric of London creative talent.

Particularly joyous is the celebration of club culture; from 80s Blitz Club to the 00s Boombox era, after-dark endeavours have long been the lifeblood of London fashion design. A grand finale of a “catwalk” moment, with mannequins in a series of different designers responsible for putting London on the world stage, is a reminder of what makes the city’s fashion truly great: wildly energetic creativity and thinking laterally about what role clothes play in our lives.

From Sept 16-Feb 11 2024;