Why designer Richard Quinn, watched by Queen Elizabeth and Anna Wintour at London Fashion Week, is staying grounded
Creative director of a big house? No way, says British designer who, despite being approached by many fashion labels wanting to harness his talent, is staying firmly focused on his own brand
The most talked-about moment of this year’s autumn-winter fashion shows didn’t come courtesy of a mega brand such as Gucci or Chanel – although the severed heads at the former’s show and the uprooted trees at the latter’s certainly made headlines. It belonged to a little-known designer based in Peckham, South London, who made his runway debut on the last day of London Fashion Week.
While most editors and buyers had already left for Milan, those who stayed were in for a big surprise as none other than Her Majesty the Queen attended the show to award Quinn the inaugural Queen Elizabeth II Award for British Design. A photo of the monarch sitting next to Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour went viral, turning the 28-year-old designer into an overnight sensation.
A graduate of Central Saint Martins, London-born Quinn, who apprenticed with designers Michael van der Ham and Christopher Shannon, grabbed the attention of critics and buyers with his slightly retro floral prints and oversized and layered garments worn by a cast of diverse models, some of them with their heads fully covered in patterned scarves.
Quinn operates from a two-floor, warehouse-like studio below railway tracks in a gritty part of Peckham, with neighbours including glass workers, car-repair shops and artists. When you walk in, the first thing you notice is a huge machine that produces the designer’s vibrant prints; Quinn has turned this into a side business, providing original textiles and patterns for various brands.
“I’ve always been interested in prints and drawing since I was 16 or 17,” says Quinn when we met him and his two assistants – the entirety of his small team – at his studio earlier this month. “Then I went to Central Saint Martins and I was into Tim Walker and Tim Burton and very bold, print-based things.
“I started doing womenswear and saw the textiles that other students were creating from raw materials.”
Quinn has quickly built a signature style that makes his clothes stand out both on a department store rack and on the websites of e-commerce retailers. He’s not worried about being pigeonholed into a narrow aesthetic, though, as he recognises the importance of novelty and the need to evolve his work – especially after all the recent attention.
“I see print as an added value to the garment,” he says. “I know that prints have become synonymous with us now. Even our plain leather jackets have printed linings. I’ll move it on but keep the signature and maybe don’t do as many flowers.
“For buyers [like department stores], if I didn’t do different shapes or prints, they wouldn’t be able to find anything to sell next season.”
While his list of stockists has ballooned since the London show, a selection of his pieces from the previous season had already been bought by online retailer matchesfashion.com long before.
Natalie Kingham, buying director at matchesfashion.com, discovered Quinn thanks to Vogue columnist Sarah Mower and has been a fan of his work for a long time.
“What’s amazing for me is these very retro prints that he uses, all original, in these very couture-like garments and gowns,” she says. “If you’re looking for glamorous evening wear, it’s often for one type of customer and very classic, but Quinn embodies and delivers a different type of glamour. His first collection sold out for us and then he had that show.”
Quinn has benefited greatly from the support of the London fashion community and was inundated with all kinds of offers after getting the queen’s seal of approval. “I didn’t think it would be big outside of England but it really blew up,” he says. “It was good because I got a lot of visibility and reached people outside of fashion.”
Many brands have since approached him with creative director jobs – including a major player whose name he won’t reveal – but the experience was quite off-putting.
“After the experience I’ve had in the last few months, there’s no f***ing way that I’ll join a big house as creative director,” he says. “They flew me 10 to 15 times everywhere for meetings that could have been done in an email, about nothing.
“I’m two seasons down and I enjoy working here, and I’d rather stay here and focus on my own work. My dad is five doors up and I live five minutes away, so why go to Paris or Milan all the time for another job?”
Quinn, who is debuting shoes and bags at his next show and working on a take-over project at matchesfashion.com’s upcoming space in Mayfair, knows that focusing on his line will eventually pay off. After all, expectations are high after his breakout show, and he feels the pressure to deliver.
The designer scored another big coup a few months after the queen’s blessing by dressing Amal Clooney, wife of actor George Clooney, who wore a custom-made outfit to the Met Gala in New York, which she co-hosted with Rihanna, Donatella Versace and Anna Wintour.
“We don’t die over celebrities. If they want to wear us, we tell them to please come down to Peckham.
That mirror,” he says, pointing to one leaning against a wall, “is left from when [Clooney] came here. We had to get it from a shop just for her.
“She was very nice to work with and I think that nice people tend to gravitate towards us. She came with her mum and a friend, who’s also kind of a stylist.
“After she wore the outfit, we kept getting emails from people about numbers: how many people worked on it, how many hours it took to make, but we were like, what?”
Quinn’s frank talk and laid-back approach, quite unusual in the fashion industry these days, make him a rare bird. Here’s hoping that no matter what incredible opportunities come his way, his South London roots will keep him real and grounded.