Grand, regal, fabulous, joyful and a touch camp macabre – these are the words that best describe Richard Quinn’s work. The 29-year-old designer only launched his eponymous label in 2016, yet his singular vision and expression has already been feted with the first Queen Elizabeth II Award for British Design. The ebullient Quinn, clad in jeans, trainers and a baseball cap, accepted the trophy from Her Majesty after his debut at London Fashion Week, where he showed his Fall/Winter 2018 collection at creative hub 180 The Strand – his five siblings and parents cheering him on from the bleachers. That acclaim was swiftly followed by a nomination for British Emerging Talent in Womenswear at the 2018 Fashion Awards.
Quinn’s gowns are conjured up in a converted railway arch in Peckham, south London, tucked under the Overground service fondly known as the ‘hipster line’. “My dad has a scaffolding business in an arch just up the lane,” says Quinn. “He’s like the eyes and ears of security, notifying us if a film crew or visitors are on the way.” Dad will have spotted the arrival of Amal Clooney prior to her fitting for last year’s ‘Heavenly Bodies’ Met Gala, where she starred in a metallic foil corset and a sweeping, rose-print half-ballgown skirt. It flounced over a pair of cigarette pants and put a new masculine/feminine spin on gala dressing. “She is just so nice and down to earth. The whole experience was enjoyable – no one cried or had to stay up all night,” says Quinn with a smile. He is big on positivity. “Fashion should not be about giving up your life. I don’t believe in the starving, tortured artist and slaving around the clock. Fashion is tough, but it is fun and I want to keep it like that.” The business is close-knit, with a small team, and his sister oversees sales. “Working with family is key. There’s always someone who can tell you when to get back in your box,” he chuckles.
In the studio, gigantic Epson printers whirr gently, processing prints for his Spring/Summer 2019 collection. Micro to macro leopard print, an enormous tropical bloom and a very British chintzy floral are appearing on big scrolls of recyclable paper, evidence of the designer’s acute eye for jolting, yet never brash, color and print combinations. These designs will then be heat transferred onto fabric to create the vibrantly hued textiles that Quinn has become renowned for. He discovered this process, sublimation, as an MA student at Central Saint Martins. “Sublimation print is well known, but not at this level of luxury,” he explains.
Quinn was seduced into fashion by the couture of the 1950s and 1980s: the coiffed hair, meticulously crafted voluminous dresses, jewels and haute poses all made a lasting impression on him. He was also fascinated by the magical worlds of film-maker Tim Burton and fashion photographer Tim Walker. The immersive experience of the two Tims proved indelible.
“I was into the arts, making things, drawing, painting and building structures,” he says. Another seminal moment proved to be his time working as an assistant at Topman. “It was the revolt of London. Back then, Mary Katrantzou, Erdem and Christopher Kane were all championing the comeback of the party dress, which was both luxurious and unusual,” he recalls. “I also saw Kane’s capsule collection for Topshop and became aware that you can do amazing work and have an amazing business, that fashion is not frivolous.”
As a student, Quinn made a giant white headdress with a metal crucifix and a skirt that was festooned with chandelier crystals found in the attic of his family home. For his MA collection in 2016, he embellished hand-painted gowns featuring waspy waists and tulle underlay skirts with a multitude of beads and stones from Swarovski. His brilliant projection of a thoroughly modern glamour (vibrant color contrasts and a sense of volume and humor) had echoes of the 1950s and the grand couturiers, such as Norman Hartnell (a favorite of The Queen), Victor Edelstein (much adored by Princess Diana) and Christian Dior (Quinn interned at Dior during Raf Simons’ tenure), as well as touches of the perverse wit of Viktor & Rolf. Quinn’s work was a revelation at a moment when fashion was awash with extreme sportswear, ushered in by Vetements and the purism of Celine.
Quinn’s graduate collection won him the H&M Design Award 2017, and with its €50,000 ($56,900) prize pot he funded the set-up of his Peckham studio. A small capsule range in collaboration with Liberty followed, in which he reinterpreted prints in electric colorways on gowns, opera coats and matching bodywear.
He also has an instinctual love of sparkle. “I’ve had a long relationship with Swarovski, including when I was part of the studio at Dior and during a long placement at Richard James, where
I assisted in making the tour outfits for Elton John,” says Quinn. Now, he is working with a skilled, ethically run factory in India on intricate crystal embroideries, such as red roses and birds of paradise. “I like to work with a variety of sizes, cuts and colors to create a 3D effect,” he says of the crystal. “That makes the embellishment modern. The beauty is so desirable and the quality is unrivalled – it is true luxury.”
Ethnicity and sustainability underwrite Quinn’s operation. Local production (he prints his fabrics in the UK), minimum wastage, ethical sourcing and creating a convivial workplace are part of his best practice. The brand is also growing apace, with store presence more than tripling after he won the Queen Elizabeth II Award, to include Liberty and Dover Street Market in London, as well as online retailers Net-A-Porter and The Modist. Influence is everything, and figures such as the model Adwoa Aboah and fashion editor Giovanna Battaglia Engelbert (who wore a citrine green floral opera coat to the 2017 Fashion Awards) bring the designs alive.
His Spring/Summer 2019 show – to which he invited art students from his former school and Central Saint Martins to highlight the impact of cuts in arts education – was accompanied by the London Philharmonic Orchestra playing Lana Del Rey’s ‘Young and Beautiful’ from Baz Luhrmann’s production of the film The Great Gatsby. Models emerged amid a projected dystopian storm, first in macabre black gowns, faces covered, then in a hyper-saturated floral extravaganza.
“I wanted to make the show a real experience, something to remember,” says the designer.
As for Quinn, although on a daily basis he wears hoodies and jeans, he did walk the glamour talk at the 2018 Fashion Awards, held in patnership with Swarovski. His crystal-embellished pocket square and matching socks added a flourish to a penguin suit and patent dress shoes. “It’s a weird moment when we almost apologize for glamour,” he ponders. “A woman should not feel bad about wearing an expensive dress and looking hot!”
This story appeared in the Spring/Summer 2019 issue of SALT magazine.
Image Credits: Jason Llyod-Evans; Taylor Hill/Getty Images; Yui Mok/Getty Images