From his headline-grabbing award from the Queen, to high street collaborations and a plethora of luxury stockists, Richard Quinn is building a business bigger than the subversive glamour of his catwalks.
In just four seasons, 29-year-old womenswear designer Richard Quinn has gone from new Central Saint Martins graduate to one of luxury’s buzziest names: from a small studio in Peckham, south London, to dressing stars such as Amal Clooney for New York’s Met Ball – known as fashion’s Oscars – via collaborations with H&M, Designers at Debenhams and, new for autumn 19, Italian outerwear giant Moncler.
And who could forget his history-making catwalk show attended by the Queen – her first time at London Fashion Week (LFW) – where he was awarded the inaugural Queen Elizabeth II Award for British Design?
“Yes, everything seems to be falling into place,” Quinn tells me with a modest smile.
High-profile prizes and collaborations have certainly helped to build his profile, but Quinn is proving there is substance behind the hype. He has mastered the balance between show-stopping creativity, design leadership and commercial nous – his stockists more than doubled in one season and now stand at nearly 60, including luxury’s leading names Net-a-Porter, Bergdorf Goodman and Matchesfashion. For autumn 19, wholesale prices range from £34 for a pair of sheer printed tights to £1,450 for an embellished dress. A cape coat that retails at £2,500 is his bestseller.
As reflected in his eponymous brand’s unapologetic aesthetic – think explosions of floral prints overloaded with pops of colour and heavy embellishment across couture-like gowns, and unashamedly glamorous separates contrasted with kinky masks and PVC body suits – he is strong willed and fearless. For a young man leading an emerging business, Quinn knows what he wants, and is more than happy to do it his own way.
With a core team of just five full-time staff, his dual businesses, the Richard Quinn brand and the Richard Quinn studio – a hub for students and emerging designers to learn about textile printing and provide a paid for service for other labels, which includes JW Anderson and Burberry, and where he prints all his own fabrics, are going from strength to strength. Sales have doubled each season since autumn 18.
Far from just making “fabulous” dresses, Quinn is set on building a community, manufacturing in the UK and establishing a healthy, money-making business. “I need money to make these fabulous dresses,” he says matter-of-factly from behind his desk, signature cap perched on his head.
A south Londoner through and through, the designer has made a rickety railway arch off Queens Road in Peckham in the city’s south east, the humble home of his business. He and his four siblings were born just 10 minutes away in Lewisham, and grew up 20 minutes down the road in Eltham.
He went to the capital’s Central Saint Martins (CSM) college – fellow graduates include Alexander McQueen – to study an art foundation course, and was originally set on becoming a graphic designer.
It was during this time that designers like Christopher Kane, a recent graduate of CSM, were making waves in London, igniting Quinn’s love for fashion: “I worked in Topshop part time and I saw Christopher Kane’s [collaboration with the high street giant] and thought, ‘Wow’. I suddenly had tunnel vision that I wanted to be in fashion too.”
He took a year out to gain experience with emerging brands Michael van der Ham and Christopher Shannon. “I was really wowed by it,” he admits. “They had Vogue magazine turning up at their little studio in Stoke Newington. I was like, ‘This is crazy.’”
He returned to CSM to study a BA in fashion and print, via internships at Dior in Paris and Richard James on London’s Savile Row, and then went straight on to the MA Fashion course.
“On the MA, I decided I wanted to open a studio. I knew that I would want to print for my own brand, and that I could print for other people too. There was a gap in the market for quality printers – this space would have been a dream for me back then,” he says of his studio. “I wanted a business within a business, even if the printing part just paid my rent each month. I liked the fact that I could make money throughout the season.”
When I suggest that this is a smart business move for a student in their early twenties, especially while other students might have been focusing on flexing their creative muscles, Quinn objects: “Some people are just really lazy, but it’s like, ‘Just fucking get on with it. Make it happen’. I grew up in a household where you needed to make money, otherwise you didn’t have it.” He says his father, who runs a nearby scaffolding business, helped to instil this entrepreneurial mindset.
Quinn graduated in April 2016 and in November applied for the annual H&M Design Award, which was launched in 2012 to support young designers. He pitched his idea for an “open door” printing studio that would act as a commercial venture as well as a hub for other emerging brands to learn and share skills.
He won, taking home the €50,000 (£43,000) prize and the chance to sell a capsule collection in selected H&M stores – which sold out.
“I got the money really quickly, so [opening the print studio] happened overnight. That got the ball rolling,” he says.
By September 2017 he made his 15-look catwalk debut in collaboration with department store Liberty and the following February won a slot on the official LFW schedule, showing his first full collection.
In the lead-up, Quinn was told that LFW organisers, the British Fashion Council, would be awarding him a prize, but brushed it off.
“When you’re in the studio and there’s 15 seamstresses asking you a million questions, the last thing you’re thinking about is an award or worrying about what you’re going wear,” he laughs.
However, the surprise was eventually revealed, and the Queen made her unexpected appearance at fashion week to watch Quinn’s catwalk show and present him with the first Queen Elizabeth II Award for British Design, recognising his creative talent as well as his contribution to the community.
You know that you get a product that is exquisite, limited, very different and individual
Stavros Karelis, Machine-A
Quinn downplays his brush with royalty, which reached news outlets around the world, and describes the Queen simply as “really nice”, but he admits the impact was life changing. “It was bigger than I thought it was going to be, but it exploded. It suddenly made [us] legit. People were thinking: ‘This is from the guy that won that award.’ There is a certain customer that would affiliate with that, so it was really great for business.”
“It went crazy,” says Stavros Karelis, founder and buying director of London store Machine-A, which has stocked Richard Quinn since spring 18. “The immediate effect on sales was insane. We had 100% sell-through that season.”
“He’s young and talented, he understands luxury, but he also has something rebellious in him. He’s a smart businessman at such a young age. It was a very rounded business model, even from the beginning.”
Machine-A currently stocks a spread of Richard Quinn products, from its entry level pieces up to a £3,640 floor-length gown.
“It’s a specific customer that will spend that money, but you know that you get a product that is exquisite, limited, very different and individual,” says Karelis. “That customer is there, she wants it and is willing to spend.”
That customer includes singer Björk, who Karelis reveals recently visited the Machine A-store and bought exclusively Richard Quinn pieces.
“We bought into Richard Quinn from his first season, and our customers have consistently responded well to his collections,” echoes Natalie Kingham, fashion buying director at Matchesfashion. “His opera coat always does well for us. The dramatic silhouette paired with standout prints makes it the perfect piece for our customers who love more directional eveningwear.”
In the season for which Quinn received the Queen’s Award (autumn 18), wholesale stockists jumped from 15 to 45, but he did not rest on his laurels. September’s spring 19 show was a confident move on, evolving his aesthetic with new shapes and fresh styles, and smartly expanding his offer. Last month’s autumn 19 catwalk show was one of the highlights of the season, as the designer introduced yet more newness alongside a level of elevated craftsmanship unparalleled in London. It is easy to forget it was only his fourth collection since leaving university.
If you want to own it, then you have to be quick and buy it. And at full price
“The brand has such a point of difference,” say Elizabeth von der Goltz, global buying director at Net-a-Porter, which has stocked the brand since autumn 18. “The combination of the technical skill and print made it stand out – there is nothing like this in the market.
“Richard has certainly created a distinct aesthetic, but he also has a broad product offering which will undoubtedly grow in the future. Take his bold printed turtlenecks – here he is offering something more pared back and easy to wear. It will allow him to reach a new consumer, and the price point is good.”
To continue his winning streak, von der Goltz recommends that Quinn “continues pushing the boundaries with his show-stopping drama couture pieces while balancing his collection with easier, more commercial pieces that still reflect his creativity and bold print and colour”.
Part of Quinn’s success is his determination to do things his way – on everything from catwalk shows to wholesale relationships – which can be tricky for young designers, particularly if influential stores impose conditions.
“When a store selects a rail and says, ‘So, this is how we work’, we say, ‘Well, this is how we work – you pay for it and we make it’,” he explains. “We don’t do sale or return.
“We only make for demand. Whatever orders come in, that’s what we make. We don’t create surplus stock. I think that keeps the brand solid. Once it’s sold, it’s gone. If you want to own it, then you have to be quick and buy it. And at full price.”
Manufacturing is an issue Quinn is particularly passionate about, but one he admits is his biggest headache. Currently all Richard Quinn products are made in the UK, apart from one piece of embroidery in the spring 19 collection that was shipped to India.
“We’re all about making in England. It’s sustainable, and convenient, but it’s also very difficult. I would love to make everything here if I could, 100%. I find value in that and I want that for my business, but it’s getting to a point where it’s easier to send it off,” he says. “We’ve found it to be a nightmare.”
Despite finding several “amazing” UK factories, as his business grows, he is struggling to find enough reliable and quality manufacturers, pointing to greed and a lack of professionalism.
“People get greedy, making the same thing but double the price a season later because they’ve seen it on Net-a-Porter selling for thousands of pounds. And people’s behaviour sometimes isn’t professional, or transactional. If the dress isn’t done correctly, they have to fix it – it’s not personal. I get that they’ve spent time on it, but I’ve also paid for it,” he says. “They know they have you, they have a sword over your head. But once [they behave in this way], I’ll never give them money ever again.”
Determined not to give up on UK manufacturing, he plans to explore factories outside of London, but is conscious that, as production gets bigger and he continues to elevate his brand, UK manufacturing could remain problematic.
“But I would encourage any manufacturer to contact me – we have lots of work for them,” he says.
Looking to the future, Quinn says his aim is to “grow slowly, but make it big at the same time”. Though his website currently consists of a simple holding page – “there just hasn’t been time to do it” – this includes plans to test a small webstore selling limited exclusives for the coming season.
When asked how he defines success, he says: “Happiness. And I’m pretty happy. This is exactly what I wanted to be doing and, in 20 years’ time, I still want to be doing this. So I want to build a business. It’s like, I want to have a car, I want to have a house, I want to have an income.”
As the brand grows, the catwalk shows, which Quinn cherishes as the pinnacle of each collection – “that special moment” – are also set to grow.
“I want them to be bigger and better,” he says, wide-eyed. “I want to really push it. Create shows that wow everyone. I want to give people goosebumps. I want it to be like a scrum to get into the show – people forging tickets because they’re desperate to see what we do.”
When I tell him, even after only four seasons, that it is already like that at his London Fashion Week shows, he smiles: “I don’t think we’ve peaked yet.”