Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II has packed a lot of living into her 92 years, but until this past February she’d never experienced the frenetic spectacular known as Fashion Week. That’s not surprising: When one has a staff of personal dressers and a 2,868-diamond crown, ready-to-wear trends do seem a bit beside the point. So when Her Majesty appeared in the front row of Richard Quinn’s fall 2018 presentation—dressed in an ice blue skirt suit, her royal backside cosseted against the hard standard-issue Lucite chair by her own personal pillow—the fashion world practically exploded with curiosity. Why had the nonagenarian sovereign suddenly developed an interest in prêt-à-porter? And who, for that matter, was Richard Quinn?
Even devoted style watchers would be forgiven for not knowing the answer. Up until the moment Quinn appeared on the catwalk to shake the queen’s hand, he didn’t even make the top 10 results in a Google search of his name. Two weeks, countless headlines, and a zillion congratulatory phone calls later, the 28-year-old Londoner still seemed a bit shell-shocked by the experience. “It was superweird,” he says, between sales appointments in Paris. “Surreal but nice, like a happy dream.”
Quinn’s happy dream had started about five weeks before his show, when, he says, “I knew something was happening.” That something was the first ever Queen Elizabeth II Award for British Design, for which he was in the running. Just about 10 days before the show, he learned he’d actually won, and even closer to the date he was told that the queen herself would be on hand to present it. “And still, I didn’t really believe she’d come until people backstage started going a bit nuts,” he says.
The prize is meant to recognize an up-and-coming designer with both outstanding talent and a sense of social responsibility, and Quinn has plenty of both. As a student at Central Saint Martins, from which he received his master’s degree in 2016, Quinn grew frustrated by the overcrowding at the school’s textile-print shop and the high cost of private printing facilities. The solution, he decided, was to set up his own studio. He found a space near his father’s scaffolding business in Peckham, a blue-collar South London neighborhood; borrowed his dad’s van; and drove around the country gathering cast-off screen printing equipment. Somehow, he managed to convince Epson to donate three high-tech digital printers, and soon the place was up and running. On the merits of his graduate collection, Quinn won the 50,000 euro H&M Design Award 2017 and funneled that money into the enterprise as well. Today, the studio not only serves as an open-desk creative hub for students and small designers but also produces printed textiles for big-time labels like Burberry and Ports 1961. The H&M prize also funded the start-up of Quinn’s two-seasons-old ready-to-wear collection, which takes inspiration from what he describes as “old-school couture shapes” and, of course, is dominated by intense, exuberant, eye-popping prints.
For fall, there are frocks festooned with gold and violet blooms, daisy-bedecked puffer coats, and crazy rose prints on everything from voluminous foil evening gowns and acid-hued tights to oversize motorcycle helmets. Perhaps most notable was the group of looks that Quinn called Balmoral, in honor of the queen’s Scottish retreat, and which was inspired by the silk scarf that she regularly wears around her head, kerchief-style, while in residence there, presumably to keep the Highland mist from deflating her coif. The heavily draped ensembles featuring piled-on, wildly clashing scarves completely covering models from head to toe—faces included—were, explains Quinn, a last-minute addition. “When I knew she was going to come, I added in the whole scarf thing,” he says, “doing it in my own twisted way.”
Was he worried about offending Her Majesty by transforming one of her sartorial signatures into what might best be described as kinky burkas? “Not really,” says Quinn, who by all accounts is almost preternaturally down-to-earth and unflappable. “She’s known for having a sense of humor, and she’s seen so much in her life. I don’t think there’s really anything I can show that’s going to shock her.” Whether setting up a business or mining a muse, he’s all about seizing the day. “I mean, if you’re ever going to do a scarf print,” he says, “you might as well do it when the queen is sitting in the front row.”