Life & Culture

Fashion City: How London Jews styled the world

The Jewish contribution to fashion is being celebrated at a new exhibition opening in October


The vast and varied contribution of London’s Jews to British fashion — from trailblazing boutiques such as Lee Bender’s Bus Stop and the Gold Brothers’ Lord John, from high-end couture salons to high-street chains — will be placed in the spotlight by an exhibition opening on October 13 in the Museum of London’s gleaming new Docklands home.
Called Fashion City: How Jewish Londoners Shaped Global Style, the exhibition will highlight the Jewish entrepreneurs, business-people, designers, tailors and manufacturers responsible for some of the most iconic and recognisable looks of the 20th century.

Running until April 2024, the exhibition — the first in the MoL’s new Docklands base — will look at Jewish-founded brands, such as Alexon, Gor-Ray, Mansfield, Polly Peck, Reldan, and Shubette, that helped shape the British ready-to-wear industry by bringing affordable high fashion to consumers. It will also feature the Jewish-founded retail chains, including Wallis, River Island, Miss Selfridge, Oasis, Whistles, Cecil Gee, Moss Bros and Marks & Spencer, which boosted Britain’s post-war economy and created new kinds of shopping experiences. These iconic brands could even be said to have invented the high street, especially if the shoe shops belonging to the Jewish-owned British Shoe Corporation are included.

The exhibition will also feature high-fashion Jewish designers and couturiers. As the most famous of an elite bunch who created clothes for royals and red carpets, David Sassoon, the charming and prodigiously talented son of Iraqi-born immigrants, is prominently featured in the exhibition. But the co-founder of one-time royal favourite Bellville Sassoon was not alone. Other Jewish designers of the period included Roland Klein, Jacques Azagury, Victor Edelstein and the Jewish half of the London-based duo who created what is arguably the world’s most famous wedding dress, Elizabeth Emanuel.

Before all of them, there was “Neymar”. Born Netty Spiegel, she arrived in England alone, aged 15 on the Kindertransport and became one of the top bridal and evening-wear designers in London in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s.
Her wedding dresses are included in the collection of the V&A and in the Museum of London’s own fashion and textile collection. The small, brown leather suitcase she clutched on her Kindertransport journey will be in the exhibition.

Milliner Otto Lucas — from a similar era — is also featured. Though largely unknown to a generation that remember Jewish milliners Simone Mirman and David Shilling, his hats appeared on the cover of British Vogue and — according to the exhibition publicity — he “changed the reputation of British fashion in the mid-20th century”.
A pair of coats perfectly highlight the piquant diversity of the Jewish contribution to British fashion. One is a brown tweed coat by Jewish -founded ready-to-wear brand Alexon that was worn in countless episodes of EastEnders by Dot Cotton, played by June Brown. The other is a red couture coat by Knightsbridge-based David Sassoon worn by — and photographed on — the Princess of Wales.

Also on view will be a floral “kipper tie” from Mayfair menswear boutique Mr Fish, opened in 1966 by Jewish Londoner Michael Fish, who was also responsible for designing possibly the most memorable man’s outfit of the 1960s — the foppish, frilled white two-piece worn by Mick Jagger at the Rolling Stones legendary 1969 Hyde Park free concert.

Fish, whose other clients included Jimi Hendrix, David Bowie and Muhammad Ali, was one of the Jewish designers and entrepreneurs who turned 1960s London into the epicentre of hip style for men. Other Jews contributing to this so-called Peacock Revolution and helping London to swing include the Gold brothers — David, Harold and Warren — who opened the Lord John boutique in Carnaby Street in 1964. The shop, with its three-storey psychedelic mural, was instrumental in elevating 1960s Carnaby Street from quiet London backwater into one of the most visited — and most achingly cool — destinations on the planet.

Another iconic Jewish figure in menswear — which the JC can celebrate though the Museum of London probably can’t — is the legendary Manchester-born Soho tailor Dougie Millings. Responsible for those iconic suits worn by the Beatles in their mop-top heyday, Millings had other notable clients including Adam Faith, Roy Orbison, the Temptations, the Four Tops and Tom Jones. As he told the JC in 1995, the Sixties were “very exciting times” and it was “all rather nice for a respectable Jewish tailor”.

The exhibition will look at tailoring, a key area of fashion involving Jews. The museum’s focus, naturally, is London where some 200,000 Jews — mainly Ashkenazim fleeing pogroms and persecution in eastern Europe — arrived between the end of the 19th century and the early 1930s, of whom an estimated 50 per cent worked in tailoring or related clothing and textile trades. But as the less London-focused JC can record, there were Jewish tailors and tailoressesacross the UK including in Hull, Sheffield, Stockport, Cork City, Southsea, Leicester and Birmingham.

While contemplating the Jewish contribution to the 20th-century fashion landscape, you also cannot ignore the Leeds Jewish community. Menswear leviathan Burtons and Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s favourite raincoat brand, Gannex, were founded there, both by Lithuanian-born Jews. But mainly, we can’t ignore Leeds because Marks & Spencer was actually founded there in 1884, though (in fairness to the Museum of London) we must acknowledge that the M&S founding families relocated their head office (and themselves) to the capital as soon the business began to mushroom.

Other iconic Jewish-founded fashion brands that also can’t feature in any London expo include Kangol, founded in Cumbria by Polish refugees Jakob Spreiregen and Joseph Meisner; Coats-Viyella founded in Manchester by the Alliance family and Dannimac, also founded in Manchester by the Levy family, their raincoats — advertised in Vogue and Harpers on the top models of the day — kept baby-boomers stylishly dry in the 1960s and 1970s.

Other Jews who changed British fashion include Joan and Sidney Burstein. The founders of the Browns fashion empire, they launched their first multi-brand luxury boutique in South Molton Street in the early 1970s when luxury designer brands were found only in the most up-scale department stores. By putting impossibly chic French and Italian designer clothes under one roof — or more precisely, as their empire expanded, under seven or eight roofs — they not only changed British retail history but transformed a quiet London street into a fashion thoroughfare to rival Milan’s Via Montenapoleone or Paris’s Avenue Montaigne.

While looking — prompted by the Museum of London expo — at the sprawling Jewish contribution to British fashion, I can’t ignore the handbag brand Launer London. This vertiginously upscale and “quintessentially British” leather-goods brand, patronised by the late Queen Elizabeth and granted a Royal Warrant in 1960, was founded in 1940 by Czech-Jewish refugee Sam Launer.

A similar irony surrounds the creation of a “quintessentially British” outfit — the twinset — which was designed by Austrian-born Jewish refugee Otto Weisz while serving as the first knitwear designer at Pringle of Scotland.

‘Fashion City: How Jewish Londoners Shaped Global Style’ opens at the Museum of London Docklands E14 4AL on October 13, 2023. Tickets and further information at

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