A wedding dress created by a top West End fashion designer who had arrived in London as a penniless teenage refugee from Nazi Germany is the centrepiece of a fashion exhibition on how Jewish Londoners shaped global style.

The exhibition at the Museum of London tells the story of Nettie Spiegel, who was given refuge with a family in Stamford Hill in 1939.

The centrepiece of the display is her 1970s Neymar-label dress worn by Sara Raiher.

“There was no question that Nettie would make my wedding dress,” Sara recalled years later. “She knew immediately what would suit me and from the first moment I knew it would be wonderful.”

Sara wore the dress for her wedding in January 1972, with its full-length sleeves, puffed shoulders and a high neckline, the bodice adorned with cross-hatched beading and fabric flowers that were also used to finish the cuffs and hem.

Ham & High: Nettie's 1972 wedding dress design in its full glory

It was a far cry from three decades earlier, when a young Nettie Margulies arrived in London as an unaccompanied child refugee.

Nettie was born in Berlin in 1923 into a middle-class family. As a teenager in 1938 she witnessed Kristallnacht, the night marauding Nazi mobs burned synagogues and smashed up Jewish businesses in a purge that prefigured the Holocaust of Europe’s six-million Jews.

Her parents saw what was coming and made the heartbreaking decision to send her to London on Nicholas Winton’s historic Kindertransport rescue operation.

She would never see them again and later learned they were murdered at Auschwitz. 

The Kindertransport arrived in London in March 1939 — just six months before war broke out across Europe.

Nettie was given accommodation by the Duval family in Stamford Hill in return for childminding.

She began work as a machinist in a dressmaking factory, but with the goal of becoming a fashion designer she went to evening classes at the Regent Street Polytechnic to learn design and pattern cutting.

Legend has it that she walked up and down Great Portland Street with her sketches until she found someone who would take her on — bespoke designer Raie Sclare, a Jewish immigrant who became her mentor.

Ham & High: The cross-hatched beading in the 1972 designThe cross-hatched beading in the 1972 design (Image: Museum of London)

Nettie then told the Duvals she could no longer do childcare, so they asked for half her wages in rent. But when the Duvals moved away from London when war broke out in 1939 they left an envelope for her with all the rent money she had paid them.

A note explained that they never wanted payment but worried that someone so young would not know how to look after their money. They saved it for her so she could support herself. 

In 1943, Nettie married Jack Spiegel, a fellow refugee she had first met in Berlin. They opened their own Neymar dressmaking business from their home in Stamford Hill before expanding in the 1950s to Mayfair’s couture neighbourhood, where she retired in the 1980s.

Examples of her work can be found in the Museum of London’s collection as well as the Jewish Museum in Camden Town and the Victoria and Albert in South Kensington.

Nettie Spiegel died in 2005 aged 82. The Bridal Room at Western Marble Arch synagogue was later named after her — ensuring her link to Jewish brides lives on.