Q&A: RCA Dean Professor Wendy Dagworthy

Photography Colin Ross
Photography Colin Ross

This month, at the end of this academic year, a stalwart in British creativity will be leaving her post: Dean Professor Wendy Dagworthy OBE is to retire from the Royal Collage of Art. To celebrate her 16 years at the college, and to mark her last graduate show, the RCA’s prestigious end-of-year MA event featured an exhibition entitled 16, featuring the work of some of the talent Dagworthy helped foster including Holly Fulton, Erdem, Matthew Miller and James Long.

These aren’t the only creative lives Dagworthy has influenced. In her previous role at St Martins, Wendy mentored designers such as Hussein Chalayan and Stella McCartney. At the RCA, where she was - sometimes simultaneously - Course Director and Professor of Fashion, head of the School of Fashion and Textiles and Dean of the School of Material - she taught Katie Eary, Sophia Webster, Aitor Throup, Astrid Andersen and Eudon Choi.

Part of Dagworthy’s talent is that her knowledge has never been purely theoretical; in 1972, she formed her own company and two years later, joined and later directed the London Design Collections - London Fashion Week in its earliest incarnation. During the 1990s, she consulted for Laura Ashley, Liberty and Betty Jackson; in 2013, much to the delight of fashion and culture fans everywhere, Dagworthy was curator of the V&A’s seminal 1980s exhibition, From Club to Catwalk.

Following the loss of her friend and former colleague Louise Wilson at Saint Martins earlier this year to cancer, Dagworthy’s retirement feels like a peculiarly cruel blow. Wilson and Dagworthy has been key to how British fashion has flourished the last 20 years - and how it has flourished. British talent is feted for its courage, its imagination, the challenge it presents to other parts of the fashion world. Christopher Bailey at Burberry, JW Anderson at Loewe: our designers are snapped up to head some of the most powerful houses in the world. In an interview with AnotherMag, Wendy admitted: ‘It’s the end of an era. It’s going to really change fashion. Whoever takes over from me, and from Louise at St Martins, it’s going to have a real influence on what happens next.’

Bel: What will you miss most about working at the RCA? Wendy: You’re active all the time. You’ve got meetings, you’ve got this, you’ve got that, the cycle of yearly events. I’ll miss all of that. Obviously, I’ll miss the shows and working up towards them with the students. That was always the best bit, seeing students progress and all their work come to fruition.

Bel: Will it be a clean break?
 Wendy: I don’t know yet. Someone new will be in my post and I think it’s best to let them have their space. But, hopefully, I’ll come back for the shows.

Bel: We haven’t seen the last of you ....
 Wendy: Well, I’m still a trustee of Graduate Fashion Week and I’m still on the advisory board of the British Fashion Council. I’ll just play it by ear and see what we get up to.

Bel: You were once called the High Priestess of British Fashion. Do you like the title? 
Wendy: I think it’s a recognition of what I’ve achieved and it’s nice to be called that but I don’t think of myself like that at all. Hopefully, I’ve helped students have the confidence to go out there and do what they wanted to do. I think that’s still what I try to get them to do through their own research: to go in depth and be themselves and enjoy it.

Bel: Teaching is a craft on its own.
 Wendy: You can’t impose your own aesthetics. You need to be objective and let them be whoever they are.

Bel: You were one of the founders of London Fashion Week. Did you know what it could become?
 Wendy: When you’re involved in something, you don’t think past what you’re doing at the time. It’s only when you look back, you can see how it happened. Before London Fashion Week, people were dispersed across London. We just thought, let’s make it easy for the buyers and all show under one roof.

Bel: There was no British Fashion Council, no NewGen, no Fashion East. London Fashion Week is a different entity now!
 Wendy: Yes, it is. During the late ’90s, there were a lot of young designers, straight from college, with no idea of business, without backing or any idea of how they would produce the clothes if they got any orders! And that aggravated buyers because they weren’t getting their deliveries. Designers thought having a fashion show was just the thing to do. It’s not; you need to grow your business gradually and have a good client base before you have a fashion show that costs a fortune.

Bel: Which shows do you attend? 
Wendy: As many as I can. I try to go to our graduates’ shows and other designers who are still friends.

Bel: Who do you enjoy seeing? 
Wendy: When Hussein [Chalayan] had his show here, it was fantastic. Every season, you’d think ‘What’s he going to do next?’ and he surpassed it. Alexander’s [McQueen] shows were always exciting, fantastic displays. Of the current shows, I think Burberry is great. [Christopher Bailey] does his own thing. Erdem is doing really well and I love John Rocha. I don’t often get to Paris to see shows now but when I was at Saint Martins, we used to take students there. We’d see Comme des Garçons and Yohji Yamamoto.

Bel: You were consultant for the V&A's From Club to Catwalk exhibition about 1980s culture ... Wendy: Oh, it was great! We made a list of all of the people I could remember, going through every season throughout the 1980s, end of the 1970s. We looked back at the old London Designer Collection catalogues and remembered who was there, who wasn’t. There was so much going on in the ’80s. People always think of the 1980s in terms of America - shoulder pads, Dallas, Dynasty - but London wasn’t about that. There were so many different designers and a lot of that was coming out of the art colleges as well and the club scene. Going through all of the archives at the V&A was wonderful. When we couldn’t find something there, we contacted the designers and managed to get their collections if they still had them. It was great! A lot of the clothes in the exhibition, you could wear today. And when you think of some of the fashion shows then, they were so long! There were so many clothes. The models were smiling and dancing. Half the time, they didn’t know what they were doing.

Bel: How do you think it’s changed for young designers? Wendy: Because the British Fashion Council and London Fashion Week have become more structured, young designers are becoming more professional. In some respects, it’s harder. There are more graduates coming out of colleges so it’s harder to find jobs but, before, there was no platform for designers to show at all. That’s a vast improvement. Before, we just used to ring up a buyer at Miss Selfridge and take our suitcase along with us and hope they’d be interested. Now, there’s links with the bigger, wider industry and different companies are employing and supporting different designers. It’s completely international as well, which it wasn’t then.

Bel: Being commercially astute is not the most compatible skill with being creative. Wendy: No, it’s not. The best way forward is to link up with a business partner. That’s easier said than done because you have to trust each other. But I think the most successful companies are the ones that are doing that.

Bel: Both the RCA and Central Saint Martins have been key to British fashion. Has their focus changed? Is there more of an emphasis on practicality to reflect global requirements?
 Wendy: Yes, I think there is. We encourage students to look at where they fit into fashion, what their market is. We encourage them to identify their customer. You do really need to know who you’re designing for. We encourage students to be more aware of what’s going on the world.

Bel: Are there any new names we should be watching?
 Wendy: Quite a few of our menswear graduates are making a name for themselves. Matthew Miller, Astrid Anderson, Lou Dalton. Katie Eary has got her own little market, a bit niche. It’s great that menswear’s developing. I always used to love designing menswear. Buyers seem more relaxed and friendly. It’s not as much of a battle as womenswear. If we went to menswear shows in Paris with students, they’d say ‘Oh, yes, of course I’ve an invite,’ whereas you’d have to fight for an invite to women’s shows.

Bel: What would your advice be to a young designer today?
 Wendy: Have faith in what you’re doing; don’t do what anyone else has done because there’s no point. If you look at each brand, they’ve got their own identity and believe in what they’re doing.