The stuffy art school that got spiced up – legendary RCA tutor Wendy Dagworthy reflects on 4 decades of fashion
“I’ve learnt to encourage students; I don’t damn them. I’m obviously critical, but you have to be constructive and tell students how to work forward, how to move on in the future – as opposed to, you know, saying ‘that’s a load of old shit’.”
Wendy Dagworthy sits in her serene white office at the Royal College of Art, one week before her last official day at the college. It’s July, 28 degrees, and approximately 700 metres away, Marina Abramovic is staring visitors down in the Serpentine Gallery.
Dagworthy, who has taught some of the most brilliant designers in the fashion industry (Alexander McQueen, Sarah Burton, Chalayan, Erdem -the list goes on) is modest, calm and extremely positive – a trait she’s undeniably refined, having taught at CSM and RCA for 25 years. She wears a white dress, her silver hair is tied up in her signature chignon and her metal bracelets that cover 1/2 of her right arm resound with every move she makes.
After graduating from Hornsey College of Art, Wendy started her own label, and designed stage clothes for Roxy Music, who she joined on a coach when they performed outside of London. The most outrageous costume she made for Bryan Ferry was “a toreador’s outfit, like a bull fighter’s costume”. She reminisces the bell boy outfit she made for the For Your Pleasure album, and pyjamas. “I did lots of pyjamas for him, when he had his tonsils out. I made him some pyjamas for when he was in hospital, with his initials on. That was a key thing of mine, I did lots of shirts with initials,” she says, with a slight raspy voice.
She remembers going to New York with a group of her contemporaries – let’s say the British predecessors of the Antwerp Six. One of their biggest markets was America. “There was Jasper Conran, John Galliano, Betty Jackson, Katharine Hamnett and me,” she says. “We rented a suite in a hotel and had someone organising appointments for us from right across America, because it was during New York Fashion Week.” They had a party at ‘Little Mel’s’, which was a groovy club at the time in New York, and Katherine and Wendy went on Good Morning America.
They all decided to join forces, for London was very disjointed at the time. Although there were the London Designer Collections, The Clothes Show and The Design Studio, it was very fragmented, with lots of different groups of designers, alongside those working alone. There were no platforms for labels to actually sell. After having thrown a few buyer/press events in hotel suites and ballrooms in The Ritz and Montcalm Hotel, they decided to go under one venue at Olympia, and have a tent down there for the shows, which is ‘sort of when it became London Fashion Week.’ “It was good but you know, we just played it by ear really, did what you thought you should be doing. There was no set way of doing things. It was quite exciting.”
She designed for her own label for sixteen years, until the ’89 recession kicked in and she had to close her business. At that time, the Saint Martins’ course director had just left, and, having been an external examiner at the college, she was offered a promotion. “I’d closed my line that November, so they asked me if I’d be willing to take over, and many years later I was still there.” Teaching has always come naturally for Wendy, as she’d always taught when she had her own company. Though not on a regular basis, she’d go to different colleges all over the country and “maybe set a project, come back in the middle and do some tutorials, and then go back and critique it.”
“I’ve been an external examiner for probably every college in the country – and a few international ones – so I’ve always done it. Until I started doing it full time, which sort of came naturally.”
In 1998, RCA poached her for a job, to “spice up a slightly stuffy art school.” an aim which she has achieved pretty well. “The staff are very different from before,” she says, “and there’s a fantastic cultural mix of students from all over the world. We really want students to do what they believe in, and have the confidence to do what they believe in, challenge what’s going on, but also really enjoy themselves. To enjoy what they’re doing and find their own personal identity, through their own personal search.”
What then, I ask, has changed in the students since she first set out to teach? “Jobs are scarce and there are many more students coming out, so they’re aware of what they need to do in order to get that job. I think they’re more aware of being marked, a lot of them seem to worry about the marks they get, rather than what they’re doing.” At the RCA, the students aren’t marked, which allows the students to take risks and to put the focus on themselves and their own progress, – not where they stand within the group. “It doesn’t matter if one project doesn’t work, it’s fine. They learn by that experience and they learn from their mistakes, so that’s where we’re slightly different. Passionately, she talks about the fact that the MA at RCA is two years.” I find that one year MA’s are a bit short, it’s not enough time to really develop yourself in a proper way. I think also because of the high overseas fees and UK fees, it’s obviously cheaper to do a one year MA and often students are doing it just for the name, ‘I’ve got an MA’. That’s not the important bit, it’s the actual doing of it that’s important.”
But how has Wendy, once called the ‘high priestess of fashion‘, actually developed herself? “I’ve learnt a lot! I’ve learnt a lot from the students, and you do learn a lot from them. It’s not just me giving, they give too. It’s a mutual experience, and particularly MA students. They are brilliant to work with because they’ve made that decision to have another two years, after everything, with all the debts they accumulate in the BA. So they’re really dedicated and really want to be here. I think I’ve learnt to encourage. I encourage students, I don’t damn them. I’m sort of encouraging with their work, obviously critical, but you have to be constructive and tell students how to work forward, how to move on in the future. As opposed to, you know, saying ‘that’s a load of old shit’,” she says, adding that she is completely objective. “There are so many different styles; so many different people, that you cannot be subjective.”
Wendy is definitely a nurturer, perhaps sometimes a mother to her students. She’s got two sons, aged twenty-four and twenty-six. “When I first started here, my sons were quite small and now I’ve realised they’re the same age (or older) than the students I’m teaching. It’s quite weird actually, the changeover, “oh god, you could be one of my sons!“. I always think of myself as being a similar age, I don’t think I’m old enough to be one of their mothers!
In a previous interview, she has said that she can often spot who’s going to be big. Can she still – with the presence of social media catapulting young designers in the ‘online fame stratosphere’ within hours? “Yes, often you can. It’s not just talent, it’s also having the personality and professionalism to do it as well. Sometimes you get disappointed and think ‘oh god, those fantastic students!’ and then they haven’t really got anywhere. But it’s having that personality as well, and a goal. I think with a lot of them, there’s no ego as such, they’re nice people as well. People like Hussein Chalayan, he’s great, great to teach as well, he was dedicated to what he was doing. Giles - brilliant. Eley Kishimoto, she was brilliant. Christopher Raeburn, he was great, always had the gift of the gab. James Long, he just worked and worked.” There’s so many of them, she cannot choose a favourite.
I ask her whether she thinks if the designers who have become very famous, have remained the same in terms of their their integrity or personality. “I’d like to think so, I don’t think you change, and if you do, that’s slightly dangerous. Don’t believe in your own press. You go down quicker than you went up!” Press, she thinks, hasn’t changed much since the seventies. “I think you have to be careful of press because they can actually lift someone up and say ‘oh, they’re the next John Galliano’ or something like that. That’s when students read their own hype and believe it. So press should be careful not to over-elevate,” she says. “I just think it’s silly to think who’s going to be the next so-and-so…“
The fashion press, in her eyes, should just report truthfully what they see; and they shouldn’t hammer anyone. “Sometimes I don’t think they realize the work that goes into doing a collection and a fashion show. Both by students and by designers. I think they need to actually understand a bit more how hard it is; it’s you that you’re putting out there. And then if someone slams you, it’s very soul destroying.” She denies ever having had a soul destroying moment during her long tenure of teaching. I mention that she strikes me as a very positive person. “I think I am, you can’t just regret and look back, you just need to move on and get over it.” she responds. It shows that she looks into the future. What does she predict for fashion, then?
“Not just relying on the fashion show. The fashion shows are so costly, but they’re still great,” and she adds, “But I think younger designers are going to start looking at new ways of presentation, in which you can actually see the clothes better and you can film something to get your ideas across. It’s a good opportunity. Show where you need to, but do something of your own that’s different, that actually suits your clothes.”
The British Fashion Council are going from strength to strength, with helping young designers. “They’re making sure it’s of a standard, because it used to be a lot of young designers starting on their own, too early. If someone bought something, they don’t know how they were going to get it made, or know how they were going to pay to get it made, so therefore deliveries would be late, upsetting the buyer so they wouldn’t come back. I think London was getting a bit of a bad name for that. But now, I think it’s much stronger. London is an exciting place. Fashion, I don’t think just exists on it’s own, it’s interconnected with music and magazines and books. The whole lifestyle.” But the relationship between music, fashion and art has changed, she mentions. “I think in the eighties, music and fashion were really related. I think a lot of the club wear was designer stuff, or they used to wear their own things. You know, designers used to go to clubs and wear it. So I think it was much more related I suppose. I don’t go to clubs anymore, my sons do I suppose, but it doesn’t seem so fashion related.”
Why does she think it’s gone downhill? “In the eighties it was all new, and the whole club scene was very new. I suppose at St Martins for instance, the music scene came from art college. Roxy Music was at Manchester Art College. So I think maybe that’s the reason. The music industry is slightly different, it’s more manufactured now, and they wouldn’t use a young designer, or choose the clothes themselves sometimes.”
What she really thinks is lacking in fashion now, is money. She often thinks that people believe designers are rich, which is not the case unless you work for the big companies in Paris, Milan or New York. (Unless you’re Christopher Bailey, “then you get paid a fortune!“) “I think we need to value the designer and their role. It’s a very important role and it’s one that we shouldn’t forget. I think that’s why it’s so bad, really, that the government are withdrawing so much money from the colleges and universities. They’re being asked to fund themselves, so to speak. When I was at college, we got a grant that we could actually live on, and it was brilliant,” she says, making passionate gestures that triggers her bracelets to orchestrate a fitting tune.
Dagworthy reckons it’s a pity that the government can’t see the value in the creative industries, because science needs it. “Scientists don’t know what to do with what they’ve done, whereas the designers take it and use it,” she says. “I also think it’s good for business students and fashion students to get together and somehow combine, or link the two. Because fashion designers aren’t always business minded. Therefore, it’s good if they can meet up with someone who understands them, so they can do their own roles, but respect each others role.” The RCA supports their students in different ways, business-wise, such as the FuelRCA initiative, which is a mentoring scheme for designers and artists.
Having been at the front lines of fashion innovation for four decades, fueling change and progression, the time has now come for leisure in the best possible way. Traveling? Most certainly. Destination? India. A place where more clanking bracelets will undeniably be bought.
Words and photographs by Jorinde Croese