OK: I think this interview is years overdue. We want to know more about how you started your journey in London with no support.
Do you want me to step back a little bit before that? Before the MA at Saint Martin’s? Because that’s everyone’s landing pad: you graduate from that and then you take off. And I believe students think there’s this sort of line that you follow and that’s how it happens. But it’s more complicated than that, or at least more interesting. I was never one of those kids who grew up in a house where my mum bought Vogue or inspired by the beautiful things around me. I have a very working-class background. I come from a steel town in Lincolnshire, in the north of England, where there was nothing going on, in any capacity. That was the Eighties, so my introduction to clothing or identity – to fashion – was through music, going to see bands, and looking at the outfits of all those tribes and subcultures. At that time, I still didn’t know what I wanted to do when I left school. I remember going through a careers book and chopping out everything that I was refusing to do. I ended up with “painting and decorating” course, which is hilarious because it was the program at our local technical school, which I didn’t attend in the end. In 1982, I did my A-Levels in fashion and dress, and that’s when I discovered designers like Vivienne Westwood and Comme des Garçons. I didn’t know you could go to college to do fashion. It might sound really naïve, but I didn’t even know it existed. And I get this is really hard for students to understand now, with the amount of information on how fashion design is trained.
I always used to make my own clothes. I’d go to charity shops, buying 1930s, – 40s, -50s curtains and fabrics. This is how I understood cutting and fabrics, and the way a 1930s tea dress would hang. I used to take over my mum’s living room and buy dressmaking patterns from the local department store. I guess that’s the reason why I love the White Project at CSM so much; it’s just a creative way to show students how to cut and make.
Then someone told me about this art school in Grimsby that I should go to. In those days, university was free and you had to fight to get in. I went to the two year foundation course in Grimsby. After that, although I didn’t dare to try Central Saint Martins, I’ve always known I had to get to London. The north of England, and particularly where I lived, was just redundant for me. The BA courses at the time, Saint Martins, Harrow – Westminster, Middlesex, only took 25 students a year – it was so competitive. When I was applying for college, there was this ‘pool’ list with all the schools that still had places left and I remember scrolling through and thinking: “I just need to get to London”. I chose Croydon because it was near enough for me and then I went to Middlesex after that and I bailed out after the first semester. I was very unhappy there, and I am not even sure there was an issue with Middlesex itself. I just hated how fashion students were so pretentious in the late Eighties, when they would wear labels on the outside so that you could see how expensive their clothes were.
“When somebody at Ralph Lauren said: ‘Shelley, you should set up your own thing,’ I remember thinking: ‘How do you even do that?'” – Shelley Fox
When I left, I was so happy even though I was still figuring out what I wanted to do. I was 21 years old and living in London. I did multiple jobs, from the National Portrait Gallery to some amazing vintage shops. In 1990, I applied to Central Saint Martins, when Saint Martins and Central School of Art had just merged, from two totally different colleges and philosophies. I am glad I tried the BA Textile course because then I got to learn how to make my own fabrics since I already knew pattern cutting. However, halfway through the course, I went to see Wendy Dagworthy, who was the head of the BA Fashion at the time, to ask her whether I could transfer to Fashion. She simply said no. Many years later, when she visited me in New York, I reminded her of this conversation we had and I said: “I am so grateful you didn’t take me onto your BA program and made me stick to textiles because that formed my identity as a designer”. I was much more about the fabrics. The reason why I’m telling you this is because when you bump into these people, these decisions that get made, your life changes forever. At the end of my BA Textiles, I was doing my final collection. I was so used to seeing people having multiple nervous breakdowns just trying to get the perfect knitwear off the machines, but I was not like that. The night before the exhibition, I was cutting all the knitwear and spray painting it with Ross – my boyfriend and future husband – all the edges of the V necks, in our council estate in Old Street. It was this sort of deconstructive collection, but it was only responding to the lack of perfect machinery. When they came to grade it, they didn’t know what to do with it and so they called Louise Wilson, who came and said: “Give her a First-Class Honour and I’ll offer her a place on the MA”.
I didn’t take the place at the time, because I could not even comprehend how to afford it. Even though it was only five and a half grand, I just didn’t have any money. I tried to apply for jobs in New York, very naively. My BA collection portfolio was shopped around at Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, and all these companies. When somebody at Ralph Lauren said: “Shelley, you should set up your own thing”, I remember thinking: “How do you even do that”? Anyway, the Calvin Klein people bought some swatches from me for quite some money and I thought they just felt sorry for me. I went back to London to work for Joe Casely-Hayford, the only designer based in Shoreditch High Street at the time. It lasted for about six months; I was not qualified and it didn’t really work out. But it was a really good insight into a label in London.
“This utter terror of not being able to get out of where I was, was more overwhelmingly terrifying. ” – Shelley Fox
OK: You mentioned that you had a working-class background. I often speak to young designers whose families took a mortgage on a house to pay for their education. We know how scary and volatile the fashion career can be, with money-free internships and really badly paid jobs. At least now this is communicated more. Where do the courage and motivation come from, that makes people from those backgrounds go into a job which has no promise of profit? I guess in the Eighties it was even worse; you went into education with no promise of employability.
That’s a really good point, Olya. Today students are more aware of how to get into these jobs. For me, I remember the idea of not going to London, the panic I felt when I got into Croydon and the conversation I had with mum, who didn’t think we could afford it even though the fees were free. This utter terror of not being able to get out of where I was, was more overwhelmingly terrifying. And even when I went to Saint Martin’s, I didn’t qualify for my first year’s tuition grant because of my stint at Middlesex previously which is fair enough. So, I would walk in and out of Kingston council education offices bringing references and papers. I was just like a little dog you could throw the stick to. But I would not give up; I didn’t have any option and in the end, I got my 2nd and 3rd year BA grant paid for.