Wendy Dagworthy: Head of Fashion at the RCA

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Wendy Dagworthy by John Swannell, 1989
Wendy Dagworthy by John Swannell, 1989© John Swannell / Camera Press

On the eve of her retirement, Insiders meets the magisterial Wendy Dagworthy who, as head of fashion at the RCA, has forged the careers of so many of Britain's greatest fashion stars

When George Bernard Shaw declared, “He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches”, he hadn’t yet met Professor Wendy Dagworthy, OBE. While she’s spent the last 26 years as one of the premier forces in fashion education, her first start in the business was as one of the founding members of the London Designer Collections (an early iteration of London Fashion Week) and as a star designer of the 80’s in her own right. Born in Gravesend, Kent; Dagworthy went from making stage clothes for Roxy Music to launching her own business from her bedroom in 1972 at the tender age of 23. Over the next sixteen years, she rapidly ascended to the top of the ranks alongside the likes of Katherine Hamnett, Jasper Conran, Betty Jackson and John Galliano before the Black Monday Crash of 1987 forced her to quit. Looking back, she says with barely a hint of wistfulness, “I think I learned to try not to do everything yourself. I probably should have had a business partner, because you can’t do everything. It affects your creativity. So when people ask me if I miss it, actually it’s a relief. Of course I miss it, who wouldn’t?  But then you move on, try something else.” Given the circumstances, you’d be forgiven for thinking working as expert consultant on the V&A's 80’s themed show of last year, ‘Club To Catwalk’ would have been a bittersweet experience for Dagworthy. Not so. “On no, it was fabulous, I loved it! It was a real eye-opener. I’ve got trunks all over the house full of my old collections, and just rummaging through them brings back so many memories. Everyone we interviewed got so animated about it, because they were reliving the excitement of it all.”

"You do really have to believe in yourself to actually succeed. Not to follow, just do what you really believe in” — Wendy Dagworthy

Dagworthy then made a left-turn into education when she was offered the job of Course Director at Central Saint Martins where she would spend the next decade; during which time the cream of British talent (Stella McCartney, Antonio Berardi, Giles Deacon and Hussein Chalayan) would emerge from her tutelage. Wooed away by the RCA in 1998 to become Head of Fashion, she would eventually be appointed the Dean of the School of Material in 2011. Musing on the differences between the two colleges, she opines, “I think the RCA is unique because we don’t have huge cohorts of students. So it’s very individual. We don’t mark at all, so it’s on that individual’s progress and their development. It’s a very social college as well. So when we interview, it’s looking for that dynamic in a group and getting that mix of people and personalities.” It was there she cultivated her teaching philosophy: “My way of teaching is not to put down, but to encourage them in a strong and honest way. I’ve said it so many times, but you do really have to believe in yourself to actually succeed. Not to follow, just do what you really believe in.”

And now after sixteen years, she’s retiring at the end of July. Musing on the recent passing of her friend and colleague from her CSM days, Louise Wilson, she says, “It’s the end of an era.  I have to say, it’s going to really change fashion.  Whoever takes over from me, and from Louise at St Martins, it’s going to actually have a real influence on what happens next.” To mark her last graduate show and celebrate her indelible contribution to fashion education, the RCA hosted an exhibition SIXTEEN giving a snapshot of some of the talent Dagworthy has helped foster over the years, featuring some of her celebrated alumni like Erdem, Aitor Throup and Holly Fulton. “I would have loved to have chosen loads more,” she confesses, “It was really hard choosing the final sixteen but I think it worked well as an exhibition.” But with her last show set for the end of June, mostly she’s been looking forward to her life beyond the school walls. She laughs, “I’m planning on doing nothing!  We want to travel, that’s one of the things we really want to do. Just travel when, and where, we feel like going. I am looking forward to having the freedom to do whatever I want to do, whenever I want to do it. My husband (photographer, Jonathan Prew) retired a few years ago, so we’re really looking forward to it!”

Text by Kin Woo