Dagworthy made her name as an educator as director of the BA fashion course at Central Saint Martins (CSM). In 1998 she departed to become Professor of fashion at the RCA, before being promoted in 2001 to become Head of its School of Fashion and Textiles. Over the course of her career she has taught figures ranging from Alexander McQueen and Hussein Chalayan, to Aitor Throup and Erdem.
The zenith of her academic career came in 2011, when she appointed Dean of the RCA’s newly-formed School of Material, a department that united the institute’s School of Applied Art with its School of Fashion and Textiles. In explanation of her retirement, Dagworthy said, “I think you just know when the time is right to take it a bit more easy and do things you can’t do normally whilst working.”
Yet prior to becoming a lecturer at the RCA and CSM, Dagworthy was a designer in her own right and one of the founding members of the London Designer Collections, an early incarnation of the London Fashion Week. In the below interview, Dagworthy talks about her time at the RCA and how fashion teaching has evolved in relation to rapidly-changing industry, accompanied by imagery of graduate collections created by some of the many designers she taught.
You started your career as a fashion designer and later became one of the founders of the London Design Collections, the first incarnation of the London Fashion Week. How important were these stages of your life?
I started up my brand at the end of 1972 whilst I was working for another company, and at the time I just wanted to do what I really believed in. I never thought to myself that I really wanted to start my own company; it was never an aspiration of mine. It just evolved.
As things progressed, I thought there was the opportunity for me to make a living out of it. So I rang up a handful of shops that I thought were suitable for my designs and just went from there. A few years later I started making menswear, and I even got the chance to make clothes for Roxy Music in the early 1970s. Then, after building up both sides of it, a group of us started the London Designer Collections in about 1974. We set it up because at that time there was no platform for designers to sell their lines. You just had to call up shops and try and make an appointment with the buyer.
How did you see the Fashion Weeks change over the time that you were involved with them?
Well, from scratch there was nothing there. There was a rag trade show in Earls Court, which was for mass marketed companies, but nothing really for designers. And it gradually became more professional. We were selling more items abroad and it was a really exciting time. We invited people from all over the world to come and visit, and gradually things became more and more efficient. It’s ended up with young designers having a strong platform to display their clothes from, and it’s really exciting.
Now I think that menswear is going through a particularly interesting stage and I think that the new men’s fashion week is fantastic. There used to be one in the 1980s, but then it sort of faded out. Now people are taking menswear seriously again, and I think that the likes of Lou Dalton, Astrid Anderson and Katie Eary will help push the boundaries of fashion.
Did you find that your time working in the industry helped your ability to pass on knowledge to your students?
Yes, definitely. It’s very important that you’ve been through the whole cycle, and I was there for sixteen years. When I had my own company I didn’t teach every week, but I did help out at various colleges across the country. When I closed my company at the end of 1988 I was an external examiner at CSM, and their course director stepped down just before Christmas. Luckily, they asked me if I would be interested in taking over for a while. So that’s what I did, and ten years later I was still there.
People always used to ask me if I missed designing when I started running the CSM course, and I really didn’t at all. I had a young child at the time and it worked very well for me. Looking back on it, I was sad because I’d had to stop being so involved in design, but you can’t dwell on it. You just have to move forward, and I think education was the right way of moving forward for me.
After ten years at CSM, I was headhunted to come to the Royal College of Art, and it was a tough decision. I’d spent so long helping to build up CSM, but when the offer came about I jumped at the chance to have a new challenge and move forward.
How did you find the RCA differed to CSM?
First of all, I was on the undergraduate degree at CSM, which was really exciting. But I think the transition to postgraduate was fantastic. The students are completely different, they’ve chosen to take that extra step forward in their education and as a result they end up being a lot more dedicated.
We have a fantastic cultural mix here at the RCA, so the students are always learning from one another. They are very collaborative, and we encourage our students to work together in interesting ways, and explore new materials. Really, we just want them to push the boundaries of their design process.
Over recent years there has been a rise in the number of technical materials available for designers. Have you found that these advances have made you adjust your mode of teaching to match these progressions?
I think you just have to keep in touch with what is going on. There are loads of new exciting fabrics out there at the moment, and we encourage our students to deal with the fabric suppliers, and ensure they source the right fabrics. Ultimately, it means we always have to be aware of these innovations, but the problem is that there’s always something new coming out. Although at times some of them are not very readily available, but I think this is something that will change in the future. And ultimately it is something that both you and the students have to keep on top of. The students definitely help us keep abreast of these new innovations, and for some of our research students that is what they are specialise in – new fabrics and technologies.
In that sense the fashion industry is clearly very fast paced and the internet has innovated the way people are able to present their brands and collections. How have you had to change your teaching style to match these progressions?
We just have to be open to new ways of presenting work and communicating. We put a lot of emphasis on not just relying on the catwalk as a medium for showing their collections. For instance, our design students have produced a film as a way to showcase their work, and it’s making them look at what is actually going on in the world. We also encourage them not to solely use the internet as a means of research, otherwise they end up looking at the sources everyone has the capability to find. We tell them to look at primary sources such as exhibitions and books on the topic of their research, as otherwise their research can become quite shallow.
Is there a particular way in which you teach?
We try to put a lot of emphasis on the individual. The majority of our teaching is one to one, with bits of group work added in to ensure that they communicate with one another effectively. I think what we really want is for our students to find their own design identity, and hopefully understand what is going on in the wider world, but not be too heavily influenced by it. We want them to believe in themselves and ultimately understand who they are as a designer.
In that spirit we never mark work – all feedback is written and verbal. The students are free to experiment, and if something is a disaster it doesn’t matter, it helps them move on. We’ve found it’s a good way to help them learn, through basic trial and error and the process of learning by actually producing pieces. We would never divorce one from the other.