My best teacher

Hilary Wilce

I went to Kingston Poly to do an art foundation course, and it was the best year of my life. I arrived in 1979, after I had been to my local comprehensive, Hampstead school in north London, and left with one O-level - it wasn't a place to get an education back then, it was a place to survive. After that I'd been to a kind of cramming school, and then to an FE college, where I managed to scrape together enough O-levels to do the course.

I didn't really know what I wanted to do, or could do, even, after such a disastrous education, but my father had been watching me draw, and put together a portfolio for me. I went along for an interview for the last place and managed to make the guy laugh, which I thought was the only reason I got in. I'd felt very displaced at school but suddenly I found 40 or 50 other kids who were like me, and that it wasn't about having to understand things by reading and working from blackboards, but that I could do things with my hands.

On a foundation course you try everything. I thought I'd end up doing sculpture, but the head of the fashion department in those days was Daphne Brooker, and she used to make an annual visit to the foundation department, which was both feared and very exciting - it was like having Margaret Thatcher coming to see you. You put your work up on the walls and she picked who she thought might be the stars of tomorrow. She picked three of us and we were told we should apply to the main school to do the BA honours course.

Daphne was excellent and, for all the fear she put into her students, she managed to get industry to become involved with them. She pioneered that, really. She not only made the course viable but gave students the best chance of being employed at the end of it. Some people said that if you had an imagination you went to St Martin's, and if you wanted a job you went to Kingston. But if you had an imagination and wanted a job, Kingston was a challenging place to be.

My most inspiring teacher was Richard Nott, number two on the BA course, who had an extraordinary quality of pulling out the best in people no matter who they were. Daphne was very good at spit and polish, and getting you to do things on time, but Richard had an astonishing eye for what people could do, even before they knew it themselves, and that was the thing that I had been starving for: that someone saw I was good at something. He recommended books and films. It felt like a nurturing of my whole being. He pointed me towards the photographs of Bruce Weber, the story of Geronimo, and a four-hour Japanese film called Kagemusha. He said:

"You probably don't realise it, but you're drawing the costumes for this film so why don't you go and see it?" Richard Nott saw that my talent was doing things differently, whether it was how you cut something, how a dress stayed up or how a fabric was held together. In fact I wanted to get in almost before the fabric people had made the fabric, which with hindsight makes perfect sense in terms of what I'm doing now, which is being interested in the interiors of things as opposed to the exteriors.

Richard suggested I went to visit Valentino in Rome, and four of us went on a college trip with our portfolios. We were allowed to see number four in the hierarchy, but we didn't hear anything afterwards. I went off and taught windsurfing for a couple of months in Greece and on the way back knocked on Valentino's door looking like a bleached hippy, and it was one of those fate things. They remembered me and gave me a job. I got my mum and dad to send my clothes out, and I never went home for ages.

I think I was very angry about my poor education, but it has been a useful kind of anger. It's probably fuelled an "I'll-show-you" attitude. But it isn't something I'd recommend.

Designer Helen Storey was talking to Hilary Wilce

The story so far

1982 Graduates from Kingston Polytechnic

1982-84 Trains at Valentino and Lancetti in Rome

1984 Launches Helen Storey fashion label

1990-95 Designs for corporate clients from Knickerbox to Alfa Romeo and for

celebrities such as Cher, Prince, Janet Jackson, Michael Jackson and


1996 Autobiography, Fighting Fashion, published by Faber amp; Faber

1998 Awarded honorary professorship by the London Institute

1999 Helen Storey Foundation set up to promote creativity and innovation

1999 Elected fellow of the Royal Society of Arts

1999 Member of National Committee for Creative and Cultural Education

2001 Mental, an artscience project, on show at the ICA. Judge for Artworks, National Children's Art Awards, at the Tate Modern on July 5 as a highlight of National Children's Art Day (showing until August 5)

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Hilary Wilce

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