Fancy designs on awell-fashioned career

9th February 1996 at 00:00
WENDY DAGWORTHY TALKS TO HILARY WILCE. The biggest influence on me was probably my father. He was a sign writer, a very skilled one, and he ran his own business from home, and was the sort of person who made you believe in yourself. He always said you can do whatever you want to, if you put your mind to it.

He used to do the old swinging pub signs. He would do the writing, and an artist friend of his used to do the painting. First they would do a little water colour of what it was going to look like and I would try to imitate it. I watched my Dad doing all kinds of things. Putting on gold leaf, things like that. You gather a lot of knowledge that way, but you don't really think about it. He died in 1972 and I'm sad he didn't live to see everything I've done.

I don't remember art lessons at primary school, but I remember them at Northfleet School for Girls, which was a secondary modern. I had two art teachers and they were supportive. Mr and Mrs Williamson. I did a pen and ink drawing of The Merchant of Venice, which we were acting as a school play, and they kept it at school. Whether it's still hanging there I don't know.

I always knew I was going to art college. I never had any doubts. It seems strange to me that some people don't know what they want to do. I did a two-year foundation and pre-diploma course at Medway School of Art, which used to be in Rochester, on the High Street, and it was great. Like being part of a family.

The drawing teacher was very good and really made us look at things, and so was Maureen Crocker who is now head of fashion and textiles in Birmingham, at the University of Central England. I spent one day a week in the fashion department and it was awful, a real dress-making school, hardly any design, but she allowed me to do a few more exciting things.

Mr Munn taught pattern cutting. He looked like Quentin Crisp, and had a poodle, but he was wonderful at what he did. And Mrs Rhodes - Zandra's mother. She never taught me, but she was there at the college and very well respected.

After that I went to Hornsey College of Art, now the University of Middlesex, which was very different. I started in the year of the sit-in, I moved away from home and had a flat just off the Kings Road. It was the time of Biba and Ozzie Clarke and Celia Birtwell, so I really felt part of things.

Sylvia Ayton was one of my tutors. She had a wonderful sense of humour and made you laugh at your own work. Pam Proctor was another. She had style and made you want to do what she was doing. She was running her own company and designing for Twiggy at the time.

I remember when I decided to make a whole outfit in one day. Pam helped me and it made me realise what good fun making things can be. I've still got the outfit - a handkerchief-pointed skirt in four different voiles, with a fitted shirt laced up the front, with big sleeves and a pointed peplum. Very Sixties.

It taught me to be organised before you start, to have everything there, your cottons and all your pieces cut out, so you can work fast. It's always stayed with me. It's how I worked when I had my own business and it's something I tell students now. Sometimes they don't think beyond the design. They're cutting away, but they're not thinking about what buttons to use.

At Hornsey there was also Franka, an Italian lady, who taught me so much about tailoring. Just to watch her get a sleeve head perfect is something I've never forgotten. It's another one of those things that's so easy, but makes all the difference. And she had such a gentle touch with everything. She didn't iron, she sort of smoothed. Later, when I had my own business, she did some work for me.

I never planned to have my own company. I used to make quite Seventies things - satin and lurex jackets - and I sold some to Countdown, in the King's Road. I made some things to go with them and I started making clothes for Bryan Ferry and another member of Roxy Music, Phil Manzanera, and it just took off. Lynne Franks, who had just started her own business, did my public relations and she has always been a great influence. She taught me you can't stand still.

After 16 years I got into money problems and had to liquidate the business. It's a horrible thing to have to do - to give away everything you've worked for - but it taught me that things are never as bad as you think they're going to be.

Actually I shouldn't have hung on. I needed to change direction. This job at St Martin's came up almost immediately and has been great. In fact I'm learning a lot now. When you're a designer you're just busy doing your own thing, but now I get around to the shows, to the Paris Collections, and really see what's happening in fashion. Then there's the students, they always keep you on the ball, too.

Wendy Dagworthy is course director of the BA Honours Degree in Fashion at Central St Martin's College of Art and Design, in London. Before that she ran her own international fashion business

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