Where one size fits all

30th May 2003 at 01:00
Angela Neustatter finds out how fashion designer Zandra Rhodes is winning over style-hungry youngsters with her new museum's tailor-made projects

Fashion and Textile Museum

83 Bermondsey Street, London. Tuesday to Sunday, 11am - 5.45pm; tel: 020 7403 0222.

Today's children, mindful of their street cred, are well up on the brand names associated with the T-shirts, hooded tops, jeans and trainers they can bear to be seen wearing. But what would they make of the creations of Stella McCartney, Caroline Charles, John Galliano and Issey Miyake, to name just a few of the seminal fashion designers who selected their favourite garments to put on show at the opening of the Fashion and Textile Museum in Bermondsey last week?

It was a question that teacher Sarah Richardson from Camberwell Arts Week pondered when she took a Year 5 class from John Ruskin primary school in the London borough of Southwark to visit the exhibition hung with garments as contrasting as Donatella Versace's gossamer-fine beaded gown (autumnwinter collection 2002) and Vivienne Westwood's "frumpy funk" brown wool dress (autumnwinter collection 1994). The designers may have done as much as anyone to influence and inspire fashion from the top down, but would they stack up for children whose lives do not, on the whole, come into contact with haute couture?

"It's true for many of these children, clothes like these seem to have no relation to what they wear," says Ms Richardson. "They aren't part of their world and culture. So the challenge was to find a way of getting them to see the fashions holistically rather than as something separate from their own outfits."

The museum collection was an inspirational starting point. In one visit children were introduced to "a whole new way of seeing clothes and fashion, then they were taken through the process of creating and making clothes by a designer in a way that related to their own clothes, and they did observational drawings so they understood how a garment is constructed".

But they were also amazed and excited by the fashions they saw, she says.

"One boy, quite in awe looking at a shirtwaister dress (by Diane von Furstenberg), said he would buy it for his auntie if he had enough money."

The museum is a lifelong ambition of the eccentric and estimable designer Zandra Rhodes, who lives in a penthouse apartment above the museum. She appeared at the opening of My Favourite Dress, the first exhibition, wearing a dress created from 45 kilograms of chocolate (making the point that fashion is an infinitely malleable concept). One aim of a permanent exhibition of leading fashion designers is to show the immense changes in contemporary fashion and textiles that have taken place over the 20th and 21st centuries.

But Rhodes is also fired by the thought of introducing children to the idea of fashion as a career choice. So for the four years during which the museum was being developed, she has taken interns from GCSE level into her fashion studio for an Avenues Into Industry programme. With the group from John Ruskin primary, she talked about working as a designer and showed big-screen prints of textile designs and finished garments. Ms Richardson says some children were particularly thrilled to see an outfit worn by Kylie Minogue.

There are four areas in the education programme, which works with all educational levels and does extensive outreach work as well as targeting difficult-to-reach children. The focus of the work is learning the skills associated with creating fashion; in one workshop children had to design a T-shirt with the theme of protection. They could visualise using futuristic materials such as paint that glows in the dark, and built-in electronics, explains education officer Tim Hunter. He describes how one girl "designed a T-shirt with a collage of lips and in the middle a big pair which would be wired up so that she would get a shock every time she was lippy".

In their My CommunityMy Museum project, children from eight schools designed textiles incorporating photographs of themselves. Pupils from Willowbank pupil referral unit in Southwark, were given men's suits by Next for their digital photography project. One child painted his white while others altered theirs for a short video they made commenting on the kind of authority men's suits usually represent.

The challenge for Mr Hunter, who designed the education programme, was to incorporate the requirements of the national curriculum "in a way that skills children up but also stretches their imaginations and engages them so they see learning about fashion as something enjoyable".

The approach has impressed teacher Ronell Mair from Waverly girls' school, Southwark, who took a Year 10 GNVQ group for weekly three-hour sessions over two years as part of the museum's educational work before the building was complete. "It was wonderful, because they are not the strongest academic students and when they first saw the designs in the studio their mouths dropped open and they started saying, 'I can't draw'. But they were excited by the challenge and were willing to take care over measurements, proportions and such things. They did a bit of fabric decoration and making up, they did a wall hanging and learned in a broad sense what it means to be a fashion designer. They finished with wonderful portfolios. It was a different experience to learning about fashion design from books."

Ms Richardson, a qualified teacher who founded her own organisation, Art Time, and inveighs against the way creativity has been "nudged out of the curriculum", will be using the museum again. The visit was the starting point of "a creative journey" for the pupils at John Ruskin and Lyndhurst primary, where she is also working with children on a project for Camberwell Arts Week. She says: "After the visit we worked in school setting up design teams of three, and they will make fashion collections for a show in June. One class is working with plastic, one with paper.

Others are doing internet research into design using recycled material."

Future special exhibitions will explore fashion, textiles and photography.

My Favourite Dress runs until November

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