Zandra was the most colourful person any of us had ever met...

15th November 2002 at 00:00
...She wore bright green and black and sometimes yellow with red. We'd never seen anything like it

I knew how to thread a needle, but I couldn't sew when I was at school and I had no idea I would one day become a fashion designer. Bacup and Rawtenstall grammar was a very academic school and art was considered an also-ran. I took art as one of my A-levels, but not with a view to a career. I was planning to read English and history at university.

However, Jim Cawthorne, the art teacher, was a big influence. He was a flamboyant character and inspirational. The A-level curriculum at that time involved learning about perspective and drawing things like a pot or your own hand, but he made it all exciting. He knew a lot about the theatre and music, and would talk to us about the arts in general. Sometimes he did odd things. For instance, we'd be sitting in the art studio with our HB pencils poised and suddenly he'd say, "Nobody's doing anything that's remotely interesting, so let's go for a run round the block. When you come back, you'll all feel better." He made us look at things. I remember being sent off to find a bright green leaf and being told to mix up exactly the same colour paint.

When I said I wanted to go to art school instead of university, all hell broke loose at home, but Mr Cawthorne was thrilled. I still had no idea what I wanted to do, but I was a bit of a rebel and I fancied going to Hornsey College of Art, where they were having a sit-in at the time. My father insisted I went to Rochdale to do a foundation course, which was a bit of a blow, but the most amazing thing was that when I got there I knew it was the right decision. I was in the right place with the right people.

Rochdale College of Art had a fantastic still life department, fine art department, printing department and textile and embroidery section. Art was no longer just drawing and painting; a whole new world opened up. Mrs Booth was a frightening lady, but she ran an amazing department and knew everything about embroidery and the history of textiles. She taught us about machine embroidery, tapestry, collage and applique. I got a portfolio together which enabled me to go on to Birmingham College of Art to take a degree in fashion and textiles.

That was where I met Zandra Rhodes, who was one of the tutors. She was amazing. She used to walk through Birmingham with her bright orange-red hair and chiffon frocks causing quite a stir. Zandra was the most colourful person any of us had ever met. She wore bright green and black in layers, and sometimes yellow with red or with pink, and everything was printed. We'd never seen anything quite like it. At that time (1970), everybody was into clothes from Biba and Bus Stop and muted colours.

Zandra would come in and see what we were doing, give advice and then wander off and fall asleep because she'd been up all night printing - or doing something more exciting. We used to make pilgrimages to her shop at the weekends. I bought a long white chiffon scarf with a running stitch print, which I still have.

In my final year, I won the RSA student design award for women's fashion and I finally knew what I wanted to do. I was customising clothes for myself, dressing like I'd come out of an Oxfam shop, mixing maxi skirts and stripey jumpers and prints, and wearing platform-heeled boots. Then I had a car accident and it took me a year and a half to get going again. I came to London to work for a guy on the course who had become successful, Adrian Cartmell. I became a freelance illustrator and joined forces with Wendy Dagworthy, who was doing exciting avant-garde things, dressing a few "It girls" and people like Roxy Music. Then I worked for Quorum for six years and finally set up on my own with my husband in 1981.

Fashion designer Betty Jackson was talking to Pamela Coleman

THE STORY SO FAR

1949 Born in Rawtenstall, Lancashire

1960-68 Attends Bacup and Rawtenstall grammar school

1968 Foundation course at Rochdale art college

1969-71 Studies at Birmingham art college

1973-75 Works as design assistant with Wendy Dagworthy

1981 Launches own company

1985 Named British designer of the year; included in list of 40 'most successful people under 40'

1987 Awarded MBE

1988 Given royal designer for industry status by the RSA

1999 Contemporary designer of the year

2002 Shows at London Fashion Week

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