Profile: Wendy Dagworthy - Mentor a la mode

As head of fashion at Saint Martin's, Wendy Dagworthy shaped the careers of such rising stars as Antonio Berardi, Alexander McQueen and Stella McCartney. But can she do the same at the stuffy Royal College of Art? Ann Treneman watches her work

Ann Treneman
Saturday 14 March 1998 01:02

endy Dagworthy is one of those names that people recognise without quite knowing why. Well, she was once something of a star as a designer, but now she is something far more important. She is a star-spotter and, in the world of fashion, such people are rare and valuable. "I guess she is a bit of a legend really," says one of her students on the fashion course at Central St Martin's College of Art and Design. When I mention this to Dagworthy, she shrugs. "Yes, well, perhaps," she says, fiddling with a bracelet. "Well, yeah, Saint Martin's has done well. I don't analyse how or why, but it has."

This is the kind of understatement you don't often hear in the fashion world. Most would say that, since Wendy Dagworthy arrived in 1989, Saint Martin's has done extraordinarily well. Many of its recent graduates are household names. There is Antonio Berardi, Hussein Chalayan, Alexander McQueen, Stella McCartney, Suzanne Clements, Inacio Ribeiro, and Sonja Nuttall. And that's just the A-list. So, if you want to know what's hot in fashion, you could do worse than give Wendy Dagworthy a ring at Saint Martin's.

Soon, however, that is going to change. Come September she will be Professor Wendy Dagworthy of the Royal College of Art. The move is a blow for the bohemian Saint Martin's and something of a coup for the stuffy RCA. It has probably been a while since a member of its faculty was listed, as Dagworthy was last year, by the style magazine i-D as among the most influential people in British fashion. That is the kind of street cred that you can't buy. As one insider said, "Somebody needs to give the Royal College a good shake-up." Well, somebody just might. The fashion world is about to get a little more interesting.

Saint Martin's could use the competition, frankly, because it's had the buzz to itself for some time. Inside its scruffy building on Charing Cross Road, I find Wendy Dagworthy in her elegant trademark black Betty Jackson top, black trousers and black crocheted skirt. She is 48, and her dark hair is tinged with red and plaited down her back. Her lipstick is a slash of red. Outside her office, there is what might be described as a relaxed sort of queue.

Inside her office, I find out why. Things are running late, as in desperately late. I had already figured out that the most precious thing in Wendy Dagworthy's life is time. Her diary is wild and woolly. She says she is feeling a bit schizophrenic because, in addition to her duties at Saint Martin's, she is spending lots of time at the RCA choosing next year's students. On this particular day, however, she and fashion print tutor Natalie Gibson are seeing their final-year students at Saint Martin's. Or, rather, they are trying to see them. "Can you see me now?" asks one student who pops her head round the door. Wendy frowns. "I don't think it's your turn yet." Her appointment was at 2.30pm. Dagworthy glances at her watch. It's just gone four o'clock. "Oh well," she says. "Next!"

The students vary. One is studying with McQueen and doing things with sheepskin. Her drawings are intricate, her questions numerous. Should this be georgette or chiffon? Should she send to India for certain fabrics? Are the sleeves long enough? Most students are not so advanced. "What are these?" asks Gibson, pointing to a sketch. "They look like dog bones!" The student says they are supposed to be hands. Dagworthy looks up from a bit of fabric. "Well, we cannot be having dog bones," she states with authority.

Both Dagworthy and Gibson are wearing at least 10 bracelets each and they clank a lot. Students say that Wendy Dagworthy has an aura and I can see what they mean. The magic behind teaching is somehow to grasp what is going on with each student and to guide him or her forwards. Easy to say but not so easy when faced with a student who is barely speaking, much less bonding. Dagworthy also gives each a chance to be inspired. I notice this - but it is hard to tell if they do.

Every presentation has a theme. Some are fantastical, such as Working Girls with Super-Charged Souls. I love this, but Dagworthy barely blinks. Over the years, she has heard it all. She and Natalie finger fabric, squint at colours, gently ask if this student or that is getting enough sleep. Some students have become stuck in a cul-de-sac of their own making. One has become so obsessed with crocheting string that she has failed to design anything at all. Dagworthy is good on practical advice. "You should do this in smocking. Do you know how? To do it properly you should have three times the fabric," she says, clanking away as she fingers the cotton. "We used to do it at school."

I look at the student. Hand-smocking is an art. Inspiration! "Yeah, we smocked a green and white gingham apron in Domestic Science," says Dagworthy. "I'm not sure they have that any more." The student doesn't notice the aside, but I do, and it's one of the first things I ask her about when we meet later for the interview proper. But not the first question because when we do meet next the first thing that strikes me is that her right arm is covered in bracelets from wrist to elbow. I run into Natalie Gibson just before the interview. "Does she have her gold ones on?" asks Gibson when I mention the bracelets. "It's a wonder someone hasn't amputated her arm for them." It turns out that Dagworthy's husband of 25 years is the serial bracelet giver. "He's a photographer, advertising," she says. "It's a tremendous help that he's not in fashion. He's kept me stable, I'm sure."

She learnt how to smock at Northfleet Secondary School for Girls, in Gravesend in Kent. Her mother was a housewife, her father a sign-writer. "Even now, if I see a badly painted sign, it really grates," she says. She started sewing early. She doesn't remember being taught. "It was just sort of natural."

This is a good word to describe Wendy Dagworthy. She is one of those people to whom things come naturally. Fashion being a case in point. "My era was the Mod era. I suppose it was a Mary Quant sort of thing. Honey magazine. I mean, that was my first proper magazine. I can remember the first Honey I got. The cover had a model in a pink satin A-line mini-dress - wow! - and a Vidal Sassoon haircut, with pink satin pumps, you know, the ones with the little tiny heel. They were probably chisel-toed or something." At 16, she went to Medway College of Art, and then on to do fashion at Hornsey College of Art. Her degree show was noticed and she began to work as a designer.

She had always designed her own clothes and made the odd piece for others. Then a friend said, why didn't she sell to a woman called Joy who owned a shop called Countdown in the King's Road? She did, and, as she was designing, making and delivering the clothes herself, things got rather hectic. (She was also designing for Bryan Ferry, whom she met through a friend of a friend from Gravesend days.) Clearly the day job had to go and so, at 22, she became her own boss. "I made a little collection and took it round the shops. They bought, and then I delivered. It was immediate. I didn't understand the idea of seasons. I mean, there were no real designers as such then. There was no designer industry. People like Ossie Clark had a shop. It wasn't like you showed at an exhibition and had a wholesale business."

She went to the bank and borrowed pounds 800. Her mother gave her pounds 300 and Wendy Dagworthy, fashion designer, was in business. At first, she worked out of her flat - smuggling the rolls of material up in the lift because it was residential-only. It doesn't sound very glamorous, I say, and she snorts and clanks at the same time. "If anyone thinks it is glamorous, they are completely wrong." She hired an assistant - Betty Jackson, as it turned out - and the business grew. She designed for 16 years and the posters for her shows line her office. "Yes, I love them," she says. But, in 1989, the recession forced her to quit. She keeps her hand in still - at the moment, she designs for Liberty and Betty Jackson, too - but she only does a little. Her move over to teaching was, she says, a natural (that word again) progression. "I was the external examiner before I came here. I didn't intend to do it for ever, but here I still am," she says. "You get into it and the students keep you alive. You know, I love it."

We talk about some of her more famous students. Sonja Nuttall "always had that simple line", she says. Antonio Berardi? Did she know he would be great? "Yes, I did, actually. I saw him at his first crit, and he was good. He always did very interesting cutting and he drew beautifully." (Now 29, Berardi is rumoured to be heading to Versace as its chief designer).

Hussein Chalayan? He first became noticed five years ago by filling his degree show collection with clothes that had been buried and then dug up. "Hussein was wonderful. Completely in his own world, completely dedicated to what he wanted to do. Totally focused. His clothes were very conceptual and, maybe, if you didn't understand fashion you would have thought, 'God, you couldn't wear that.' But you could, easily. He always had that commercial thing." At 27, he has just landed the chief creative job at Tse Cashmere.

Then there was Stella McCartney ("she never made an issue out of who she was"). Alexander McQueen went through the MA programme but Suzanne Clements and Inacio Ribeiro were hers. "Inacio was fantastically talented. His work made you go, Oooh, yeah, love it. With those sorts of students you just know. It just works. His drawings were wonderful mixes of colour and pattern and beautiful in a really unpretentious way. He just had it."

The next time I see her, she is looking through portfolios for the RCA. None appears to be the new Sonja, Antonio or Hussein, but then that's setting the standard a bit high. We are in the middle of a warehouse somewhere near Hammersmith, but she still manages to have the aura of both excitement and calm. A colleague at Saint Martin's attributes much of her success to her temperament. "She's a very good team leader. People like working for her and that's part of the secret," she says. Sonja Nuttall says that when she was a student, Dagworthy was a lifeline, someone you could go to who would be both fair and honest. And, of course, she has been in the front line herself. "She has that edge," says Sonja. "She makes the students think what they are about and why they are doing things."

At Saint Martin's, she has 480 students in the BA programme. At the RCA, she will have fewer than 40 in its MA programme. It is a promotion, but it still took her ages to decide after she was approached. "I sort of um'd and ah'd about it. I love it here and we are doing really well and the Royal College isn't really. Then I thought, if I don't, I'm going to regret it. It's a challenge. The name Royal should mean something and, at the moment, it doesn't." James Park of the RCA is pleased. "I've always admired Wendy. When she was doing collections, I loved her clothes. They were very sane, and they were also very jolly as well. And she will take risks. We've been scrutinising portfolios and she was quite eager to take on some risky people."

The RCA better get used to it. "It needs a bit of madness. I don't want to repeat what we've done here. The MA does need to be more refined, but I think you've got to have that madness," she says. But she herself does not seem mad at all, I say. "I like to be in control, but I also like a bit of risk. We do take chances on who we accept sometimes and that makes it all the more fun, more exciting. Otherwise, it can get dull, a bit safe." Then she stops and ponders. "I just hope I can do it," she says. "Sometimes, I think, do I need this? Am I mad?" And then she laughs and clanks at the same time.

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