For students the graduate show season marks the beginning of their careers but for some teachers it’s all about an ending. Professor Wendy Dagworthy, the Royal College of Art’s head of fashion, is overseeing her final degree shows later this month before bowing out after a stellar teaching career, first at Central Saint Martins and since 1998 at the RCA. In that time she has taught some of the industry’s contemporary stars, from Stella McCartney and Hussein Chalayan to Erdem and Giles Deacon and yet her enthusiasm ahead of this year’s shows appears as fierce as ever.
“It’s a really strong year,” she tells us. “There’s a lot of bold shapes and strong silhouettes and lots of different inspirations; religion, architecture, Africa. There’s lots of manipulation of fabrics, quite a few oversized things and lots of colour. I think it will be quite powerful and really exciting.”
The two shows take place on May 28 and the atmosphere around the RCA reflects that. “It’s really, really frantic! They’re all working from morning until night but it’s exciting. Once the students start seeing their first pieces come through, that spurs them on.”
When Wendy joined the RCA 16 years ago her brief, as she told an interviewer for The Independent, was to shake up what was seen as a slightly stuffy institution. “I wanted to make it exciting. We’re very lucky because we still have quite small numbers here so we can really concentrate on the individual. It’s all about their own progression and their own personal research; we don’t mark.”
And looking back as she prepares to leave, how does she feel about her time at the RCA? “I’ve loved it and hopefully I’ve done what I’ve set out to do. We’ve got a lot of graduates now, out in the world, doing really well. Some started their own companies and some have got high-profile jobs in other companies. I want students to really have confidence in their work, really enjoy what they’re doing and believe in themselves. That’s hopefully what I’ve instilled in them.
“On BAs they are more worried about the marks – when they’re going to get a job, or if they’re going to get a job, or when they’re going to become famous. It’s not about that; it’s about you personally. I think we want students to take risks like we did when we were younger, because there were no set rules, there was no one to follow, you just did it yourself.”
She says that she can “often” spot the stars of tomorrow while they are studying under her tutelage. “They have that passion and dedication and they’re professional in their approach so you usually can tell. It’s not always just about the talent, it’s about how you manage yourself professionally.
“Erdem he was brilliant. He was an overseas student so he had huge fees to pay but always enthusiastic and he worked really hard. Holly Forton, she did really well. There were quite a lot of them."
And having seen her fair share of end of year fashion shows, can she still remember them?
“Erdem’s show was very print-based, lots of mismatching prints together, very flamboyant. Holly’s was very decorative, quite simple shapes, and she had quite a lot of perspex on her garments. They were brilliant actually, whole garments made of perspex.
“One of my favourites was Justin Smith; he did millinery, and did all the clothes as well. It was all about the circus and the tall man and the little man, he did hats that made them the same size. There was a tattooed lady and a fat lady singing.”
Of course the academic landscape has shifted in the past decade-and-a-half and Professor Dagworthy doesn’t hesitate on what the biggest change has been. “Funding. That’s a huge change because now students come away from the BAs with huge debts. It’s a shame, it’s a lot of money but we do give bursaries so we do help the students to some extent as well.
“Some have to work a couple days a week but it’s not always a bad thing. If you’re working with clothes in a shop, you start to get to know and understand clothes, and see what people are buying.It makes you self-sufficient; you have to do it and that is that.
“The age range has slightly changed as well. Some students are working first for a year or two and they’re coming in really hungry to do an MA, and I think it makes you more passionate about your subject.”
So as she prepares to oversee her final fashion shows at the RCA, what advice does she have for wannabe designers? “The main thing is to believe in yourself. To have the confidence to do what you really believe in, and to really enjoy it as well. Because when you stop enjoying it, you should stop doing it. And don’t give up. If you have a dream, follow that dream.”