Wendy Dagworthy on careers in fashion, textiles and more

  • Designs by Ji Hyun Lim (Fashion Menswear, 2014)

Professor Wendy Dagworthy, Dean of the School of Material and a celebrated fashion designer and teacher, spoke to FuelRCA’s John Bound on how emerging designers from the Royal College build careers and find professional success


In the School of Material we try and get a good balance of graduates who want to start their own businesses, and those who want to to go into established companies. I think for Fashion we have probably got a graduate in almost every high profile company. We have Clare Waight-Keller who is fashion director for Chloe, Peter Copping, Creative Director at Nina Ricci, Christopher Bailey at Burberry; lots of our graduates are at Burberry. Louis Vuitton, Givenchy, Versace. We have quite a few people at Alexander McQueen as well, from both Textiles and Fashion.  Graduates who have started up on their own include Aitor Throup, Matthew Miller, Lou Dalton and Sibling. Erdem is doing really well, plus Boudicca, Holly Fulton, so it is a good mix.

Some of the applied arts students set up on their own, but some go into some high profile companies, like Bulgari, or Fabergé.

I think most of our graduates work for someone else for a little while, or they might do a freelance job. If you are going into business, try and get a business partner. I think to link business students with fashion or design students is a really good thing. It is all about trust. I think for a designer to link with a business partner is the best way and some of our students have mixed with potential business partners at Imperial College London.

Internships are useful, obviously they are good, but some companies are tending to use them for cheap labour. I think that is really bad, and they should definitely pay. We would advise most of our students to do a paid placement, but there are so many students that will do it for free. I don’t think it is just fashion companies, I think a lot of companies do it. But they should at least give lunch and travel. It is almost a given that ‘I’m going to do an internship after I graduate’ and you think, well, you should be actually going out for a job, not an internship. Especially our students, coming out of an MA, they should be going into jobs. Internships were never around when I was starting out, you got a job, but it is because there aren’t so many jobs now obviously.

Know your market

Designers need to know their market, whatever market that might be. It could be they want to design for pop stars – it can be more conceptual, more mad, but as long as they know who their customer is, that is what we are really pushing at the moment. Who is your customer? What do they do?  Where do they live? What do they eat? It is a real profile. They can keep looking back and thinking when they are designing, ‘Would my customer wear this?’ It is quite a good way of really understanding the market.

I think students are becoming broader in their skills, and I think you want them to have in-depth knowledge, but you also want them to experience other disciplines, or other uses of materials. That is what we can offer here. People are becoming more multi-disciplinary, and a lot of companies are as well. Fashion designers are designing furnishings, glassware, porcelain, tableware, bed linen. Debenhams, for instance, support designers like John Rocha, Betty Jackson, Jasper Conran, and I think that is really exciting.

Our menswear students go to Brioni in Italy to work with the master tailors there for a week, and that was an eye opener for me when I visited. It’s a huge factory, they do a night shift and a day shift, there are over a thousand tailors, and they all have a certain job, so you have someone who is just doing buttonholes all day for example. They are masters in their own specialism. Students see that precision and learn from them.  

My advice for people starting out would be, know your market and be aware of what is going on in your industry. I would never say follow what anyone else is doing, or follow fashion. I think we should be moving it on, so once you have seen what someone else is doing it is too late to do it, and you need to think ahead, and challenge fashion and move it onto the future. I think here we need to instil students with the confidence to have belief in themselves and their own design abilities. They become an individual designer through their own personal research. If you think of every fashion house, they all are so different, no one is alike. And that is through that designer having their own vision. Look at fashion shows, look at what is going on, be aware of who is in what job, who is moving on, know all that but don’t follow in their direction – do it yourself.

Stay curious

All the programmes in the School of Material have the same world around them, and it is that inquisitiveness that moves you forward. When we have sponsored projects, we always say to the students, don’t do what you think that company wants you to do, do what you think that company should have. 

We do get people coming here to recruit at the MA Shows and some students can be offered three jobs. They have got to choose which company is the right one; should they go to New York, or should they go to Italy, which is fantastic. Knowing your market will help you know where you want to go, and which job you should accept, but also to know who to approach. Which company would suit you, where are you heading? And don’t get disheartened, sometimes it takes a while, but just keep on trying, just go for it. If you want to start on your own, there is never a good time, there is always a recession or something going on. You just have to start when you think it is right for you. 

I think we offer a rich experience, and we are small enough to allow collaborations to bloom. Collaboration is great. We really believe in that. It is a social college, and our students meet friends for life.  We encourage them to have belief in themselves.

About Wendy Dagworthy