Fashion at the Royal College of Art: Time for Reality (1998- )

Royal College of Art

With the appointment of Wendy Dagworthy as Professor, the Fashion School came under the direction of its most qualified and experienced director. The course attracted high-calibre applicants from around the world, and the intimacy and focus of its tuition allowed talent including Erdem and Holly Fulton to thrive.

Time for Reality (1998-2014): Professor Wendy Dagworthy
In 1998, Fashion and Textiles were disentangled from the Miles-era experiment and Wendy Dagworthy became the RCA’s fifth Professor of Fashion, joining the College from Central Saint Martins (CSM), where she had nurtured Stella McCartney and Alexander McQueen. Dagworthy had studied fashion at Hornsey College of Art and run a highly successful eponymous label, assisted for many years by Betty Jackson. ‘Wendy Dagworthy’ clothes drew on bright colours, batik and Liberty prints, and the company was a strong exporter until the recession of the late 1980s pushed it into voluntary liquidation. Dagworthy continued as a consultant to industry and became head of fashion at CSM in 1989. When she took up the post at the RCA, she was arguably the most internationally experienced and highly qualified professor of fashion the School had seen. Reflecting on the decision to move to the RCA from her auspicious tenure at CSM, Dagworthy cited the appeal of the postgraduate cohort: ‘I love that everything we do is on a one-to-one basis. I was also tired of theatricals. I felt it was time for fashion to have some reality.’
Time for Reality (1998-2014): The Students
Under Wendy Dagworthy’s direction, Fashion at the RCA became a hugely oversubscribed course with an increasingly global appeal. Where Joanne Brogden had steered her largely British cohort towards international employment, during Dagworthy’s era it was the students themselves who came to join the course from abroad. Turkish-Canadian Erdem Moralioglu (2003) found immediate and huge success, while Swiss-French Luc Goidadin (2000) became Burberry’s design director in womenswear. Other graduates, including Aitor Throup (2006) and Holly Fulton (2007), set up their own companies. Further important alumni include Tove Christensen (2005), Karin Gustafsson (2006) and Astrid Andersen (2010).
Time for Reality (1998-2014): The Place
After dabbling with glamorous locations off site in the 1990s, the Fashion galas returned to the College and its central Henry Moore Gallery under Dagworthy’s auspices. The event remained a focal point of the College year, and the galas continued.
Time for Reality (1998-2014): The Time
With her wide experience, Wendy Dagworthy brought an attitude to her role that combined respect for tradition with enthusiasm for new technology and techniques. After Paul Thompson succeeded Christopher Frayling as Rector of the College in 2009, another restructure resulted in the creation of a dean system across six schools. Dagworthy became the College’s first Dean of the School of Material and this remit included applied arts subjects alongside textiles and fashion. She announced her retirement in 2014 and was in turn succeeded by Zowie Broach. Henrietta Goodden, former senior tutor in Fashion, reflected on Dagworthy’s era by noting: ‘Her biggest strength was her fierce dedication to the subject, and her most engaging quality the attitude never to take it too seriously. It could be said that, not only because of her striking red lipstick and her strictly monochrome choice in clothing, she rekindled the spirit of Janey Ironside’s days in leading the School into a new renaissance.’
The Future
Zowie Broach succeeded Wendy Dagworthy in 2014 and already had a natural link to the College through her Boudicca label, run jointly with RCA alumnus and tutor Brian Kirkby. From the start, Broach’s tenure has been characterised by a propulsive re-thinking of fashion design’s interface with the watching world, re-presenting the annual show for a smartphone generation in an age of prolific digital imagery. In 2015 the Fashion School moved to ground-floor level in the Darwin building to occupy the gallery space where many Fashion shows past had been held - the students and their rigorous design processes are now visible to passengers on the bus routes that pass in front of their studios. The annual show has entered a more experimental, performative realm and in 2016 it took place in the abandoned Averard Hotel on Lancaster Gate. Graduates including Mao Tsen Chang and Sophie Schmidt showed individual looks against a semi-derelict backdrop. The display of arresting and immaculate design set against faded grandeur echoed the earliest days of the Fashion School, making do yet looking to the future in crumbling postwar Ennismore Gardens. Madge Garland would have approved.  

Explore more of the history of Fashion at the Royal College of Art:

1948-56: Paris, Kensington
1956-68: Swinging London
1968-88: The World Comes Calling
1989-98: Own Labels and Household Names
1998- : Time for Reality

Find out more about Special Collections at the Royal College of Art

Credits: Story

Text and selection:
Neil Parkinson, Archives & Collections Manager, Royal College of Art
Royal College of Art Special Collections

Project assistant:
Sara Jamshidi
Special thanks:
Nick Frayling, Henrietta Goodden, Virginia Ironside, Cathy Johns, Octavia Reeve, Simon Taylor
Cohen, Lisa, ‘Velvet is Very Important’, in: All We Know: Three Lives (New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2012).
Frayling, Christopher, The Royal College of Art: One Hundred and Fifty Years of Art and Design (London: Barrie & Jenkins, 1987).
Handley, Susannah. ‘Home Furnishers, Fashion Makers and Image Creators’, in: Christopher Frayling and Clare Catterall (eds.) Design of the Times: One Hundred Years of the Royal College of Art (London: Richard Dennis Publications/Royal College of Art, 1996).
McDowell, Colin, ‘Material Differences at the RCA’, in Octavia Reeve (ed.), The Perfect Place to Grow: 175 Years of the Royal College of Art (London: Royal College of Art, 2012).

Credits: All media
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