Cutting it in the fashion world

March 5, 1999

Take a risk. Should fashion students be taught to take risks in business or to play it safe? After London Fashion Week Wendy Dagworthy advocates being extraordinary, while Angela McRobbie counsels caution

London fashion week has proved that people are still coming to see British talent, which just goes to show that even in recession young designers should be encouraged to go for it and take risks, otherwise everything gets very boring.

When I started teaching at Central St Martin's ten years ago after my business collapsed, industry was dictating to the colleges. Students were playing safe and creativity was being stifled.

But I encouraged my students to really go for it. The message was: "Do what you really want. Do not feel you have to answer to others. Because if you do what you think people want, you will not get it right."

That was my philosophy when I was designing. In the early 1970s when a group of us formed the London Designer Collections, virtually everything in Britain was mass market. I was in business for 16 years until cash-flow problems - bad debts, late production runs - forced me to close down.

But I would certainly encourage young designers with commitment, determination and talent who want to set up in business to go for it. I would suggest going into partnership if you do not have a flair for business as well as design.

At the moment about 25 per cent of our MAs at the Royal College of Art go it alone when they leave. The rest go to work for companies, many into high-profile jobs worldwide. I would like to see the number setting up on their own increasing to about 40 per cent. We try to provide the kind of business support people will need when they leave - students even get a business starter pack.

We need more production units that will do small runs to help young designers starting out. The Department of Trade and Industry has backed one that does this and it can make all the difference. Creativity has got to be underpinned by business sense otherwise it all gets lost.

High-profile British designers are working abroad - Stella McCartney at Chloe, Alexander McQueen at Givenchy, John Galliano at Dior. Virtually every house you can mention has an RCA graduate. I think it has taken this interest from abroad to get our industry to realise the worth of the talent we have.

There is, of course, a risk of designers who go it alone going out of business. But there is a risk to everything. It is the risk-takers who change the face of fashion. We should encourage the extraordinary.

Wendy Dagworthy is professor of fashion at the RCA. She was interviewed by Helen Hague.

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