Christopher Bailey

Interview

I grew up in Yorkshire, in the English countryside, which is beautiful but definitely not a fashion capital. I never really knew about the world of fashion, it was not even on my radar when I was younger. I knew about design, though. I knew about art, and I loved fabrics – I loved expressing things through craft. My love for architecture came from my father, who is a carpenter. I loved watching him make things, and I loved construction, which I guess translates into clothes. My art teacher suggested that I send my work to art schools, and that was the start of my journey into fashion and ultimately, design.

The University of Westminster was my first taste of the fashion industry and helped me put into perspective the realities and excitement of our dynamic industry. When I started at the RCA, I was impatient and hungry to practise, and I still remember the excitement and this great energy I felt when entering the building. From the very beginning, the RCA taught me the importance of opinion, and throughout my studies there, I learnt the means to express it in a three-dimensional way.

I was incredibly fortunate to be awarded a scholarship to the RCA by the family of the late Bill Gibb and I can say, without question, I would not be where I am today had it not been for that support – thanks not only to the financial assistance which it gave me, but also to the mentoring and guidance that is so crucial at a stage of your life where every decision makes a huge impact on your future.

It was during my time at the RCA that I learned the importance of expressing yourself, and having confidence and belief in your vision. It was an incredible feeling when Donna [Karan] asked me to join her in New York after graduating [in 1994]. That moment changed my life and set me on the path that has led me to where I am today. I was just completely seduced by this incredible woman, who had a way of approaching design that just blew me away. It was an unbelievable experience to work with her; she taught me how to use my eyes. The clearest message that Donna taught me was to do what you do with passion or to forget it, and I always thought that was a pretty good way to approach everything in life.

For me, design and innovation have always gone hand-in-hand – be it during my studies at the RCA or at Burberry. It’s very important to embrace new technologies and innovation, but never lose sight of what your brand is truly about. Burberry, for example, is now as much a media-content company as it is a design company, because it’s all part of the overall experience. There seems to be an assumption that technology and innovation are somehow competing with reality, whereas for us, the two complement each other, allowing us to really heighten the physical experience of seeing the collections, colours, fabrics and also of hearing the music and all the drama and emotion that you feel when all those elements come together in that moment.

I think British talent is exceptionally strong now, with so many young British designers having success here and abroad – partly due to the amazing colleges and array of courses – but also to talent scholarships for up-and-coming designers creating more and more opportunities. It’s even more important in this economic climate that we keep supporting these colleges and emerging talent. I think scholarships are key to this. With the RCA scholarship, for example, we hope to support students who may otherwise not have been able to complete a specialist design course, and to give them the freedom to not just study but to dream during their time at the Royal College of Art.

I think being able to express your own point of view is as important in the world of work as is it when you are a student – you always have to stay true to your own point of view. The RCA has always supported individuality and creativity, and it was the RCA that gave me the tools and the platform to leap into the design world. The support, mentoring and guidance I received during my studies, gave me the belief and self-confidence to explore the many wonderful opportunities that I’ve had.

We had many tutors, some of whom are still involved with the RCA. They all influenced us in many different ways, including the technicians – some giving more practical guidance and helping us to learn the craft of our work. Others there helped us to open our minds and to look at the world in a different way.

The culture of the College was an open environment, where the main event was to push yourself and to seek your own path. It was a very clever structured/unstructured approach to learning, experimenting and discovering. Though the pressures were significant, it was a very free and exciting time and place, and even then you had a sense of being somewhere special with clever and interesting minds.

The diversity of design at the RCA was what made it so special to me – it felt like a labyrinth of excitement through every door and around each corner. It helped you to put your own work into context and to explore the bigger picture and how design impacts everything we do every day. It was for me very personally fulfilling to be among a group of people who were inspiring and open to collaborating and letting you in. My peers go across all the different sectors of design, from industrial design, graphics, photography, architecture, textiles – you name it. Some of them are very familiar names and others have quietly changed the world and how we live in it through the influence of design. All of us certainly have a much broader, more open mind, thanks to the filter that the RCA gave us to look at the world of which we are a part.

"I never really knew about the world of fashion, it was not even on my radar when I was younger. I knew about design, though. I knew about art, and I loved fabrics – I loved expressing things through craft."
"I think British talent is exceptionally strong now, with so many young British designers having success here and abroad – partly due to the amazing colleges and array of courses – but also to talent scholarships for up-and-coming designers creating more and more opportunities."