Former pupil Suzi Derbyshire recently returned to Rydal Penrhos, where she spoke with Sixth Formers about her eventful career in fashion and education.
We were thrilled to welcome back a former pupil to Rydal Penrhos recently. Suzi Derbyshire, Emeritus Professor at Queensland University of Technology (QUT), visited the school to speak with current pupils about employability, creative careers and transferable skill-sets rather than subject-defined futures.
After studying at Lyndon, Penrhos Junior and Penrhos College where she began at age five, she left to take a foundation year at Wrexham College of Art. Suzi went on to Central Saint Martins in London and achieved a First Class Honours in Fashion Design.
Following a number of years in the fashion industry based in locations such as the UK and Hong Kong, Italy, China and America, she moved to the London College of Fashion as a lecturer teaching Fashion Design. Suzi migrated to Australia in 2002 to become the inaugural head of fashion at QUT where she set up a world recognised degree course in fashion design and rapidly progressed from there to become the Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Learning and Teaching for more than 50,000 students.
One of Suzi’s main early influences was the late, great, David Bowie, an iconic figure who shifted the landscape of music and pop culture during the 1970s and beyond.
“When I was young and first went into fashion David Bowie was a huge influence. I remember going to see an exhibition of David Bowie’s work in Melbourne many, many years later, and it really brought home for me just how extraordinary an artist he was, how he was able to reimagine himself and how creative he was in every aspect of his work – from his song-writing to being an incredible musician and appreciating other musicians.”
Suzi firmly believes that fashion forms a significant part of the art we see around us. Not only in the modern-day and the ever-changing culture, but also historically.
“Fashion is by far the most intimate form of design. It’s a really interesting one because it’s very constrained – in that people have two arms, two legs, a head, and that form dictates, to a large degree, what clothing is. You put your legs through things, arms through things, and most people want to be able to move and function through the day, and so there is so much constraint built into fashion, and yet, so much imagination and skill. The art of fashion, of couture particularly, is extraordinary.”
Suzi’s talks were extremely well received by current Rydal Penrhos pupils who could possibly follow in her footsteps one day. They covered a variety of different topics and gave those in attendance plenty of useful information to take on board during a critical stage of their future planning.
How we dress is a reflection of our personalities. Something Suzi believes can make all the difference when it comes to interviewing or simply making people sit up and take notice before words are exchanged in life or business.
“You make a decision about someone visually before they’ve even opened their mouth. There have been reams written about how to be successful at an interview – and we all know implicitly what’s appropriate or not: most people can make a pretty good instinctive decision about what you’d wear for an interview versus what you would wear for a first date for example.”
But what’s the secret to fashion? Is it a gift or something you can teach? Is it simply reacting to natural instincts or conceived through knowledge of the almost constant change to current trends?
For Suzi, it’s finding a niche amid the chaos. Examining the circumstances and reacting accordingly.
“Many students are focused, rightfully, on more sustainable and ethical approaches to fashion design and consumption. When I teach, I try to help students understand the world they’re going into, to understand the design process and the positive change that they can bring to bear, under any set of constraints. But that means continually trying to bring something new into the mix, to design conceptually, to look at anything for inspiration – perhaps Japanese costume, or an old school cape, and to bring different sources of inspiration together to design a collection that’s different, because it isn’t just repeating what has been done before.”
Suzi’s transition from the fashion industry into the education sector was probably a daunting proposition at the time. Although she’d generated a vast amount of experience within her chosen profession, this step into the unknown was something the alumna instantly felt comfortable doing.
“One of my heroes, Sir Ken Robinson, did a wonderful short talk about the power of education and creativity which was animated by RSAnimate.”
“He’s been so influential for me because he talks about schooling and the need to make profound changes to the education system to better prepare young people for the world they now live in. One thing he said which really struck me relates to the way that schools ‘batch’ students by year, by age – nothing to do with how we learn, how we progress, we are all batched into year groups and we all proceed in every subject at the same speed. How ridiculous is that when you think about it?! It’s totally unrealistic to think that, in the times we live in, you could finish your education at 21 and be fully educated to meet the kind of needs, demands, and opportunities that you’ve probably got ahead of you in the next 60 or 70 years. You think of the change we’ve seen in the last 20 years and imagine the change we’ll see in the next 70. The idea that schooling that finishes at 18 or 21 is sufficient, however good it was, is ridiculous. And in a way that’s actually very liberating because what you realise then is, you have to learn throughout your life, all the time.”
At the end of the day, what is education all about? It’s about helping pupils find what inspires them, acquire the necessary qualifications and go on to pursue their dreams. Education should help pupils develop ‘know how’ as well as ‘know what’, help them build skills and attributes that they can bring to any role, in whatever avenues they wish to explore.
“Many people still get asked what they want to be when they grow up but this is an increasingly redundant question. The idea of a career is changing – now it’s about finding out what you’re good at, what you enjoy, and taking that to every job – or of being entrepreneurial and making jobs that make the most of your particular combination of skills and attributes.
“Creativity is absolutely what defines us as humans. I mean it, imagination is free, it’s endless, it’s the greenest power! It’s a muscle that we have to strengthen by using it every day. It’s important, it’s so important, and it’s going to save us. Our creativity and our ability to bring different skill sets together will be what helps us tackle the most wicked problems that remain unsolved.”
Suzi believes that creativity should be at the heart of education and creativity is, without question, a core component in her journey from Penrhos College to where she is today.
On behalf of everyone at Rydal Penrhos, we would like to thank Suzi for visiting us and our pupils deeply appreciated it.