Interview: Northumbria University lecturer Douglas MacLennan

FOR the past 40 years, Douglas MacLennan has witnessed some of his students take jobs with the world’s most famous fashion houses.

Douglas MacLennan, Design School Director for International Development at Northumbria University Design School

FOR the past 40 years, Douglas MacLennan has witnessed some of his students take jobs with the world’s most famous fashion houses.

From household names such as Louis Vuitton and Ralph Lauren to highly-acclaimed labels like Chloe and the House of Givenchy, Northumbria University has shown that you don’t have to live or study in London to forge a successful career in fashion.

And it’s not just couture houses where students land prestigious roles, others have gone on to work for internationally-renowned retail super-giants such as Selfridges and Liberty, while others work in the design departments for high street chains, or as fashion stylists, journalists or they set up their own label.

The high calibre of the roles prove that the fashion courses at the university’s School of Design can hold their own in the competitive world of clothes, in an industry where London, Paris and New York are considered the hotbed for training fashion’s future stars.

“While fashion is inextricably linked with the capital London, talent can be born in a croft as well as in a castle – local-born talent and the North East has never been short of creative talent,” says Douglas, principle lecturer in fashion.

“Among those educated at Northumbria University in recent years have been Jane Whitfield, designer at Chloe, previously the Senior Womenswear Designer at Louis Vuitton, Graeme Fidler, Creative Menswear Director at Bally, Louise Trotter, Creative Director at Joseph and Barry Jordan, Senior Menswear Designer at Ralph Lauren. Our latest success story is Nicola Morgan, born south of the Tyne, but who has just recently joined the House of Givenchy as a designer for the couture line, 30 months after graduation.

“One of our graduates is also the director of menswear at Selfridges and if you name any high street brand , I am sure you will find one of our graduates there.

“From my point of view I feel proud to hear about these success stories but also to hear about graduates who 30 years later are still working in their chosen industry irrespective of what level they are at.

“Yes, it’s great to see that so-and-so works for a such-and-such big name but there are also graduates who have been putting garments on the back of people worldwide for 30 years.”

Douglas is fiercely passionate about both the university and the North East, which has been his home for over three decades. The 63-year-old grew up in a small town in Scotland in the 60s where jobs in fashion didn’t exist. “At the age of 16 years old my father realised there was not much opportunity for me so said let’s bite the bullet and see how you do in fashion,”, he explains. “I came from a small town in Scotland and there were no fashion programmes at that time. My father spent time trawling around places such as Glasgow School of Art and another place which was a training ground for machinists, which wasn’t what I wanted to do.

“My mother had a cousin who worked for MI5 in London and he took time out from his working life to make contact with all the London art colleges and find out which would be the most suitable and he recommended Central St Martin’s.

“I was so shy at that point that when the art teacher at school asked if anyone wanted to do art I couldn’t bring myself to put my hand up to say ‘me’. She only discovered it at parents’ evening when my parents told her I wanted to apply for Central St Martin’s.

“She took me under her wing and helped me put my portfolio together.”

Aged 17, Douglas was accepted on to a foundation programme at the prestigious art and design school which has spawned the likes of Terence Conran, Sir James Dyson, John Galliano, Bruce Oldfield and Stella McCartney.

A year later he made it on to the fiercely-competitive fashion programme where his contemporaries included fashion designer Katharine Hamnett and Kathy Phillips, ex-beauty director at British Vogue. “I could not understand people who said the best days of their lives were their school days. I hated school, but my life at Central St Martin’s I just loved.

“I had no knowledge of the industry. I came from a middle class background, my father was a teacher, and I was working alongside students who flew to Paris twice a year to purchase their wardrobes.

“It opened my eyes to a world I had never experienced before.”

Douglas graduated from the art school in 1969 and flew to Hong Kong where he was offered a job for a knitwear company. He says: “By the time I graduated I had come out of my shell. In leaving the British Isles to go to Hong Kong it gave me my second great hobby in life, a love of travel and it opened my eyes to the world in a way you could not imagine.

“Hong Kong was an amazing place to be. I would watch the wives of high-flying businessmen walking around the harbour decked out in cocktail outfits, with diamonds the size of rings, watches, earrings, diamantes in their hair and on their heels, all dazzling in the sun.

“At the end of my first year the firm sent me around the world and I have never stopped travelling since.” In 1969 Douglas’s graduate collection went on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum for their permanent fashion collection in a display to represent the Best of 1960s fashion. My parents came down from Scotland to see it and photographed it for prosperity,” laughs Douglas. “It was on exhibit for two years until Cecil Beaton presented a collection. It’s still held by the V&A and you can request to see it.

“A student at Northumbria did request to see it once, I think they wanted to check I wasn’t lying.”

The fashion lecturer went on to work for another knitting company in Hong Kong before leaving to return to England when the managing director disappeared with £7 million.

He took up a job at his old training haunt, Central St Martin’s, in 1972, before learning of a teaching post at Newcastle Polytechnic.

“I had never in a million years thought about teaching, probably because my father had been a teacher, but I thought I might as well apply for the job,” says the lecturer, who lives in Jesmond.

“My intention was to return to Hong Kong but I decided to go to an interview and I met the professor in charge of the fashion programme, who was very refreshing in comparison to the average fashion dragons you meet. She was very straightforward talking woman and someone I thought I could work with. What a lot of people didn’t realise at the time was it was probably the best polytechnic foundation course for fashion in the country.

“I was offered the job and started in September 1972 and 40 years later here I am.”

Douglas has spent the last four decades teaching fashion students and his role now includes design school director in International Development, which sees him fly around the world to places such as India, Vietnam, Russia, Brazil and Taiwan, promoting the work of the School of Design.

He divides his time between Chiswick in London and his home in Jesmond. “It took me 10 years to make the move to Newcastle, and I did that in 1982, partly because I was married at the time and there was great resistance at that time of my life, but once I made the decision to move here I’ve never looked back. It’s a great place to live, if we could only do something about the weather,” he laughs.

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