As a child growing up in Devon I endlessly drew clothes, and as my mother took Vogue I always said that is where I want to work…
After leaving school I vehemently resisted being sent university and insisted on going to art school, first Plymouth and eventually St Martins. The fashion school was run by Muriel Pemberton and the emphasis was on drawing, painting and visual research at the V&A. Fellow students were Bernard Nevill who later went on to Liberty and Ken Fleetwood who became a lifelong friend and was the designer at Hardy Amies for many years.
I remember the degree show. The catwalk was the fire escape at the back of the school and the audience sat on the steps. There must have been journalists among them as I remember I had press coverage!
While I was a student I met my husband Keith Cunningham who was studying graphics at The Central School before going on to paint at the RCA. I did not know it but he had just won a London Transport poster competition. The posters were all over London and glancing at them as we walked by he asked me casually if I liked them. I wonder if I had said no I would have become his wife…
Not long after we were married with a baby son, Keith heard from a friend that there was a job at Vogue. I set off with my portfolio and was immediately employed as a fashion artist for the promotion department. Among other things, I was expected to produce a portfolio of London and Paris collections, I was thrilled. We used to exchange promotional material with American Vogue – that was how I discovered that Andy Warhol was doing the same job as me in the U.S.
John Parsons, the art director who had hired me, soon asked me to do editorial drawings for Vogue and this lead to my work being used for other Condé Nast publications. I ended up spending only two days a week in the promotion department. The rest of my time was spent drawing clothes, I was ecstatic. This was truly the realisation of my childhood dream.
I was being approached by advertising agencies and other publications from here and abroad. I always knew it would be difficult for me to leave the job that I loved. Vogue had proved to be not just a fulfilment of a dream but an education.
I finally quit to go freelance. This was an amazing and hectic period of my life, I had so much work… I never needed an agent. There was still a demand in the 60s for fashion illustration.
For me the most exciting time was covering the Paris Collections. I did this for The Sunday Times and later for The Observer. There was an embargo on photographs being published after the shows so the newspapers relied on drawings to convey each designer’s ‘look’. It certainly developed one’s visual memory. After looking at about 150 outfits at each show there would be a brief consultation with the fashion editor, then I would go back to the hotel to produce the requested drawings. To be seen drawing during a show could result in a lifetime ban!
Chanel and Cardin showed at the same time due to some feud that they were having so we had to split up and I always covered Chanel… I sat there in terror knowing that I would have to leave early to get the drawings by wire back to London. I was only too aware of this
formidable figure sitting at the top of the stairs reflected in the mirrors watching everything… I used to fake ‘feeling faint’ as I tottered out.
It was in the late 60s that I found myself being asked to draw lots of childrenswear and realised there was a gap in the market. That was how Bobby Hillson Ltd came about. I started a childrenswear company with Jane Barnicoat, a journalist friend. We showed twice a year at the ‘Salon de la Mode Enfantine’. I also designed special collections for Liberty and Viyella. Soon we were selling to exclusive retailers all over the world.
We received considerable media coverage and in 1974 The Times nominated me Designer of the Year resulting in some of the clothes being put on permanent display at the Bath Museum of Costume.
I continued my involvement with St Martins, which had started in the late 50’s, when Pemberton, on hearing I was at Vogue, asked me to come back and teach. It had never crossed my mind that I would and could teach but I found that I loved it. I became final year tutor working with students on their degree collections. Wild times, amazing students, many of them later becoming acclaimed and a part of fashion history. Meanwhile Bobby Hillson Ltd had grown too large too quickly and I was totally exhausted. So, after one ‘buy out’ fell through I just walked away from it.
Lydia Kennedy who I had worked closely with at St Martins was the new Head of Fashion and wanted me to work alongside her as a full time tutor. I persuaded myself that teaching would be an easier life. No sooner had I started than I learned the college had been invited to submit a proposal for a Fashion MA and wanted me to run it. At that time there was only one fashion post-graduate course in the country and that was at the RCA. When I was given the proposed course document I flatly refused to run it: I did not agree with the concept or anything in the document. I finally wrote my own course and we started in 1978. The beginning was tough, too few good students wanted to come; they understandably opted for the RCA.
It soon became clear that there were insufficient funds to realise my expectations for the course. My only option was to seek sponsorship. We started brilliantly by achieving a 3-year Levi’s sponsorship work with Liz Bolton who became a great friend. The course began to gain recognition and to my surprise the British Fashion Council asked us to show during Fashion Week. This was a great opportunity to promote the course and resulted in much press coverage, both national and international.
After its success I was told that designers showing in Fashion Week objected to students showing! My protests that “we were not selling clothes but we were selling talent” fell on deaf ears. The ban lasted for a while but we continued showing at the same time at different venues until the British Fashion Council asked us to return. The MA Central Saint Martins show is now an integral part of the British fashion calendar.
The course continued to evolve gaining numerous sponsorships and bursaries and my ex-students were pursuing successful careers in every fashion capital of the world.
Being hijacked by an ‘English’ graduate straight from university with an impassioned plea for a Fashion Journalism course led me to ask Sally Brampton, an ex-student who had been so successful editing Elle Magazine, what she thought. Not only did she like the idea but even agreed to run it. That was how the Fashion Journalism option at St Martins was born.
I had always maintained that you cannot make someone more talented but you can make them more professional.
My aim was to persuade designers to work together as they have to do in ‘real life’ to stimulate and learn from each other and above all to develop their individuality. My goal was that they should be eminently employable.
Teaching was by no means the ‘easy life’ I might have envisaged. But what could have been more rewarding than to work with so many talented people and see them realise or even exceed their wildest dreams!
I left in 1992 knowing the course was in the best possible hands of Louise Wilson, a brilliant ex-student with a successful career who came back and worked with me as design tutor. She is as passionate as I was.
I continue working on various projects, design and academic consultancies, both here and abroad, and as I finish this I shall start on some drawings… clothes of course.
“[...], thus began the golden age of St Martins, for a few years it reigned supreme. Together with Bobby Hillson the place had an electricity about it that I believe has not happened since...
both staff & students clicked.” — Sheridan Barnett, Designer
“Bobby was an inspirational mentor to the brightest and most talented designers to have made it through St Martins. She is eloquent, elegant and best of all a wonderful loyal friend.”
— Ike Rust, Senior Menswear Tutor, Royal College of Art
“Bobby could always spot talent a mile away. She made no bones about telling you how it is. Understanding bad design from good was fundamental. Her only interest was to encourage and develop the talent of her students, sharing her vast experience and passion for fashion which is intact to this day. Bobby is without question the foundation stone in many a career in fashion. Most certainly mine.” — Joaquin Ballabriga, Designer, Paris