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In conversation with Professor Jane Rapley OBE

21 March 2015 by Roger Tredre in Sponsors, Judges & Champions

We talk to Jane Rapley OBE, Honorary Trustee of the Texprint Council, about her love of textiles and long-time association with Texprint.

Senior figures in the world of academia sometimes come across as self-important and lacking in a sense of humour. Not so Jane Rapley, who retired in 2012 as head of Central Saint Martins. In an hour of conversation over a coffee, she is a whirlwind of humour, gossip and general chit-chat.

Retired? Well, not exactly. She’s just returned from another trip to Asia, lending her wisdom and years of experience to Hong Kong-based educationalists. And now she’s delighted to cap a decades-long association with Texprint by becoming an Honorary Trustee.

Her memories stretch back to the early 1970s, when a friend exhibited at Texprint and she recalls one graduate – possibly John Miles (later head of fashion & textiles at the Royal College of Art) – showing a collection inspired by Mickey Mouse and Walt Disney. One suspects the legal team at Disney would not be amused if the collection was recreated today.

Her association with textiles dates back to the very beginning of her career as merchandising manager at menswear company Sabre International Textiles, managing the knitwear range. Her links with education were very early too, prompted by Sabre owner Louis Van Praagh, a fervent supporter of education, who encouraged her to teach on the side. “Through him, I got involved with the Council for National Academic Awards at the tender age of 26. And I was a governor of Plymouth College of Art at the age of 28 – mainly because we had a factory there.” 

Although she’s best known for her career at Central Saint Martins, Jane has taught and lectured more widely, including Middlesex, Preston, Brighton, Kingston, Trent and Lancashire Polys in the 1970s, followed by the Royal College of Art and Central School of Art & Design in the 1980s, all this while running a business or two (including her own, Burrows & Hare).

Circa 1978, Jane teaching in the textile studio at the Central

By 1987, she was head of textiles at Central. Within six weeks, the department was restructured and the merger between Central and Saint Martins was announced. She taught textiles for only two years before becoming dean of CSM’s fashion & textiles school, but her affection for it has remained constant. “When I was a student I loved doing print and by chance I took to knit. I think I partly liked the fact that the people [in textiles] are so nice! They tended to have more diverse backgrounds than fashion.”

She enjoys the annual Texprint show in London. “It’s always a pleasure to look at young designers’ work. I have always loved colour. I used to love choosing the colour range when I worked in industry; it was great fun choosing all the names.”

Jane Shepherdson, Terence Conran, Barbara Kennington and Jane Rapley OBE at the Coutts Texprint dinner 2012

Choosing the colours for the fashion school of the new Central Saint Martins back in 1990 was a delicate business, she recalls. “Bobby Hillson [CSM head of MA fashion] was desperately looking for navy blue paint for the cupboards. We found something that was not quite navy blue but just about ok. So we went away for the summer holiday and while we were away the London Institute chose its corporate colour – grey. Of course when we came back the cupboards were all painted grey. I still remember the look of horror on Bobby’s face. ‘My dears!’ she said. ‘That grey is so last year!’ ”

The central role of textiles in design should be better acknowledged, she argues. “It’s such a pivotal area of education. When I was teaching textiles – a setup I inherited – it was very open, the students could try everything. They often went into printmaking but it could be ceramics or packaging. Their careers needed to be diverse, starting perhaps in fashion but moving into interiors for example. The deployment of technology was very exciting for designers – it’s fascinating how you can take traditional textiles into new worlds such as architecture or medicine.”

Sir John Tusa and Professor Jane Rapley OBE, when Head of College at CSM. (photo credit: Paul Cochrane)

Where does she stand on the digital-versus-handcrafted debate? “I don’t think it’s a versus. Really good interesting creative people will use them all as tools, whether they use handcrafted with technological materials or traditional materials in a different technology process.”

Textile designers need to be better appreciated, she says. “The problem with textiles is that textile designers largely do not hit the public consciousness. They are designers for other designers… The only time they surface is when they go into fashion, such as Alice Temperley or Zandra Rhodes.”

The result is that many young people don’t recognise that textiles offers a really interesting career. “So many teenagers say they want to be fashion designers. People ring me up saying, my daughter wants to be a fashion designer. They don’t realise the potential of a career in textiles.”

Jane with Texprint colleagues at a Texprint Council meeting 2014

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