Fashion at Massey University College of Creative Arts
Massey University was established as an agricultural college in 1928 and initially formed a branch of the University of New Zealand. Since then, it has grown to include campuses in three cities and teaches a diverse programme including sciences, business, journalism, music and design. The College of Creative Arts is the largest in New Zealand and each year teaches over half the design graduates in the country. Sue Prescott, recently appointed head of the fashion department at Massey’s College of Creative Arts reveals a complex medley of unusual references and a unique understanding of global design.
A tall and fantastically striking woman, Prescott previously led a life somewhat akin to a gentrified nomad. Her passion for discovery and creativity has led her from England to continental Europe, Pakistan to New York; before finally settling in New Zealand. She is by no means your typical head of a fashion department, but nor is New Zealand your typical place to study fashion. Prescott’s infectious creativity has seen her work as a clothing, costume and textile designer and had a long career in fashion education before being appointed to the top job at Massey University.
Prescott trained at Manchester Polytechnic (now MMU – Manchester Metropolitan University) and emerged with a BA (Hons.) degree in Fashion/Textile design. The combined emphasis of the programme established a longstanding love affair with textiles and resulted in Prescott’s first design job at a large lace company in Nottingham. Despite the seemingly niche nature of the lace industry Prescott’s position led her into dialogue and production with some of England’s largest clothing manufacturers including Marks & Spencer. She has experience on both sides of the fashion divide, alternating extremely commercial design work with specialised projects focusing on hand craft. She passed a year in the secluded mountains of Pakistan working alongside a local community as a textile design consultant, an experience she describes as ‘the most human’ of her career.
Prescott moved to New Zealand in order to establish a fashion course at UCOL (Universal College of Learning) in the 1990s before moving to Massey University 14 years ago to work as a fashion lecturer. In addition to her time at Massey she works as a freelance designer, specialising in costumes for stage. Outside Massey her current work spans from the static to the interactive as she explores material and electrical technology alongside the best of her students in order to constantly push conceptual boundaries.
This rich and diverse background provides Prescott with skills, knowledge and perspectives perfectly suited to her current position at Massey University. New Zealand is a country often known for its unusual artistic bent and Massey University is one of the main engine rooms for its creative industries.
The fashion school was created when the University merged with Wellington Polytechnic in 1999. The polytechnic’s legacy can still been seen around the University, most notably in the incredible machinery on offer to the students. The fashion school is housed in an imperial 1930s museum building and the graceful galleries are now filled with row upon row of pattern cutting tables, industrial sewing machines and specific technical machines (some of which date from the 1970s).
Both the quality and sheer amount of technical machinery is enough to put many well-known fashion schools to shame. However, this is necessary in a country such as New Zealand where the small population size requires all designers,
both emerging and established to have a full working knowledge of every part of a design business from pattern cutting to management.
Prescott is rightly proud of the diverse breadth of teaching at the university, however acknowledges that every student will have their own strengths. She firmly believes that “one of the best qualities a graduate can have is to be a creative and critical thinker” and feels this is established through diversity of study rather than premature specialisation.
Taking the reins when the University chose to roll out a new degree structure, Prescott’s views are in line with the University’s new focus on interdisciplinary collaboration. Students are now encouraged to take elective papers both within and beyond the realm of fashion in order to encourage them to search broadly through design before finalising their exact oeuvre.
The studio work spaces of the university have also been developed to encourage those majoring in fashion to work alongside those majoring in industrial, spatial, textile and visual communication design. Prescott’s take is that creativity breeds creativity. If inspiration can be found everywhere, to design fashion, ‘you have to have ideas,’ before anything else. It is a good thing that generating ideas is Prescott’s forte.