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A Middleton-born artist who worked for iconic fashion designer Dame Vivienne Westwood recently hosted an exclusive talk at Touchstones gallery in Rochdale after showcasing some of his work as part of an exhibition.

Stuart McKenzie, 55, who is also a fashion illustrator, poet and musician, attended Rochdale College of Art from 1982 to 1985 after leaving school at 16 and has had a fascinating career, which has seen him work with the designer at her London studio.

His early college sketchbooks featured in a recent exhibition at Touchstones in Rochdale – which is operated by Your Trust – and Stuart spoke to an audience at the museum about his experience of fashion illustration. 

Initially, when Stuart left school, he had jobs working in a factory and on a building site in Middleton.

He said a careers teacher had suggested he worked making kitchen cabinets at Schreiber to satisfy his artistic ambition. But he told them: “That’s not what I meant.”

After being rejected for one job working for the High Street stationers John Menzies, he recalled asking why. “They said ‘you said you wanted to do something artistic, so why don’t you go to art college?’”

From there he got a prospectus for Rochdale College of Art and applied and managed to get a place on the prestigious art foundation course.

Stuart said: “The fact that you were at art college at that time meant that you wanted to achieve something.”

He described the “excitement, fear and nervousness” of starting at the college at 16 and the “massive camaraderie of the students.”

One of his contemporaries and good friends was Elaine Constantine, from Bury, who worked as a photographer for American Vogue.

In the 1990s, he worked as a studio assistant with Dame Vivienne Westwood in London for five-and-a-half years after successfully completing a sewing task to make a pair of historical knickers following an interview where he recalled: “they didn’t even look at my portfolio.”

“One minute I was on the dole and the next I was sat at a sewing machine working for Vivienne Westwood. It was a lot of fun, a lot of hard work, late nights and partying,” he explained.

At the time, models Susie Bick and Sarah Stocksbridge were working with the designer.

The Rochdale exhibition featured four of his sketchbooks from his time as a student at Rochdale College of Art.

Stuart was awarded outstanding student of the year in his third year in 1985 and he said: “They gave me £50 and said they didn’t think much of my work in the first or second year, but in the third year I proved them wrong. I did say to them I didn’t think it was fair what they’d said.”

After graduating, he went on to study at the prestigious St Martin’s College of Art in London.

He then lived in Italy with some other St Martin’s graduates “living a hand to mouth existence” for a couple of years, but he said you wouldn’t know it “as we all still wore designer clothes on rotation.”

He came back to London in 1990 and didn’t have much money so was sleeping on a friend’s sofa, who was studying costume design at college in Kilburn, north London.

Stuart was introduced to Vivienne Westwood when he was working for a jewellery designer friend and he said: “I had to deliver jewellery for one of the shows for Vivienne at the studio at midnight.”

He also managed to get an interview for a job working for the designer and completed the historic knicker sewing task to prove his mettle.

Stuart’s mum had worked as a machinist at Ellis’s in Middleton, and he had gained some experience of previous sewing. He believes his mum taught him a lot about resilience “and how to support myself.”

His dad sadly died when he was eight, but his mum managed to work and bring up three children without needing the support of free school meals. 

He believes his wanderlust came from his dad, whose bookcase contained books about South America, the Far East and lost tribes of the Amazon.

He recalls a time while at Rochdale College when “I was too scared to go out and buy fashion magazines in Rochdale. I said to my tutor, I can’t go into a shop and buy them, what will people think of me? But there I was in my Bowie bags and Crombies looking foppish and fey.”

Now in his 50s, and living in London, he is a vocalist and guitarist in a boutique band Wild Daughter who supported Primal Scream at the 02 in 2019 and played the Albert Hall. He has also had his poems published. 

His fashion illustrations have been exhibited at TG Gallery, Nottingham, and MIART in Milan.

He would encourage anyone interested in fashion to “just put one foot in front of the other. If you’ve got passion for it, it will show through. Do it for love – it’s not about the money.”

“When I was about 12, I told my mum I wasn’t going to have a 9 to 5 job – I said it’s just not my life. And I haven’t.”

He recalls telling his Mum that he was joining a band in recent years and she laughed and jokingly said: “You’ve got that the wrong way round. Aren’t you supposed to do that in your 20s?”

With such a wealth of creative talent, Stuart shows that age is no barrier to success.