- Lucille Lewin, 67, reveals how a trip to Hackney convinced her to study ceramics
- The Whistles founder who is now an award winning potter discussed her empire
- She spoke to Femail about her recovery from a non-cancerous brain tumour
PUBLISHED: 22:26, 30 July 2017 | UPDATED: 22:33, 30 July 2017
When Lucille Lewin applied for a Masters degree, her first thought was: ‘Can I really do this?’ ‘I hadn’t actually done a BA before,’ she says. ‘And the elephant in the room was my age.’
A 67-year-old mother of two grown-up sons (‘one’s a doctor, one’s a lawyer’), she’d be some 40 years older than many of the students.
It’s rare to relish starting a new career just as your contemporaries are winding down. And going to art college in your mid-60s is clearly a challenge — from coping with the super-confident, young millennials, to completing mountains of coursework — but the change is particularly shocking if, like Lucille, you once ran a legendary fashion empire.
With her husband Richard, Lucille founded Whistles in 1976 and turned it into one of the High Street’s biggest success stories.
Her own designs for the brand were sized for real women, and many of us are still wearing her jewelled knits, embroidered jackets and tailored suits 20 years on.
By the time the couple sold the business in 2002, to business partner Richard Caring, it had 40 stores across the country.
The funny thing is, she admits, none of her twentysomething fellow students knew about her history. ‘All the brownie points I got in fashion were worth absolutely nothing. It was a new world completely.’
Though, she adds, they did Google her half way through the course.
Lucille’s decision to completely reinvent herself eight years ago happened by chance.
‘I walked into an evening class in Hackney, East London, by mistake. A good friend was going, and I wanted to talk to her, so I said: “I’ll drop you off.”
‘I wandered into this little basement studio, where there were a few potters potting, and the smell of the clay hit me. I connected with it at once . . . it’s a very earthy smell.’
She signed up for part-time evening classes, then decided to study ceramics full-time.
Anyone thinking of retraining mid-life, after a career, might take inspiration from Lucille. Now a tiny, vibrant 69-year-old, she remains endlessly curious. In fact, she says everything in her life has happened organically.
She married Richard on her 21st birthday and went to America after he got a place at Harvard Business School.
In 1972, they moved to the UK. Richard had a job with menswear company Burtons and, to her amazement, she landed a job as an assistant to the merchandiser at Harvey Nichols.
‘I only had ripped jeans to wear, so I went out and bought this fabulous suit and a pair of stacked heels for the interview.’ She was later promoted to buyer, but was eventually fired for being too outspoken.
So, in 1976, she decided to open her own shop on George Street in Marylebone. ‘I wanted to occupy the space between designer and High Street.’
She filled the tiny, 250 sq ft shop with black and white clothes — and it sold out.
She believes the sale of Whistles may have been a trigger for one of the most traumatic episodes in her life. In 2009, she was diagnosed with a non-cancerous brain tumour known as an acoustic neuroma.
‘The takeover was a very difficult time for me,’ she admits. ‘The company was very much my baby.
‘It was a time of unbelievable, unrelenting shock and stress. I felt powerless, and that was one of the hardest things.’
It’s art, yes, but also a business. You don’t make ceramics just to sit looking pretty in your garage — you do it to exhibit and sell the work – Lucille Lewin
The tumour was removed during a 12-and-a-half hour operation at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge. Afterwards, she felt very weak for three months. She says: ‘I could not shop, cook or care for myself. I was so grateful I had my family around me.’
At first, smiling was impossible and eating was a challenge.
‘Many people retreat because they can’t cope with what’s happened to their faces.
‘You lose the ability to react, you lose your smile.’
Following an intensive rehabilitation programme, her condition is barely visible — except in photographs. Having recovered, she was determined to have more pleasure in her life. She took a two-year part-time diploma in fine art and ceramics at London’s City Lit college (2012–14), after which tutors urged her to apply for a two-year postgraduate degree at the prestigious Royal College of Art.
To her delight, she won a place. As a fashion guru, she had lectured at the Royal College. Now she was a mere student. ‘I’m quite a relaxed person, so I didn’t worry about status, thank goodness,’ she laughs.
Though she says wryly that young people master technology so much better, she made friends for life on the course.
At a time when the number of part-time and mature students has dropped significantly, because people are worried about running up debt, she’s keen to stress it’s not an indulgence.
It’s exciting. I’ve got so many things I still want to say. And I think it’s just the start of this adventure – Lucille Lewin
The course cost £9,000 a year, but by selling her work, she can recoup the cost.
‘It’s art, yes, but also a business. You don’t make ceramics just to sit looking pretty in your garage — you do it to exhibit and sell the work.’
In fact, Lewin has more than held her own alongside her classmates. In June, she won the £1,500 Young Masters Maylis Grand Ceramics Prize, after completing her MA in ceramics and glass.
The irony of being declared a ‘young master’ at the age of 69 isn’t lost on her. Since she won the prize, pretty much all of her exquisite white porcelain sculptures have sold. Now she’s preparing for an exhibition in November. Husband Richard grumbles good-naturedly that they can’t go on holiday.
‘I don’t blame him, I should be calming down a little bit,’ smiles Lucille. ‘But it’s exciting. I’ve got so many things I still want to say. And I think it’s just the start of this adventure.’
Lucille’s work is on show at The Cynthia Corbett Gallery / Young Masters Art Prize at the Royal Overseas League until September 8, young-masters.co.uk, lucillelewin.com