At the age of 67, founder of Whistles Lucille Lewin followed her lifelong passion for art and ceramics by enrolling on a postgraduate degree at the Royal College of Art. The mother (and now grandmother-of-two) believes she may be the oldest person to have achieved a master’s degree at the Royal College of Art – and she recently told us of her amazement at being accepted onto the course.
Now an award-winning artist, Lucille has opened up about her experience of switching from the fashion to the art industry in her 60s, and explained why it’s never too late to chase your dreams. She says, “You can retire and have a quiet life, or you can get fired up and do what you love. There are opportunities everywhere, and it’s a great thing to grab something with both hands and run with it.
“I was in retail all my life, but then I fell in love with ceramics. I’ve followed what I really want to do, and it’s been an amazing journey.”
Creative by nature
After leaving her birthplace of South Africa in the late 1960s, and moving to America before eventually settling in London, Lucille Lewin went on to become the founder of the British fashion brand Whistles in 1976. The fashion boss ran as Creative Director of Whistles alongside her husband Richard, before making the decision to sell the company in 2002.
Lucille, now 73, explained how – before entering the world of fashion – she’d always had a passion for art and ceramics. In fact, she completed a small chunk of a Fine Arts degree in South Africa, before moving to America, and then England.
She says, “I’d always wanted to be an artist. It’s a passion of mine, along with food, clothing, films, and museums. I’ve always been a very curious, open-minded person who’s eager to learn, and I really love anything creative.”
To feed her creative appetite, Lucille is currently learning Hebrew in her spare time. She explains, “I’m enjoying the challenge of learning Hebrew at the moment, because it’s got a completely different alphabet to ours.”
“There was just something so magical about the smell of the clay and the feeling of the studio. I instantly fell in love with it…”
Having spent most of her career in retail, in 2012 Lucille began searching for a new and meaningful way to spend her time. The grandmother-of-two explained, “I’d been in fashion a long time and my interest was waning a little. I think partly because fashion had changed quite a lot – the whole business became very corporate, and that’s not what I’m interested in.”
Lucille took a two-year part-time diploma in fine art and ceramics at London’s City Lit College, before going on to apply for a two-year postgraduate degree at the Royal College of Art. Reminiscing about the journey towards her career change, Lucille explained that her move towards art came about as a result of an unexpected visit to a ceramics class 15 years ago, which reignited her creative passion. She says, “I met a friend in Hackney, and she invited me along to her ceramics class. When we got there she handed me a piece of clay and just told me to make something. There was just something so magical about the smell of the clay and the feeling of the studio. I instantly fell in love with it, and that was really it for me.”
“I think I was one of the oldest people ever to go to the Royal College of Art, but I loved it”
Lucille explained her thrill and amazement at being accepted into the prestigious Royal College of Art, to study a two-year postgraduate degree in ceramics and glass. She says, “I thought they’d never take me because I didn’t actually have a degree and I was older. But I just took a deep breath and took my work in, and to my great surprise they took me.”
Enrolling in a degree course in her late 60s, Lucille admitted that she struggled with the technology side of things, but says that being an older student came with many benefits. She explains, “The digital side of things was tricky as what some people could learn in half an hour would take me three days! But being an older student was amazing. I think I was one of the oldest people ever to go to the Royal College of Art, but I loved it. I’ve always worked with younger people in fashion, so spending time and hanging out with young people isn’t a problem for me.
“I thought my age would play against me, but it didn’t seem to at all. In a way I think it helped and inspired some of the other students because I stood as an example that it’s never too late to follow your passion. I’m sure it was pretty strange and interesting for them to see!”
When asked about whether her fellow students were aware of her background in fashion, Lucille explained why she didn’t want her role as the founder of Whistles to interfere with her new role as an art student. She says, “I tried to de-emphasize my past because when people find out what I do, it can sometimes change their attitude. People expect me to be snobby and wealthy, and I’m really none of those things.
“I’m really very relaxed and status doesn’t mean anything to me. I’m not in awe of anyone, and I’d certainly never want anyone to be in awe of me. I didn’t want to be judged on my past, I wanted to be judged on my present – and soon they realised I was just another regular person.”
In 2017, Lucille was awarded The Young Masters Maylis Grand Ceramics Prize for her work Notions of Transformance. And speaking about how art fits into her life today, Lucille says, “Now I’m working in my studio every day, using my past experiences to form the narrative of my pieces while working towards my next exhibition in October. I’d say my move towards art happened quite organically.”
Coping with moments of doubt: “I didn’t have any experience in this new world of art and I felt like a beginner”
Lucille explained that transitioning from an established career in fashion to her role as student has been tricky to adjust to, and has brought with it some challenges. She says, “With fashion, I knew everything that was going on, but I didn’t have experience in this new world of art and I felt like a beginner.”
But Lucille wants to remind people that it’s totally normal to feel this way, and has opened up about her own experiences of self-doubt throughout her career. She says, “I think everyone doubts themselves at times. Every time I start a new art piece I’m doubtful, and every time I started a new collection in fashion I was doubtful. There’s nothing more terrifying than a blank page or a piece of raw clay.
“Sometimes ideas can happen very easily, but getting started is usually a huge case of pushing yourself. But I think you just have to do it and if it doesn’t work it’s not the end of the world; all you need to do is chuck it out and start again.”
“If you believe in yourself, have energy, and are interested in the world, then your age and life experience will be amazing for you”
Emphasizing the importance of going after what makes you happy, Lucille reminds us that anyone is capable of making a career change if they can believe in themselves.
Touching on ageism in the workplace – a topic that many Rest Less members have shared their experience of – Lucille encourages people to keep trying, and to view their life experience as an advantage. She says, “If you’re considering making a career change, then that means you’re already dissatisfied with whatever you’re doing. Why spend time doing something that doesn’t make you happy or give you what you need out of life?
“If you believe in yourself, have energy, and are interested in the world and what’s happening in it, then your age and life experience will be amazing for you. You’ve just got to have the confidence to talk about it and show what you’ve got to offer. It’s all about having faith and backing yourself.”
Urging people not to delay chasing their dreams, Lucille explains how she sometimes wishes she’d made her career change sooner. She says, “I’m only three years out of college so I haven’t really had time to develop, and unfortunately time is one thing that I don’t have a lot of. In order to progress, I sometimes wish I’d started when I was younger. I have so much that I want to do and it all takes time.”
“But I feel so lucky to have had the opportunity to follow a career in something that I love, and I really hope that everyone finds the energy to do exactly what they want to as well. A change of direction is nice when you’re older because in a sense you’ve done your main career, so the next career is really a gift.”
“I think it can be helpful to try and stay open-minded because then you can grab hold of opportunities as they appear”
Having been able to turn her passion for art into a full-time career, Lucille explained that she has no plans for retirement, but instead hopes to continue improving as an artist. She says, “I think retirement suits some people. But I have a bit of a fear of waking up with a day in front of me with nothing to fill it. I have no plans to stop with my art. I’ll be doing this for the future.”
“I think it can be helpful to try and stay open-minded because then you can grab hold of opportunities as they appear. Yes you can plan your life out, but very rarely does it end up exactly how you planned.”
Are you feeling inspired by Lucille’s story? Or do you have your own story that you’d like to share? Join the conversation on the Rest Less community forum, or leave a comment below. We’d love to hear from you!