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Inclusive, courageous and curious: in conversation with Diana Donaldson

woman styling another woman's hair
  • Written byJ Igiri
  • Published date 10 March 2023
woman styling another woman's hair
Diana Donaldson
My work and identity reflect a passion and respect for curious and courageous creativity.

As we celebrate International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month, we’re speaking to some of the influential women who are part of the London College of Fashion community. Diana Donaldson, course tutor on BA (Hons) Hair and Make-up for Fashion, discusses her creative practice in the industry, as well as her inspirations and motivations as an educator.

Please introduce yourself and say a bit about what you do 

My name is Diana Donaldson. I am a creative director and producer working in the creative industries; this includes film, advertising, fashion and the charitable sector. I am also a specialist style consultant for a private, commercial and therapeutic client base.

My work in education has continued alongside my industry experience for over two decades. I have been a course leader and now work as course tutor and senior lecturer at London College of Fashion and Central Saint Martins in the UK and internationally.

I am active in promoting good wellbeing for all, especially supporting people challenged by beauty standards perpetuated in the media.

woman posed in a white shirt and a hat
Diana Donaldson
Can you tell us about your career and professional industry practice over the past 25+ years? 

My industry career began unexpectedly, shortly after graduating when I agreed to do styling for an iconic film director, screenwriter and painter – Tony Kaye. Tony had a reputation for eccentric behaviour. I think he is a remarkable visionary. In between shooting commercials, I worked on editorials, runway shows and on fashion collaborations with people such as Vivienne Westwood and Alexander McQueen. I also worked with the incredibly talented director, Rupert Sanders, and cinematographer, Jess Hall. I was pretty much learning on the job, it was like a baptism by fire and always exciting. Rupert and Jess would often flip the script, which is why I am an agile creative.

My MA taught me how to research, organise and manage collaborations. These skills were crucial for my transition into the industry. My industry work can be demanding, I am expected to deliver, always, however, it is incredibly rewarding.

I have worked with many talented people and had an eventful early career. The industry work that I’m doing now has diversified. For instance, with the increased awareness of equality, inclusion and diversity I am doing more multimedia-based cultural consultancy work.

I enjoy working closely with clients, on mind and body concerns such as those who struggle with their appearance after surgery like mastectomy and people who suffer from Body Dysmorphic Disorder.

photo of a several booklets
Beauty Standards | Diana Donaldson
Why do you teach, and what does it mean to practice inclusive teaching?

At school, I was only one of five black children in my year group. Every morning, without fail I was greeted by the Nazi salute. I hated school. I teach because it is critical for all to see and experience people of my likeness in educational settings. Despite having dyslexia, I had enough self-belief, discipline and determination to get myself onto a foundation course. It took one educator to believe in me. He helped me to elevate my learning. A good educator can change lives.

Practising inclusive teaching for me is about taking theory and policy relative to Equality, Diversity and Inclusion agendas off the page and into the class. I demonstrate how this works in a real-world context, why it is important and share my own experiences. Students often understand the significance of working in diverse teams by experiencing this first-hand. I encourage them to cultivate this in industry.

How does your industry experience, and creative practice, influence or shape what you bring as an educator? 

My industry experience and creative practice influences everything I bring as an educator. I understand how the academic aspects of study correlate directly to industry and can relay this to the students. Understanding the context can often help those who may be struggling to find the motivation to push through when they understand the bigger picture. I often link students up with industry practitioners and vice versa. I think it is just as important for students to shape the industry they are entering.

How would you define ‘curious and courageous creativity’? 

I define ‘curious and courageous creativity’ as an approach toward creativity that is considered, authentic and brave. It is respectful, however, the process is not overly concerned about failing. It is not about sticking to the tried and tested and does not remain comfortably within the box. I believe for my personal growth and identity, it is crucial for me to continue to remain inquisitive and inquiring, not fearful of change or difference.

Congratulations on being a finalist for the 2022 Baton Awards, recognised for your services to education. What does it mean to you to both be nominated and acknowledged in this category? 

Thank you. With names such as Brenda Emmanus and Charlene White as recipients of the award, it is a great honour to be a finalist and part of a legacy for an award that champions positive, diverse representation, seeking to uplift, inspire and celebrate women like me.

The process involves blind shortlisting – I am proud that my accomplishments in education have been considered and recognised in this way.

The Baton Awards are a wonderful beacon of light and acknowledgement for those doing what they do, often without recognition. It was a lovely ceremony and empowering to be surrounded by so many inspirational women.

What is most important to you as a creative person, a mentor and an educator?

As a creative it is important for me to remain open to embracing new ideas and experiences, and for my work to continue to evolve. As a mentor and educator, I believe in social consciousness and support people in various ways, in the hope that they can perform better in life.

I am not only motivated by my own ambition but by knowing I can help others whenever this is possible.

Which women in fashion do you admire, and why? 

The women I admire in fashion will not be known to most. My mother is one of these women. She had an incredible eye for detail and liked well-tailored original pieces. My style has been directly influenced by my mother, she could wear anything from Dior’s New Look style with her tiny, pinched waistline, to a pair of peg-legged jeans with a Lacoste puffer jacket and Adidas gazelle trainers – at any age! She looked different, was confident in her own sense of style, and didn’t follow the crowd. A petite, gentle, intelligent and brave woman, my mother moved to the UK with no family at a time of extreme racial antagonism and violence. She skillfully built alliances, which would often start with a comment about what she was wearing. I believe this was by design. My mother taught us what it is to be tolerant and compassionate.

Who inspires you? 

Educator and founder of the first inclusive Adult Education School (AES) in Bermuda, Merle Brock Swan Williams inspires me. I had the privilege of being one of the rare few to interview her for my research, A Different Hue of Blue: Embedding Diversity and Inclusivity Within the Higher Education Curriculum. Williams was at the forefront of the first minority-led uprising that challenged and demanded basic equality within education in the 1960s. She is incomparable, her story is both moving and inspirational. She has many creative pursuits including designing her own outfits from beautiful traditional fabrics.

My sister inspires me. She is a mental health practitioner and researcher with an indomitable spirit. She has a sharp sense of humour, is stylish and instils important values into my nieces.

I am inspired by anyone, especially carers who give selflessly and unconditionally.

What projects are you currently working on? 

Industry: Early-stage research on a project with carers.

Education: I will be developing a project initiated from my Knowledge Exchange (KE) funded project, Beauty Standards: The Making of a Myth shortlisted for a Public and Community Engagement KE award. Working with school children and industry, I hope to consolidate my commitment to the well-being of children and young people, by challenging beauty ideals perpetuated in the media.

I am discussing a project on racial identity development with a university in the United States and in Africa.