With news that the legendary Central Saint Martins fashion professor, Louise Wilson OBE, passed away this weekend, we pay our respects to a fashion legend.
Louise Wilson once told me that the only bitchy people in fashion are the ones on the lower tiers of success, trying to get ahead in all the wrong ways. "At the top of the industry everybody is talented and kind, and that is how they got there," she informed. I asked her about the misconceptions of people in fashion being nasty, because after an hour chatting, having been incredibly nervous to interview the formidable "I'm not rude, I'm just honest" doyenne of fashion, I was so relieved to find her so charming, warm and generous. I felt particularly grateful for her kindness because at the time I was only 22, with no real experience or knowledge of the fashion industry, and I felt entirely unworthy of her time.
"To study at Central Saint Martins is a privilege and those who don't take it seriously, who just hang around outside, annoy me." Louise Wilson, OBE
Louise is often quoted as saying, "As much as I might decry the students, as much as they're a nightmare, it is a privilege to be among youth," which was first reported by The Independent, but a sentiment she expressed in many interviews, and to me too. It is a very interesting concept in fashion and in business. i-D founder Terry Jones was of the same opinion, putting his faith in very young editorial teams, and famously making Edward Enninful Fashion Editor at just 18 years old. It seems a running trait among those talented and generous legends at the top of the industry, to nurture enthusiastic young minds and give them the time and the space to grow.
There were a few moments where the "not rude just honest" thing came up in that first interview with Louise. We were talking about the long-standing collaboration between her students at Central Saint Martins and Pringle of Scotland. My first mistake was to call Pringle a "company". "It is not a company," Louise said plainly, offended. "It is one of the longest standing establishments in fashion. It has heritage and that is so rare and important in this industry." She went on to describe the achievements and dignity of Pringle of Scotland as a global brand, rendering the word 'company' entirely inappropriate. The second mistake I made was to brashly call British designers "eccentric." I was again corrected with a fierce clarity, "I don't think there are many British designers who can be called eccentric today, can you name any?" she asked accusingly. "Be careful using that word because it's just not true." It was a surprise to me to be corrected so specifically, but it was one of the greatest lessons I have been taught, because words are so important and to use them casually and without evidence to describe somebody's life work, or to describe a two hundred year old brand built on very specific principles, is careless. For me, those two tiny incidents showed just how seriously and to heart Louise took things. Fashion was not a careless industry or construct for her. It was to to be shown absolute respect.
I asked her if she still liked fashion after working in it for so many years. "Yes," she replied, "I do like fashion. And it is interesting because a lot of the students at Central Saint Martins don't seem to like fashion, and I have no idea why they're there. To study at Central Saint Martins is a privilege and those who don't take it seriously, who just hang around outside, annoy me."
My last mistake of the day was to inquire whether she had any favourites, and to ask whose career she was most proud of, from her stunning list of students, including Alexander McQueen, Christopher Kane, Jonathan Saunders, Stella McCartney and Phoebe Philo. She informed me that she never had favourites and said it wasn't "the role of a teacher" to be proud of what her students go on to do. Her "role as a teacher" was to teach a trade; it was up to the student to decide what their final collection would be, and it was up to the student to make their way in the industry thereafter. She would not take credit for anybody's career.
The second time I met Louise was in Monaco, concerning another project between Pringle of Scotland and Central Saint Martins, where her students were to interpret the style of Grace Kelly, Princess of Monaco for a capsule collection. I was wearing a jumpsuit, something from a charity shop, with a silver panel across one sleeve. She complimented me on it and asked what the material was. I said I didn't know, maybe cotton? She laughed and said I was lucky I wasn't on her course because she would have bollocked me for such incompetence. Once again, I realised my error was carelessness. If you're going to wear something, you should know what it is, and decide exactly upon it.
A few nights later in Monaco there was a dinner on a terrace to celebrate the collaboration. Louise was cold, and despite being in the company of the Princess Caroline of Monaco, she put a pale blue felt blanket over her head, wrapped up like a biblical wife to keep warm. It was a funny image, her piercing blue eyes next to that blanket. She looked so specific.
The last time I encountered Louise was during one of her infamous Crit's for her MA design students, about their designs for the Pringle project. A crit, for those unfamiliar, is a critical examination of your work. Before Louise entered the room I was with her students, most of whom hadn't slept in a week because they were also working on their final collections. They looked pale, exhausted; I felt sorry for them. Louise came in with Alistair Carr, then Design Director of Pringle and they started to look at the work. She was ferocious, uncompromising, and unmerciful. She expressed her disappointment in their work plainly and loudly, and after listening to Alistair's comments, told many to start all over again and to do so immediately. The faces of the pale exhausted students fell. A couple after receiving more personal comments left teary-eyed.
It made me realise that the reputation of that course, MA Design at Central Saint Martins, taught by Louise Wilson OBE and ranked above any other fashion course in the country, possibly the world, is not in any way over-estimated. And how privileged those students must feel now.