remembering louise wilson obe, by her friend sarah mower
Three years since the passing of legendary Central Saint Martin's professor Louise Wilson, we look back to Sarah Mower MBE's tribute to a friend and colleague, who changed the face of fashion.
Today, more than a thousand graduates, friends and fashion industry people gather at St. Paul's Cathedral to celebrate the memory of Professor Louise Wilson OBE. It's fitting that this national honour falls on the first day of London Fashion Week. I sometimes doubt whether there would even be a London Fashion Week without Louise Wilson - her teaching at Central Saint Martins forged the originality and professionalism of a generation which is the first in British fashion history to prove that they can cut it, by every measure, on the international stage.
She was my friend, too. Our relationship grew out of our mutual enjoyment in seeing astonishing, eye-opening ideas take form in her office. I always felt privileged - not to mention a little grovelly - when she began to allow me in to observe. It meant that I already knew Christopher Kane, Mary Katrantzou, Michael van der Ham, Marques'Almeida, Jackie Lee, Faustine Steinmetz, Sadie Williams and innumerable others before they even left college. When Louise suddenly left us last May, as part of my grieving, I spent time going through all our correspondence I'd kept over most of a decade.
Amongst it, I found this early article I'd written about Louise for the Telegraph Magazine. It makes me laugh to remember that day at Central Saint Martins at Charing Cross. Like all of her graduates, I can still hear Louise's voice now. Here she is, in full fettle on a day when a boy with a collection made of neon-coloured tights walked in for his crit. He was Christopher Kane. Thank you to the Telegraph Magazine for granting permission to republish that history-making Louise Wilson memory.
A tip to anyone entering Central Saint Martins, either as a visitor or a prospective student: leave your expectations of glamour at the door. Then brace. The world's most prestigious fashion school is a grey, unimpressive thirties building on the grimy traffic-choked Charing Cross Road. Through the hard-to-find swing doors lies an underwhelming vista of institutional grunge that hasn't changed for decades. Underwhelming, that is, until you catch sight of the commemorative plaque above the doorman's desk. "THE SEX PISTOLS PLAYED THEIR FIRST GIG HERE IN 1976," it reads. In that goose-pimpling second, you begin to perceive just what standards, what cool, what qualities of prescient hipness are demanded of, and commanded by, the few who are chosen to belong here.
To discover why this apparently cash-strapped dump is incontestably fashion's ultimate finishing school, we must meet the woman who does the choosing of the crème de la crème. She is Louise Wilson, commander of the MA Fashion and Textiles degree, possibly the country's most frightening, foul-mouthed and least P.C Professor and - except for her extreme methods in talent-nurturing - the furthest thing imaginable from Miss Jean Brodie. A 43-year-old designer with a famously lashing tongue, rapier eye and an incipient heart condition, Wilson is as feared as she is admired on several continents and in every design studio in every fashion house worth mentioning. Ninety percent of the twenty-or-so who graduate from her Masters degree land good jobs, or have set up on their own, within a year. Without them, studios across Paris, Milan and New York (Chloe, Lanvin, Gucci, Prada, Marc Jacobs, Dolce & Gabbana, Donna Karan among them) would plunge into staffing-crisis - and London Fashion Week, minus Jonathan Saunders, Emma Cook, Peter Jensen, Roksanda Ilincic, Sinha-Stanic and the latest newcomers, Marios Schwab and Richard Nicoll, would collapse.
"If people say St Martins is a great school - I say Louise is a great school," exclaims Alber Elbaz, on his mobile during a fitting at Lanvin. "She is exploding with talent, emotion, intuition and kindness. She teaches like only a good militant can." (And he is speaking as someone with experience of the Israeli army.) Lanvin is one of the houses that plucked a graduate straight out of last year's MA show, along with Chloe, Ghost and several other well-regarded companies in Europe and the United States. Jane Rapley, who is Dean of fashion and currently acting head of Central Saint Martins, hired Wilson in 1999 because, she says, "She was by far the most passionate and committed candidate. She's obsessive, a control freak. Her mental and intellectual absorption in the subject is total." Hers is, Rapley adds, searching for diplomatic words, "a form of teaching that's now slightly frowned upon in education. In the early stages, when students arrive, having been big fish in small ponds, she deconstructs them. Then there's a reconstruction phase. It's not right for everybody. But her biggest 'performance indicator' is her results." Since Wilson took over the course - in which students can choose to specialise in womenswear, menswear or textiles, the school has been inundated by applicants from all over the world desperate to walk through her fire.
The Professor's office is two floors up, down a whitewashed corridor along which runs the department's wall-of-fame of press cuttings about former graduates. The zone outside Wilson's door - that portal to ultimate fashion success - is a scene of frequent carnage around which student legend has grown. Peter Jensen, a gently-spoken Dane, tells the tale of a student Wilson threw out of her office. "She slammed the door on his coat, and he was too frightened to tell her, so he wiggled out of it, left it hanging, and sat there for hours, waiting for her to come out." Jonathan Saunders, the brilliant print designer, pales when he remembers his first audience. "I'd come down from Glasgow, and there was this massive queen dressed head-to-toe in Louis Vuitton waiting outside next to me, bragging about himself. I thought, if this is fashion, I've had it. He went in, but then, within three minutes, she'd chucked him out, portfolio all over the place."
Wilson brooks no poseurs, fools or slackers, but homes in to interrogate what she suspects might be original talent - until it either falls apart, or fights back and shines. That goes some way to explaining why her graduates' collections always look individual, unlike the homogenised products of other colleges. Giles Deacon, who calls Wilson his 'external mentor', observes, "She's devil's advocate. Everyone thinks she's really a bitch, but she's doing it to see what people are made of." "She's brutally honest," says Jonathan Saunders, "but what she says is an exact representation of the reactions you get when you leave. She's fine if you make a statement and can back up." Isn't that hard on sensitive designer types? Saunders bats back a withering Wilsonism: "Outside, this is a celebrity-led, contact-led business. You don't stand a hope in hell just being quietly talented in a corner." "The insults are really good," laughs Emma Cook. "And her bite as bad as her bark. She can't bear it if you don't know your stuff. But she is always right."
"Come in!" It is 9.30 in the morning and we are through that terrifying door, sitting at the Professor's right hand to observe her most stressful time of the year: the count-down to the Central Saint Martins MA show, which under her tutelage has earned the right to a place on the London Fashion Week catwalk. Wilson is wearing what she always wears, "A lorra, lorra Donna Karan black cashmere and Jens Laugesen sweaters," she declares. She's dialling Huddersfield with one silver- ringed, Hermès watch-wrapped hand and smoking the first Silk Cut of the session with the other. "We're not allowed to smoke here, but I do. Hello, can I speak to Mr Barker? Thank you. Now, we need twelve metres of the dark grey flannel." She's ordering fabric for a student's collection, part of the unseen back-of-house wrangling of sponsorship, scholarships, favours-in-kind and job recommendations she makes her business, on top of regular teaching. "Done. I love to-do lists. Now, get in Madeline."
The students are lined up outside for last-chance grillings before the graduation show. Wilson is working on running order of outfits, and critiquing toiles, before calling in the college technical staff to explain how the garments should be made. "We've got to have the pattern-cutter and the machinists, because they sure as hell can't sew, students," she mutters, jabbing at a sketch in which a bust is outlined with straps. "Don't like those! Looks as though she's about to breast-feed." The student brings in her showpiece. She sits back. "That dress took two weeks to make," she comments, not ungenially. "It would cost about eleven thousand fucking pounds in a shop."
Those who survive, or get to know Louise Wilson professionally, use the same weird mix of militaristic and maternal imagery to describe her. Christopher Kane, class star of 2006, calls her, "A mother-figure and your worst enemy, an assassin, firing you down at long-range. It's like being in the army or something. One minute, she likes your cardigan, and the next she's saying you've got fat ankles. But she likes able thinkers. There's no-one whose opinion I value more." Kane is next in the room, ushering in an extraordinary pink frilled body-dress he's made from Fogal tights and stretch lace, detailed with brass dressage hardware. His Professor sucks in her breath. "I don't want it to look like a Little Britain hooker," she warns, homing in. "And hasn't the pitch changed on that dress?" She's right, Kane admits, shimmying up the waistline to a better position. Dress improved by 50%, he's despatched with a piece of Professorial wisdom on how to get his fabric delivered on time: "Lie!"
Daisuke, with Japanese perfectionism, has more or less finished his collection of complex, doubled-up tailoring, but Wilson, veteran of much catwalk-action, guns for the flaws. "By the time she's walked 50 feet it'll be stuck between her legs! And what's that on those trousers - a pouch for her sanitary towel?" Then she switches gear to full throttle to rescue a print designer who has lost the help of the first-year student who should have made her clothes. It's all pleated, printed lame. "Now! There are some things I thought of last night," she tells the girl, drawing on her toile with a biro. "Let's have a little bit of fullness. It should be Anna Piaggi. A bit Ziggy and bit less Oscar de la Renta. You should source gold buttons. Insane engraved buttons, like you're a member of the yacht club." She grins, and sends her out reassured. "Bob's your uncle, Fanny's your aunt!"
Wilson's constant, expletive-studded commentary seems to be more than something laid on for our visit. She has a fashion version of Tourette's syndrome: a woman compelled to say exactly what she thinks in a society of gushers and dissemblers. Her conversation is an unfiltered torrent in which her complex, searingly honest personality flashes by, bearing along great bubbles of humour, opinion and wince-making crosscurrents of self-excoriation. Last student seen, she sits back with another Silk Cut. "You scream and shout when you are emotionally involved. I'm honest. Sometimes I'm a hard bitch." Speedy by nature, she's always reining in her impatience with students as they labour through their technical detours. "I'm going in the fast lane from London to Birmingham, and they're going the scenic route, looking at all the churches. Sometimes, I'm not seeing all the Norman Buildings on the way, I admit. And sometimes, it's wrong to be right. Sometimes it's right to be wrong. Creative risks are a measure of people."
Fundamentally unsoppy, she nevertheless cares about the students she believes in way beyond the call of duty. Peter Jensen says he's seen her cry when a student hasn't gone far enough to meet her expectations. Her campaigning compassion for students' financial struggles is huge, too. "We desperately need more scholarships. Chloe and Burberry give them, but we need more. They all have to take jobs as well as studying. They get no money from Tony Blair." Not that she's big on ivory-tower institutionalisation. "I tell them, 'Look, by the time you do an MA, you've been in education since you were five. Eighteen years. If you'd been in jail that long, they'd get social workers to reintegrate you into society.'" Partly, her no-holds-barred involvement stems from the fact that Wilson has been there herself. She graduated from Saint Martins MA in 1986, the year before John Galliano burst out of the BA course to instant fame. Upon graduating, she worked as a designer and consultant in a number of young sportswear companies, including Jeffrey Rogers and Italian jeans labels, in London, Milan and Hong Kong, before returning to teach as Course Director of Womenswear at Saint Martins in 1992.
In 1997, she was headhunted by Donna Karan as Design Director, and upped sticks to New York for two years, on sabbatical. "She's like the perfect Mom, combining tough love and a heart of gold," says Karan. "When I had her, it was like going back to school myself. Louise trains and develops the best." A Donna Karan employee at the time cracks up to remember, "She was like a drill sergeant. They had a loudspeaker system in the office and Louise's voice would come over it: 'ALL DESIGNERS TO REPORT TO THE STUDIO.'" Emma Cook, who went to work in the studio and shared a flat with her ex-Professor remembers, "God, it was intense. We'd work 'til three am, and then she'd want to discuss it more when we got home." When she returned to London, she was made Professor in 1999.
As a big, all-encompassingly competent woman, though, Louise Wilson is too easily caricatured. In reality, she fits no stereotype her students may have of her as a larger-than-life permanent Saint Martins fixture. First surprise: though her accent has been flattened to pure inner-city London, she's actually a horse-loving daughter of a gentleman farmer who was a Scotland Gymkhana champion. "I common-ised myself," she says cheerfully. "I was born in Cambridgeshire and moved to Scotland when I was seven. We had six horses and I would compete. Jumping. Cabinets full of cups. I always won." But why should such a girl get into fashion? "My mother had Vogue. Everybody made clothes then. That's the problem with students now. So I fell into it. I ended up doing my hobby. My job is my interest." Now, she lives in North London with her Ghanaian partner and teenage son. She is a keen gardener, which might give the catwalk queens pause to wonder, too.
In truth, Professor Wilson is a mass of dynamic contradictions; a national treasure of international significance whose dedication richly deserves to put her in the way of an OBE for services to fashion. Or make that a Damehood. Not that it would ever cross her mind. What keeps her going, she insists, is staying connected to youth, "Even though they all assume I'm sixty. And I'm slitting my wrists while they're driving past in their Ferraris". Anyone who dares compliment her achievements, the success of her graduates, or the polish of her graduation show is instantly on dangerous ground. The merest hint of flattery triggers the edgy reflex that constantly rejects complacency in herself and others. "But I wonder," she shoots back, "Is it too polished? Is that what we should be doing here? Twenty years ago, John Galliano had his graduation show in the school hall. Would it be good to be rougher? Don't we need a bit of that now?" She's still lobbing a volley of questions out of her door as our interview ends. Does she mean it? Isn't she happy? What's she looking for next? It's an effect that has never been captured better than by Alber Elbaz. "She's not snobby, always nonchalant and easy-going," he says, fondly. "She doesn't take herself too seriously, but at the same time, Louise Wilson is the most serious person I know."
Text Sarah Mower
Thanks to Tamsin Blanchard, Olivia Lidbury, and Sarah Mower MBE.