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a few specific memories of louise wilson

i-D Acting Editor Sarah Raphael remembers the few times she met Louise Wilson.

by Sarah Raphael
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20 February 2015, 12:30pm

Louise Wilson once told me that the only bitchy people in fashion are the ones on the lower tier of success, trying to get ahead in the all the wrong ways. "At the top of the industry, everybody is nice and talented and kind, and that's how they got there", she said. 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 and admittedly surprised to find her so charming, warm and generous. I felt particularly grateful for her kindness because at the time I was just 23 with no real experience or knowledge and felt entirely unworthy of her time.

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's 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 nice, talented and kind legends at the top of the industry, to nurture enthusiastic young minds and give them time and space to grow. It is the sign of a good teacher, who might seem to his or her students impatient and demanding in the moment, but when you look at the bigger picture, and at what they are really doing for those students, it is the most patient act.

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", she said plainly, offended, "it is one of the longest standing establishments in fashion. It has heritage and that it 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's 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 be taken absolutely seriously and to be shown absolute respect.

I asked her if she still liked fashion after working in it for so many years. "Yeah I do", she replied, "and I think it's bloody wrong that people come to Saint Martins and study it and don't like it, they don't devour it, they don't read about it, they don't love it."

My last mistake of that day was to ask if she had any favourites, and to ask whose career she was most proud of, from her stunning list of students. She said 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. She said her "role as a teacher" was to teach a trade; it was up to the student to decide what their final collection would be, it wasn't up to her, 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 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 Mary Magdalene 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 really 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.

Interview extract from June 2011 about the collaboration between Pringle of Scotland and Central Saint Martins.

What did you set out to achieve with the project?
I always try and deliver a good project or product, it's the same with our shows. We need sponsorship but on the MA we try not to do more than two projects a year. They have to be high calibre like this and there has to be an educational component, the students have to learn a process from it. We were allowed creative freedom and the students chose the theme of argyle because to us, Pringle own the argyle in the same sense that Burberry own the check. We never really think of the outcome, I always assume it's going to be of the best calibre.

Were your students immediately interested in the project, was it relevant to them?
Yes because any good design student is a researcher. They like research, they like looking at things, and discarding them usually.

With Pringle being a heritage company, do you think it was difficult for the students to achieve a contemporary aesthetic?
It is not a "company". It one of the longest standing establishments in fashion. It has heritage and that it so rare and important in this industry. There's very few companies that do have heritage, because heritage is different to age. What is always needed is creativity to mix with the heritage. It's not difficult to be modern or relevant as long as you're investing in creativity, and this season they've invested in us to do this project. I think the difficulty in fashion is when creativity is marginalised because for quite a few years it's been about the merchandising and the business.

Did you ever want to do your own collection or work for a designer?
I never wanted to do my own collection even when I left Saint Martins, but I did want to return to working with young people, which is why I left and came back.

How many of your students do you predict with be the next Christopher Kane, the next Jonathan Saunders?
I don't, it's not my job. I'm in education. That's the people after me; the Sarah Mower's, Fashion East's, all the layers that come after me. If I started thinking it was up to me to predict that, I should retire. If I never produce another person in British fashion, surely that shouldn't put my job in jeopardy because it's not on my job description that I should. Their success is a happy accident of them doing work that's relevant.

How do you guide someone without influencing their aesthetic too much?
You're always working with their ideas. You're always guiding their idea, you're not generating an idea.

Have attitudes to British fashion changed in the span of your career?
The wonderful thing about Britain is that one minute it's up and one minute it's down and one minute it's up and one minute it's rubbish. It's bloody marvellous, we're all kept on our toes. There's not many countries that have produced a McQueen or a Chalayan, in the timescale of the 90s. Then we've got a huge vanguard of young designers and there's no other country that has produced that.

You've guided a lot of designers in their careers, have you ever had a teacher who's inspired you?
I think when you're as arrogant as me, it's very difficult to be inspired. And I think that's probably the best bit of me, I'm a very negative person, I wouldn't even know if I was being influenced. I have to commend my staff, they really are the unsung heroes, Julie Verhoeven, Peter Jensen, etc, they're so the opposite of me that thank God they're there. You've got to stay relevant, that's the hard thing and when you get older, are you relevant? Because it's very youth obsessed. I can look at something and think, that's trash, but it's not trash to the generation that wants it.

Do you like fashion?
Yeah I do, and I think it's bloody wrong that people come to Saint Martins and study it and don't like it, they don't devour it, they don't read about it, they don't love it. It's a great industry and quite frankly most of the people in it are amazing, I've rarely met horrible people.