willie walters and 25 years of fashion magic

After a quarter century at Central Saint Martins, Fashion BA Course Director Willie Walters is waving goodbye to the college. Before Sarah Gresty takes the reigns, we pay our respects to a living legend.

by Jack Sunnucks
05 September 2016, 8:30am

Chances are, you haven't heard of Willie Walters, but you've probably heard of the institution she shepherds; London's Central St. Martins, the famed art and fashion school that's birthed, amongst others, Phoebe Philo, Riccardo Tisci, and Simone Rocha. Kids from all over the world come to St. Martins for a fashionable rebirth, far away from the conservative places they grew up. "So many students come to St. Martins, students, who, maybe come from a town in the north of England, and want to dress in a way that pleases them, and they just can't in their hometown. And they come here and suddenly feel like home," Willie says. As Fashion BA Course Director, her job is both to nurture and push them to the great heights demanded by the fashion industry, something she takes very seriously. "It really is a safe space. It's extraordinary. Particularly [for those] with a sartorial interest. You arrive, and you can wear whatever you like. It's always been like that, but it's becoming more so!"

Willie herself was one of these students, studying at the college in the 70s. She'd left Scotland to study painting in London, and heard that "This was the college where you could design anything you wanted, you could use any materials, you could describe any silhouette." It was also here that she met her husband, whilst loitering in the entrance to the old Charing Cross Road building, in "False eyelashes, extreme hair, and charity shop garments head to foot." Evidently the college's student aesthetic hasn't changed a lot since then, the corridors still swarming with young people who could have fallen off a Christmas tree.

When Willie graduated, she was five months pregnant and, with an artist husband, in need of a job. "I did quite avant garde fashion as a student, so I wasn't really placed in the industry," she says. This being pre Fashion East, or in fact London Fashion Week in general, there wasn't a huge amount of support for graduates with wild ideas. The city was cheap however, and in Camden, where she lived, she and two friends found a corner shop to let. There they became the legendary brand Swanky Modes, which ran for twenty years. "We made macs out of vintage 50s plastic, which we'd found in a warehouse in the East End. It was all things like pom-pom boudoirs and fishes. And we honestly thought it was commercial because it rains a lot in London... I thought everyone would buy one!" Perhaps unsurprisingly, they didn't exactly fly off the shelves. Swanky Modes did however catch the eye of fashion editor Caroline Baker, who shot an entire story on them with Helmut Newton, nude models posing in the see through, full body plastic suits - Willie had imagined they might be worn over one's clothes.

St Martins is a safe space. It's extraordinary. Particularly for those with a sartorial interest. You arrive and you can wear whatever you like. It's always been like that, but it's becoming more so!

"It was a real British homemade company, women working together as a cooperative, which was unusual really." As the 80s progressed it became more of a business, but also more attuned to the bumpy economy. "It was a time in the 80s where backers would be picking up young designers, like John Galliano, supporting them for two years and, when they didn't see a return on their money, dropping them." It was at this point Willie had enough, and at the invitation of Wendy Dagworthy, herself a designer before becoming a St. Martins professor, returned to the college to teach. "It was absolutely amazing to see the talent when I came back... you had everything from girls doing really sporty things, others doing delicate embroidery and florals on chiffon - and on the other end you had a guy who'd designed something in concrete."

It was the start of 25 years at the college, first running the womenswear course, then becoming head of all fashion courses - from knit, to menswear, to fashion communication. Willie remembers most of her students, and the years they graduated. "Phoebe Philo, 1996. Riccardo Tisci, 1998. Colours I remember too. I meet someone at the bus stop, and I'll remember their collection was green, but not their name." Each year she gets to know everyone best when doing the line-ups for the press show. "I do a sketch of every single look, and that helps me to remember each person in each pathway," she says, pulling out a notebook overflowing with elaborate drawings of students' work. "The following year, they all fly out of my brain when the new one starts!"

This is one of the reasons Willie's leaving. "There's a limit to how long you can do a job like this and still keep your sanity," she says, laughing. "I often think I'm looking into a bejewelled casket, and I'm picking each one out and looking at it," is how she sees her many students. St. Martins, naturally, is ever bigger and more international, but with it comes even more talented students, and it's of this she's proudest. "We've had an extraordinary influx of people from all over the world. Also, when I started off, knitwear and menswear, fashion design with marketing, were like poor relations. Now people understand. Knitwear is almost like sculpture; look at Matty Bovan or Rottingdean Bazaar. Or Grace Wales Bonner and Charles Jeffrey from fashion design with marketing."

The most recent BA press show was Willie's last. She wants to retire whilst she still feels she has time to do something else, but she might not do anything at all. She just doesn't want to hang around St. Martins forever. "I could hang around till I dropped off my perch, but I would feel terrible and like it wasn't honourable at all. I've got to support the entity that we are. I've got to be there, with my swords flashing, defending us against the vagaries of government diktats or upper management cages coming down upon us!" She brandishes an imaginary sword, flipping her perfectly fringed bob. As Sarah Gresty dons the suit of armour next, she'll continue the fight.


Text Jack Sunnucks 
Photography Ronan McKenzie
Willie wears shirt Richard Malone. Scarf Adnan Jalal. Rings and jewellery models own. 

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