Louise Wilson, the Educationist with a glamorous tag of “fashion”

  • Joyce visited Professor Louise Wilson at her office in Central St. Martins College, who shared her love-hate relationship with teaching and her opinions on the mediocre fashion industry.

    I was waiting in the brightly lit MA fashion degree studio, which is located in the new King’s Cross campus, while the students were busy pattern cutting. Fifteen minutes later, Professor Louise Wilson, OBE, the course director of the MA degree Fashion Design programme emerged and asked, “ Did someone tell you that I was running late?” I immediately sensed her authority and presence. I then followed her into her office like a slightly timid student ready for a tutorial.

    Wilson’s office is a white room covered with her memorabilia, from fashion invitations to coffee table books; from her favourite quotes to her personal photos with friends and former students. Although the new campus is a far cry from the historical Charing Cross campus which was dark, dingy and dirty, her office looks as though it has been sealed in a capsule, untouched and plonked into this gigantic glass and concrete box. I commented on the differences between the old and the new campus, and she replied,

    “ I feel like I’m plundered in f**king Milton Keynes… I grew up in the Soho campus! You have better food options, John Lewis is only 15mins away, you’re in the middle of London!”

    Famed for her honesty (on the verge of feisty) and just like Vogue’s Sarah Mower described her: “so wonderfully foul-mouthed and typically incorrect”, I can understand why her former students such as Christopher Kane, Phoebe Philo, Jonathan Saunders and the late Alexander McQueen were scared of her, yet because of her, they all became successful designers.

    Wilson is a graduate of Central St. Martins. After graduating, she went to Hong Kong and worked as a designer and consultant; she recalls her time in Hong Kong.

    “It was in the mid to late 80s, my friends there were all in head to toe Comme Des Garcons and Yohji Yamamoto and they were the best pieces. I reckon Hong Kong has the best archive of those two brands.”

    But her fondest memories were not about high fashion.

    “ We all used to shop at Yue Wah, especially loved those tin boxes, it was long before Shanghai Tang, I still use those boxes to store my pins and stuff.”

    After the Hong Kong stint, she returned back to Central St. Martins to become the director of the MA fashion degree course. She taught for 5 years before moving to New York to work for Donna Karan as the design director. In 1999, she once again returned to the art college and resumed her role until now. In the end, she chose teaching fashion over designing fashion.

    “It’s a privilege to be with youth. When you’re with them every day, it’s a misery. However, every time I take myself out and visit some corporate entities, I come back here and I kiss the ground. And let’s be honest, I’m fat and 51, I can’t hang out like Alister Mackie and Kim Jones…”

    So what is so miserable out there in the “fashion world”?

    “There are too many untalented people who have positions of immense power, some of whom I have taught. You can’t help feeling this kind of mediocrity is ruling the world. Because there are so many mediocre people, nobody wants their boat rocked by somebody who might not be mediocre, so they consistently surround themselves with mediocre, charming people, tra- la-la.”

    And how does this mediocrity affect education nowadays?

    “You see, as much as the fashion world out there is so fast-paced, there’s not a lot happening here. It’s very microcosm here. The principle remains the same, meaning you have to have a skill, you have to pattern cut, have to communicate, you’ve got to not necessarily have an original idea because there’s not much originality now, but you’ve got to have an original ‘take’ on an idea, can’t just plagiarise work. Fashion is about research and viewpoint. In actual fact, fashion is a creative design which is a very hard, laborious skill based subject.”

    Although the principle of fashion education remains the same inside the campus, the fashion students in this digital age live and breathe blogs, technology and everything that is instant, and they are judged by the numbers of views and clicks outside the campus. How to have a dialogue with the students when this dichotomy exists between them?

    “People have forgotten that a blogger is not a designer; as exciting as it is, one day, you will exhaust it. Some people say they are doing us a favour by putting the student’s portfolio online for the world to get access. Students believe a page or a blog is press, but it is not press! I’m not sure a lot of the “press” that these people get are picked by a discerning eye, it’s like a feeding frenzy. I had an argument with my students on why they want to present their work in an ibook, it’s like your sister who has no design training, put on some outfits in the bedroom, took some pictures, sent them to Apple and after paying 40 quid, you have a portfolio! I can’t believe it.”

    But before you accuse Wilson of being a technophobe, she comes up with more examples to back up her argument of the importance of creativity over trend and technology.

    “As a designer, you need to have a reason for doing it. A lot of designers today tend to do ‘fashion’ without actually knowing who they are. If you line up their work, you can’t see a DNA running through it. Therefore I’ve always respected designers like Dries (Van Noten) or Comme (des Garcons), whatever they do. You could say that at some point, they were out of fashion, but it didn’t matter, because they believed in it and they have core customers who believed in it. You go out of fashion, you come back in fashion. I see fashion as the banking industry. I see it one day, everyone will wake up and it’s gonna change. At the end of the day, it’s all about skills and people will see through it.”

    Wilson might not be scared of speaking her mind (and truth) and come across as feisty or even rude to some people, but behind the domineering façade, there lies a modest and honest personality. I asked her how she feels about teaching after all these years of achievement, she pointed to a quote on her wall:

    “The greater the artist, the greater the doubt.”

    She continues, “ I don’t think I’m great, but every day, f**k, it’s a break down of confidence. Every day is a concern, a crisis, a disorganisation, I’m like a shrink, you can’t just be a teacher here. Fashion is very boring and hard to teach, you can’t sit hundreds of students in a lecture hall and teach pattern cutting, it’s a very hands-on process. I’m just trying to teach students a skill, to care about what they do, to open their eyes, and doors hopefully.”

    If you are a fashion student and still want to apply for the MA course after reading this article, here’s what Professor Wilson has to say to you:

    “Don’t crave fame, do what you do and just apply. I don’t think many of them here today are that interested in fashion. Perhaps it’s because there’s not much going on. No punk, no reaction to something. I think we are in a waiting period.”

    I’m shocked by her answer and asked how so.

    “If I can answer that question, I will be very rich. I’m a b*tch and have an opinion but I don’t know everything. I’m just an educationist with a glamorous tag of ‘fashion’.”

    Interview by Lucienne Leung-Davies
    Photos by Danny Sangra