DCSIMG

Interview: Professor Louise Wilson, style queen

Louise wilson isn't a textbook style queen. She always wears black, she eats - but she's helped turn out generations of top uk fashion designers . . .

• Many of the leading names in British fashion have studied under Louise Wilson at St Martins College

FASHION is one of the few industries in which you're fairly likely to find a woman at the helm, be it editing a magazine, styling the coolest celebrities or working as a designer.

Such powerful women are often seen as challenging, and it's not unusual for them to be preceded by an unflattering reputation. Professor Louise Wilson OBE is one such character. The director of the MA fashion course at Central Saint Martins College in London is one of the most influential individuals in British fashion, having helped shape the careers of some of the most talented young fashion designers to come out of the UK in the past 20 years.

Her great skills as an educator, however, are frequently overshadowed by a reputation for a fearsome teaching style, which she describes as a "dangerous myth".

Would such legends surround her if she were a man? Probably not, but in common with other women at the top of the fashion game – from US Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour to designer Donna Karan – she has learned to live with them.

I meet her at St Martins where she is launching a project with Pringle of Scotland which involves students of fashion and fashion history helping the 200-year-old Scottish design house curate its remarkable archive. We hook up between rows of exquisite twinsets and knitted underwear and I begin with the aim of sorting the numerous myths surrounding her from the facts.

It is a myth that she is unapproachable. Neither does she swear constantly, nor shout a lot. It is true that she shares her opinions candidly, that she makes numerous references to her size (large) and that she is a tad intimidating. She likes to eat ("it's like heroin") and does so throughout our conversation.

She dresses only in black. And most importantly, she couldn't give a hoot what I – or anyone else for that matter – make of her. At one point, in a sort of indirect way, I think she calls me a "tw*t".

"At the moment this myth surrounds me," Wilson says between mouthfuls of canaps, "but St Martins was here before me and it will be here after me. It's like being a general, doesn't Karl Lagerfeld say that? You can only be as good as your army. You're f***ed without them."

OK, so she swears a little. But then, she seems to revel in an image that's contrary to what people might expect from someone in her position. Air-kissing seems out of the question. In a room full of skinny women in designer clothes Wilson is, to use her own description, "fat".

She wears little or no make-up and ties her hair back in a simple ponytail. Her clothes are nondescript. She fades into the background in everything but her personality. With that, she owns the room.

"Most designers don't dress in fashion," she says. "They dress in an anonymous way so that people are just judging their work." Is that why she always wears black?

"Well, that and always trying desperately to look thinner. Because I'm a highly critical person, so since I've worn the same outfit for 20 years, people can't actually criticise – well they can – but the point is they're not jarred by it. I'm not unexpected, I'm not coming in in fuchsia pink tomorrow. It also helps because you don't have an intrinsic personal style. You're not sensitive to the way a certain thing fits for you. You're obsessed with what works for the student and you're just freed from it."

At 46, Wilson is one of the most respected people in her industry, though she hates the word "respect" like she hates being asked if she is "proud" of her ex-students, "because 'proud' suggests I take some credit in it."

The daughter of a farming father and a mother who was an avid reader of fashion bible Vogue, Wilson was born in Cambridgeshire but spent most of her childhood in the Scottish Borders. She studied at St Martins, graduating in the mid-1980s before working for labels in Hong Kong, and in New York for Donna Karan. She has worked at St Martins since 1992 and hopes to move on to something else before she retires, but confesses she probably won't. Today she lives in east London with her partner of more than 20 years, with whom she has a grown-up son.

Students clamour to get on her MA course. Nine out of ten alumni will go on to launch their own labels or work for a big fashion house. Around half of the designers who show at London Fashion Week graduated from the course.

Do her students enroll at college believing they will become superstars? After all, from Christopher Kane to Jonathan Saunders, most of British fashion's current successes, not to mention those who have landed stellar jobs at international labels from Celine to Louis Vuitton, arrived via the MA course.

"All the time!" she says with a laugh. "They've been led to believe they're geniuses. Because in teaching it's easier to lead somebody to believe that than to let them know things aren't as they should be. I think a lot of education isn't critical any more; it has become about training. And it is quite critical here. But not in a voyeuristic way. I still believe that education is about provoking some kind of original, creative thought." This is my first insight into Wilson's teaching methods. She herself is either unable or unwilling to describe in detail exactly how she takes a talented student and turns them into something exceptional. It's clear, however, that she's more likely to point out what they're doing wrong than congratulate them for what they're doing right.

She is currently sifting through over 500 applications for 40 places on next year's MA course and has "no idea" what she's looking for, only that "I never know what I want, but always know what I don't want. What I don't want is work that has nothing to do with their youth, their generation. Fashion has moved a hell of a long way since I was at college, and sometimes when you look at the work, it's like back then, 1983. It's like life never happened. I don't really like that."

How often in the interview process, I ask, does she see a genuinely...

"... never," she interrupts, before I can finish with the words "new idea".

Is that because there's no such thing as a new idea? "I don't think there has been for quite a while, actually. It's fine here because we all remember what tit arses we were and are. I can still remember coming here from Scotland and being a complete freak. So we don't say no to a complete freak."

Wilson insists that she doesn't have a soft spot for any of her students, but concedes after a long pause that the Scots who have come through her course "have been quite good".

"It always works when you're outside London and you come and absorb London, because you've got a hunger to get here," she says. "They're not jaded. They're hungry to leave (home] so they lap it up."

Did she notice something special in the young Christopher Kane? Her tired tone suggests she doesn't particularly like this question. "He was no different to any other student. He applied, he had nice work and he went on and did great work. But you don't spot because you're not here to spot.

"Our remit isn't even to produce Christopher Kanes and if we never produced one again it would be fine. It's just a happy accident. The important thing to note is that most of them – Jonathan Saunders, Louise Gray, Christopher Kane – were not planning on their own labels when they came on the course."

When Scottish designer Louise Gray attended her interview with Wilson in 2006 she was offered an MA place on the spot. She was ecstatic but said that she'd wait to get the offer in writing before allowing herself to celebrate.

"She screamed at me that when she tells me something it means it's true," chuckles Gray. "When I told my tutor on my BA course at the Glasgow School of Art that I would be studying under her, he said 'well good luck!' She was, and remains, very to the point. She is also inspiring and very funny. Once I was on the course, I would explain to her what I wanted and she would take my ideas on board, but the key was that she would make me question them myself. She pushes you, and yes, she does shout at times, but she tends to be right. In fact I don't think I've ever known her to be wrong."

I think, I tell Gray, that Wilson may have called me a "tw*t" at one point during our conversation.

"Oh, she loves to call people tw*ts," laughs Gray. "Take it as a compliment. She had all sorts of nicknames for students when I was there."

Dealing with creative twentysomethings who are used to being big fish in relatively small ponds can't be easy, of course, and one might even go so far as to say she must have the patience of Saint Martin himself to do her job.

"By the time they leave you'd want to know them," says Wilson. "While they're on the course, you wouldn't necessarily. I'm surprised anybody even bloody speaks to me. I mean, one student popped in to see me today and I'd just sat down to eat a muffin and I said, 'look I'm really sorry, I just can't be doing with it'. To pop in, even if it's ten minutes and there's two of them, it's 20 minutes a day. I have to find that 20 minutes. So I'm very abrupt."

Wilson leaps up for some sweet raspberry and cream canaps, "It's OK," she tells the catering staff, gesturing in my direction. "She's Scottish, she understands.

"I'm just going to get fatter and fatter. It's like laying out lines of coke in front of an addict."

Now that she's onto pudding, I consider this the right time to take my line of questioning down a more personal route. Is she ambitious? "No. Bitter. Twisted. But not ambitious." Is there anything she still strives for? "A Range Rover Sport." In what colour? "Black." Of course.

Does Wilson have any regrets? "Not spending enough time with my son. But I don't think he's badly scarred, or he assures me he's not. He would probably have been more scarred if I had spent more time with him."

Does her job not allow for a life-work balance? "Oh, not the hours that we work, no. But then, you put in the time for different reasons, don't you? Maybe I didn't want to go home. Maybe that's why I was here long hours ... anyway I'm not doing any more shrink."

I try another tack. How does Wilson feel when she reduces a student to tears? "I don't have any feelings about it, because I don't see them in tears," she says.

"This is all some sort of myth that takes place outside my office. But the only thing I would say to that is that I've cried. With frustration. And I've cried when I've worked. I don't see why you wouldn't cry when you're in an intense environment. You'd either do that or take drugs. You've got to let off steam somehow. And because most of them can't afford to take drugs, they probably just cry. It's such an inconsequential thing."

She's right, of course. If you can't stand the heat, you'd best get out of the kitchen, and if you can't stand up to the frankly rather reasonable Louise Wilson – the woman, not the myth – you're probably not cut out for a career in fashion.

* Pringle of Scotland's 'Day of Record' will take place next Thursday (12 August) at the company's factory in Hawick. Local people are invited to bring along vintage Pringle pieces from their wardrobes for an Antiques Roadshow-style evaluation, so they can be recorded and important historical additions bought back for the company's archives.

www.pringlescotland.com

She wears little or no make-up and ties her hair back in a simple ponytail. Her clothes are nondescript. She fades into the background in everything but her personality. With that, she owns the room.

"Most designers don't dress in fashion," she says. "They dress in an anonymous way so that people are just judging their work." Is that why she always wears black? "Well, that and always trying desperately to look thinner. Because I'm a highly critical person, so since I've worn the same outfit for 20 years, people can't actually criticise - well they can - but the point is they're not jarred by it. I'm not unexpected, I'm not coming in in fuchsia pink tomorrow. It also helps because you don't have an intrinsic personal style. You're not sensitive to the way a certain thing fits for you. You're obsessed with what works for the student and you're just freed from it."

At 46, Wilson is one of the most respected people in her industry, though she hates the word "respect" like she hates being asked if she is "proud" of her ex-students, "because ‘proud' suggests I take some credit in it."

The daughter of a farming father and a mother who was an avid reader of fashion bible Vogue, Wilson was born in Cambridgeshire but spent most of her childhood in the Scottish Borders. She studied at St Martins, graduating in the mid-1980s before working for labels in Hong Kong, and in New York for Donna Karan. She has worked at St Martins since 1992 and hopes to move on to something else before she retires, but confesses she probably won't. Today she lives in east London with her partner of more than 20 years, with whom she has a grown-up son.

Students clamour to get on her MA course. Nine out of ten alumni will go on to launch their own labels or work for a big fashion house. Around half of the designers who show at London Fashion Week graduated from the course.

Do her students enroll at college believing they will become superstars? After all, from Christopher Kane to Jonathan Saunders, most of British fashion's current successes, not to mention those who have landed stellar jobs at international labels from Celine to Louis Vuitton, arrived via the MA course.

"All the time!" she says with a laugh. "They've been led to believe they're geniuses. Because in teaching it's easier to lead somebody to believe that than to let them know things aren't as they should be. I think a lot of education isn't critical any more; it has become about training. And it is quite critical here. But not in a voyeuristic way. I still believe that education is about provoking some kind of original, creative thought." This is my first insight into Wilson's teaching methods. She herself is either unable or unwilling to describe in detail exactly how she takes a talented student and turns them into something exceptional. It's clear, however, that she's more likely to point out what they're doing wrong than congratulate them for what they're doing right.

She is currently sifting through over 500 applications for 40 places on next year's MA course and has "no idea" what she's looking for, only that "I never know what I want, but always know what I don't want. What I don't want is work that has nothing to do with their youth, their generation. Fashion has moved a hell of a long way since I was at college, and sometimes when you look at the work, it's like back then, 1983. It's like life never happened. I don't really like that."

How often in the interview process, I ask, does she see a genuinely...

"... never," she interrupts, before I can finish with the words "new idea".

Is that because there's no such thing as a new idea? "I don't think there has been for quite a while, actually. It's fine here because we all remember what tit arses we were and are. I can still remember coming here from Scotland and being a complete freak. So we don't say no to a complete freak."

Wilson insists that she doesn't have a soft spot for any of her students, but concedes after a long pause that the Scots who have come through her course "have been quite good".

"It always works when you're outside London and you come and absorb London, because you've got a hunger to get here," she says. "They're not jaded. They're hungry to leave [home] so they lap it up."

Did she notice something special in the young Christopher Kane? Her tired tone suggests she doesn't particularly like this question. "He was no different to any other student. He applied, he had nice work and he went on and did great work. But you don't spot because you're not here to spot.

"Our remit isn't even to produce Christopher Kanes and if we never produced one again it would be fine. It's just a happy accident. The important thing to note is that most of them - Jonathan Saunders, Louise Gray, Christopher Kane - were not planning on their own labels when they came on the course."

When Scottish designer Louise Gray attended her interview with Wilson in 2006 she was offered an MA place on the spot. She was ecstatic but said that she'd wait to get the offer in writing before allowing herself to celebrate.

"She screamed at me that when she tells me something it means it's true," chuckles Gray. "When I told my tutor on my BA course at the Glasgow School of Art that I would be studying under her, he said ‘well good luck!' She was, and remains, very to the point. She is also inspiring and very funny. Once I was on the course, I would explain to her what I wanted and she would take my ideas on board, but the key was that she would make me question them myself. She pushes you, and yes, she does shout at times, but she tends to be right. In fact I don't think I've ever known her to be wrong." I think, I tell Gray, that Wilson may have called me a "tw*t" at one point during our conversation. "Oh, she loves to call people tw*ts," laughs Gray. "Take it as a compliment. She had all sorts of nicknames for students when I was there." Dealing with creative twentysomethings who are used to being big fish in relatively small ponds can't be easy, of course, and one might even go so far as to say she must have the patience of Saint Martin himself to do her job.

"By the time they leave you'd want to know them," says Wilson. "While they're on the course, you wouldn't necessarily. I'm surprised anybody even bloody speaks to me. I mean, one student popped in to see me today and I'd just sat down to eat a muffin and I said, ‘look I'm really sorry, I just can't be doing with it'. To pop in, even if it's ten minutes and there's two of them, it's 20 minutes a day. I have to find that 20 minutes. So I'm very abrupt."

Wilson leaps up for some sweet raspberry and cream canaps, "It's OK," she tells the catering staff, gesturing in my direction. "She's Scottish, she understands.

"I'm just going to get fatter and fatter. It's like laying out lines of coke in front of an addict."

Now that she's onto pudding, I consider this the right time to take my line of questioning down a more personal route. Is she ambitious? "No. Bitter. Twisted. But not ambitious." Is there anything she still strives for? "A Range Rover Sport." In what colour? "Black." Of course.

Does Wilson have any regrets? "Not spending enough time with my son. But I don't think he's badly scarred, or he assures me he's not. He would probably have been more scarred if I had spent more time with him."

Does her job not allow for a life-work balance? "Oh, not the hours that we work, no. But then, you put in the time for different reasons, don't you? Maybe I didn't want to go home. Maybe that's why I was here long hours ... anyway I'm not doing any more shrink."

I try another tack. How does Wilson feel when she reduces a student to tears? "I don't have any feelings about it, because I don't see them in tears," she says. "This is all some sort of myth that takes place outside my office. But the only thing I would say to that is that I've cried. With frustration. And I've cried when I've worked. I don't see why you wouldn't cry when you're in an intense environment. You'd either do that or take drugs. You've got to let off steam somehow. And because most of them can't afford to take drugs, they probably just cry. It's such an inconsequential thing."

She's right, of course. If you can't stand the heat, you'd best get out of the kitchen, and if you can't stand up to the frankly rather reasonable Louise Wilson - the woman, not the myth - you're probably not cut out for a career in fashion.

Pringle of Scotland's ‘Day of Record' will take place next Thursday (12 August) at the company's factory in Hawick. Local people are invited to bring along vintage Pringle pieces from their wardrobes for an Antiques Roadshow-style evaluation, so they can be recorded and important historical additions bought back for the company's archives.

www.pringlescotland.com

Louise wilson isn't a textbook style queen. She always wears black, she eats ... but she's helped turn out generations of top uk fashion designers

 
 
 

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