Obituary: Louise Wilson OBE, Professor of Fashion at Central Saint Martins

Louise Wilson: An inspirational figure who fashioned a legendary generation of British designers. Picture: Getty
Louise Wilson: An inspirational figure who fashioned a legendary generation of British designers. Picture: Getty
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Born: 23 February, 1962, in Cambridge. Died: 17 May, 2014, in Scotland, aged 52

LOUISE Wilson was unanimously acclaimed as one of the most influential individuals in a highly competitive industry. As head of the Fashion MA Course at Central Saint Martins College in London the list of designers she trained is legendary: from Alexander McQueen and Hussein Chalayan to Giles Deacon, Zara, Roksanda Ilincic, Christopher Kane and Marios Schwab. She also taught many who hold senior posts in the fashion business such as stylists, journalists and editors.

Indeed, the elite of British fashion came under her scrutiny and (often scathing) criticism. There was a saying at St Martins that went: “If you can survive Louise’s comments, you’re ready to go into the world.” But Wilson maintained a balanced and purposeful attitude towards her students. She encouraged them and offered constructive advice when it was deserved.

Her experience, wide knowledge of colours and expert eye was unequalled in the world of fashion. She remained a total enthusiast and was blessed with an infectious sense of humour. She recently said: “It’s a privilege to be around youth. It keeps you young in your thinking.”

Stella McCartney commented yesterday: “What an inspiration and force in fashion. No-one will ever replace Louise because she was a true one-off.”

Louise Wilson, although born in Cambridgeshire, moved with her father, a farmer, to the Borders where she spent her youth. Her mother dealt in antiques. Wilson went to school in Jedburgh and was an outstanding pupil in art. She was accepted for the MA fashion course at St Martins in the early 1980s.

While in the Borders she loved the outdoor life and was a keen horsewoman. “I rode horses competitively from zero to 17 years old,” she once recalled. “I was very successful at local three-day events, point-to-points, Pony Club and gymkhana.” She also lived in 1980 in a flat in Langlee, Galashiels.

During her time in the Eighties as a student at St Martins, Wilson was much influenced by the teaching of Ossie Clark. After graduating in 1986, Wilson worked part-time as head of women’swear at Central Saint Martins. She spent some years in Hong Kong and working for Gianfranco Ferre in Italy before returning to the college as course director of the Fashion MA course. In 1997, she was head-hunted to become design director of Donna Karan of New York but returned to London in 1999 to be the professor in charge of the MA course.

Her influence extended well beyond pure education of fashion and design students. Her teaching was considered idiosyncratic and all-embracing. Wilson would often provide particular assistance to a student’s career and find placements at houses such as Lanvin and Balenciaga.

All her students have remembered her with deep affection and respect. One of her first pupils in 1992 has written: “Louise was such a big inspiration and she helped me find my voice. She ripped me apart and built me into the person I am today.”

Her commitment to UK fashion spread throughout the industry and helped make the UK industry – and London Fashion Week – one of the most relevant weeks in the fashion calendar. In 2012, Wilson received the Isabella Blow Award for Fashion Creator at the British Fashion Awards.

Wilson retained a strong vocal hint of her Scottish origins and was invariably dressed in black – whether teaching or attending a show. “People think I’m rude,” she said three years ago. “I’m not rude, it’s just honesty. In Who’s Who my hobbies are listed as eating, sleeping and voicing one’s opinion. Not,” she added with a smile, “necessarily the right opinion, but it’s mine.”

The respect she was held in the world of fashion is reflected in her being awarded the OBE in 2008 and was in The Lady’s list of 125 of “the most intelligent, empowered and inspirational women”.

Wilson was not only a pillar of the London fashion community, but was also recognised as an institution among colleagues and students. Many of today’s greatest talents were taught and inspired by her: she had the uncanny knack of spotting and encouraging originality. She was often asked who was going to be the next Alexander McQueen. “Alexander McQueen,” she replied with a wry smile, “didn’t know he was going to be Alexander McQueen.”

Wilson was a stimulating educationalist whose dynamic personality helped to create a generation of fashion designers. Her resolve, courage and determination was reflected in her insistence on continuing to work while she was receiving radiotherapy for breast cancer.

She died during a visit to her sister in Scotland and is survived by her partner of 25 years, Timmi, and their son, Tim.