Louise Wilson

The Met's spring fashion exhibit—"AngloMania: Tradition and Transgression in British Fashion"—could easily have been named after Louise Wilson. Since 1992, Wilson has dutifully served as the course director of the 2-year Master's degree program of London's Central Saint Martins, arguably the world's most influential and revered fashion school, which she also attended. While at the same time, the 40-year-old mother of one has done so with an unorthodox teaching method that goes well beyond exacting. Former students have called it loud, brutal, abrasive and terrifying—even fascist. Reaching back, imagine the cane-pounding dance instructor in Fame ("You've got big dreams? You want fame? Well, fame costs. And right here is where you start paying. With sweat."), multiplied by ten in fearsomeness, dressed in a uniform of black and hurling insults laced with profanity. (Not even "AngloMania" escapes a dagger from the punctilious professor: "It's very well-done and affords British fashion the clout it deserves. But it was difficult for me to look at because it felt staged and overdressed, like a Ralph Lauren shop.") The strategy, however, has paid off, as a high ratio of her former students have gone on to greatness, usually after taking part in the now-legendary annual graduation fashion show, where scouts from key stores, magazines and the occasional conglomerate come from far and wide for a glimpse of the future. Having first met Wilson during London Fashion Week, I caught up with her again in New York. She was in town representing the university at the "AngloMania" opening-night dinner. Perhaps owing to the sunny day of our meeting in SoHo, I found her to be open, warm and cheerful—if cheerfully contrary—as we spoke about everything from building a super-brand to her own transgressive past. By LEE CARTER


In my mind, Central Saint Martins is like an atelier or an elite workshop. What is it really?

A hellhole. (Laughs.) No, Saint Martins is a government-funded central London studio with many disparate students from different backgrounds. It's a big multi-disciplined art college, within which there is the fashion school. It's a scruffy place. You could paint on the walls if you wanted to. I'd hate to think there's a kid in East Berlin or Slovenia who's put off by the image of professionalism that we have.

It's quite competitive, isn't it?

Yes, and it takes a bit of time to get in the rhythm. Students sometimes turn up at my course and they look a bit like they're going to Bali with only Wellingtons and a map, and they never leave their hotel room because they didn't think to bring a bikini. I'm full of bizarre analogies like that.

You told me before it was difficult getting your professorship. Why?

That's just me being sarcastic. It didn't appear I got my professorship for any work I did at Saint Martins, but because I left and came back. I went away to be the head of Donna Karan in New York, and came back with a veneer of something else. In my twisted and bitter view, I think it's a shame that you have to leave and do something outside to gain recognition, although I'm sure the university will say it was my work on the MA. As the course director, I'm also a professor, which I'm really happy about because there's no other professorship in the school. There are, however, honorary professorships. And honorary doctorates, like [Alexander] McQueen and [John] Galliano. As for me, I'm basically just a fat fucker who by some fluke gets to teach really great people, and some really tragic people who become great people. Don't forget there's also the BA course, which is extremely good.

Difficult as it is, how would you describe what you teach?

I have no idea. I've been asked to give lectures, and I think how would I sum it up in a lecture. It's amorphic. I know what my job description is, but I don't know what I teach. Basically I teach across all pathways. We have women's, men's, knitwear, textiles, fashion journalism, and we just added accessories. I teach all of those except journalism. I also teach portfolio design.

Do you have a particular method? Is it hands-on or more theory-based?

Very hands-on with lots of interaction. I work very much by tutorials, or going up and moaning at everybody. You have to get inside their heads. Until you realize what they're capable of, you can't push them to achieve that. I get more out of them than they ever expected. And I teach them that people are out there. If their work is good enough, those people will help them realize their goals. I often ask students is this what you would show Tom Ford, and they say, no, we'd have done more work or we'd have dressed better. So I say, why don't you do that here?

Do you like fashion?

Yes. But what you'll find is many students don't really like it. If they don't like it, they won't be able to tell you who the stylists are or the photographers. If they say they can't remember the names but they recognize the work, I'll say that's bullshit because if you were selling mobile phones, you'd know all about the phones' features and tariffs. You can't subvert knowledge until you have knowledge. At the same time, I respect a student coming at it from a totally different position and trying to move it forward, and not falling into the rattrap of work that came before. It's not about the mark; it's about the work. Once you've entered the industry no one cares what marks you got. They care about whether you can do the work or bring something new to it.

What do you look for in students?

When people ask what I want, I say I only know what I don't want. When they ask what I don't want, I say I'll know it when I see it.

Who are some of the graduates of the MA course?

Alexander McQueen, Sophia Kokosalaki, Peter Jensen, Emma Cook, Jonathan Saunders, Eley Kishimoto, Jens Laugesen, Bora Aksu, Marios Schwab, Basso & Brooke. There are also a lot of people who go work in the industry, but you never read about them. You only ever read about people who started their own labels. Alber Elbaz has two MA students at Lanvin, Phoebe [Philo] had three at Chloé, Gucci men's had two, plus there's Adidas and Puma. But those aren't sexy, or they don't appear sexy to the press. We had a boy go to work for ACNE jeans in Sweden, but you'll never read about him doing that. You'll read about Christopher Kane. (cont'd)

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