When she was good, she was very, very good, and when she was bad, she drove aspiring fashion designers to tears. Louise Wilson, celebrated head of the MA Fashion Design course at Central Saint Martins for over twenty years, kickstarted the careers of some of the most celebrated names in fashion today: Kim Jones, Phoebe Philo, Hussein Chalayan, Stella McCartney, Simone Rocha, Christopher Kane, London’s current wunderkind c, South Korean rising star Rok Hwang of Rokh and Alexander McQueen to name a few. Described at various times as a “star maker” and a “marvelous monster” by Jane Rapley her former CSM boss, Wilson left no one indifferent. Her untimely death, aged 52, in 2014, can be considered a true fashion moment with its own before and after because teaching fashion Louise Wilson’s way is not something we’re likely to see again anytime soon.
I never had the chance to meet Wilson, or even observe her across a crowded room, but the stories I heard about her and the regularity with which her MA course churned out top talent peaked my interest. I was always on the lookout for news about Wilson, and then suddenly, she was gone. She passed away in her sleep while visiting her sister in Scotland after battling breast cancer, and previously she’d endured brain surgery to remove a tumor that cost her an eye. Wilson was a woman who described herself as “fat” and was invariably dressed in a uniform of black cashmere. A feisty survivor, she was always brutally honest, incredibly demanding, and by all accounts devastatingly funny.
Obviously Louise Wilson knew how to pick the most talented applicants which for the CSM MA during her tenure numbered about a dozen students, but beyond that she was a fearless transformer. She peered inside each one of them over the year-long MA which ended with the graduation fashion show held during London fashion each February, the highlight of the course orchestrated by Wilson. Once she’d found their essence, she’d bully, encourage, demand and reshape her students into her precise idea of what they should be. This was not a gentle process and I shudder to think of the experience for those who didn’t please her.
It was a magazine interview with Wilson that motivated Rok Hwang to move to London and attend Central Saint Martins. After his MA, Hwang landed a job working with Phoebe Philo at Céline. He created his women’s brand Rokh in 2016 and remains categoric on the subject of Wilson’s influence.
“In the beginning I was interested in menswear, but Louise Wilson opened my eyes. She directed me to do womenswear because she was persuaded that it would be perfect for me. I listened to her and discovered the many possibilities (fabrics, colors and other elements) I could play with to enhance feminine beauty. In a way, she liberated me. In menswear ‘extravagance’ was impossible for me because it quickly becomes ‘too much.’”
Tuomas laitinen, senior lecturer at Helsinki’s Aalto University since 2006, applied for the Saint Martins MA in 2004. He was interning in Paris for a menswear designer when he was invited to London for his interview. “My roommate was Norwegian and her good friend was Thomas Persson, who became the editor of Acne Paper and is now Creative Director of L’Uomo Vogue. He’d been to CSM so I met him and he said: “Well now you’re going to meet Louise.” It was a kind of introduction and I remember thinking: “who’s this woman?” I was super nervous waiting in the corridor in the school’s Charing Cross Road building and then I heard someone crying. Louise was shouting in her booming voice: “you can just cry if it makes you feel better, but you know, it’s not going to get you in.” The girl walks out crying, I walk in and Louise says: “oh my, who have we got here?”And I just started laughing. And she asks: “why are you laughing?” and I said: “because you’re funny”. So oddly enough, we clicked.
She did make me cry many times, like she did everybody, because with her it was almost like you break someone first and then put them back together, but in general, I got her sense of humor and I could speak to her.” I sat down for my interview and She had other people’s application forms on her desk and with a magic marker she’d draw on people’s faces, writing on some of them: “hell no.” She took my book, started to open it and said: “this is going to be a shit show. Should I open it? Do you want me to open it? No, you don’t want me to open it. Then she started browsing my book and she was like: you can’t cut, you can’t draw, you can’t sew. Can you even fuck?”
She was brutal, but she was just trying to get a reaction and I laughed. Then we started talking about the designer Carol Christian Poell and some Margiela I was wearing; And after that she said: “okay time’s up. Should we mark you a yes? Should we mark you a fucking yes?” And I said: “well Yeah.” And then she marked a big yes on my paper and told me to fuck off. I didn’t even know then if she meant it or not.
During my first week of school Louise had this telephone book list of names, and she would throw names at me to see if I knew who they were. I got her respect because I knew my shit. We all have our ways to communicate and that was hers. That was how she got her message through.”
Over the past decade, Laitinen has transformed Aalto University Fashion department and its annual Näytös MA student fashion show into the launch pad for talent from Helsinki with a conference for frank discussions that draws key personalities and an audience from throughout the fashion world. Each year, Aalto MA’s dozen graduates are snapped up for the design staffs of the world’s top brands at LVMH, Kering, and Prada and Helsinki’s Finnish Fashion Showcase, held at the same time, functions like an intimate fashion week. The school has effectively put Finland on the international fashion map and turned Helsinki into something like a Nordic version of Antwerp. And over the years that Laitinen has pushed his students to participate, Aalto grads have also popped up every year on the short list of France’s Hyères International Fashion, Accessories and Photography Festival competition where Siiri Raasakka, Tiia Siren and Elina Laitinen won in 2012 and Satu Maaranen took the top prize in 2013.
You could say Laitinen has been one of the teachers who has taken on where Louise Wilson left off, but that’s not exactly it. In the five years following her death, the fashion world has changed, dramatically. Wilson’s style where the teacher shapes her students like clay, bullies and dares them to become grander versions of themselves, has become almost taboo. “I can’t be Louise,” says Laitinen. “It’s not in my character. I can be super tough and demanding, but I don’t see the point of reducing people to tears.”
The days when a star fashion teacher like Louise Wilson dispensed a kind of brutal and bitchy tough love to her students to prepare them for the hypercompetitive fashion industry are over. But the fashion world remains tough and has grown increasingly so.
“The situation was already difficult when I launched my own label in 2006, says Laitinen. But today, designers are hardly allowed to grow, and they’re not allowed to make mistakes. After graduation you already have to be at some crazy high level. It’s a game where the collection has to be in certain stores, in certain magazines. And the designer has to look a certain way. There wasn’t as much pressure in 2000 when a designer could just wear a T-shirt and be fat. Today the hiring process resembles the casting for a fashion shoot. My friend Demna Gvasalia, the Creative Director of Balenciaga, is very charismatic, but almost everybody else are like poster boys and girls.”
For Lutz Huelle, who designs for his own eponymous Paris-based label and is the new creative director of Spain’s Delpozo, Louise Wilson was the teacher he almost had. “I’d completed my BA at Saint Martins and Louise invited me to interview for the MA. I joined Margiela in Paris instead, but we became really good friends. Three years later, after I’d left my job, she asked me to come back and teach,” says Huelle. He commuted from Paris to London for special teaching projects at CSM and continues to work with Wilson’s successor Fabio Piras. “Louise was one of the most incredible people I have ever met because she had absolutely no problems telling it exactly like it was,” says Huelle. “She could hurt people by saying some of the things she did, but she never wanted to hurt anyone, she only wanted to help.”
Huelle concedes however that the way Wilson taught would not work today. “Some of the things she said to students would be completely impossible now, even though she made so many people become who they are. What was special about her was that she cared deeply. She became almost too emotionally involved. She really felt she needed to do her best because for her it wasn’t just a job, it was her life. And what was also special about her was that she was still working as a designer while she taught. She worked at Donna Karan even while she was doing the course so she had this incredible active knowledge and she knew so many people.”
Austrian Norbert Stumpfl, Brioni’s new design director with a resumé that includes menswear for Berluti with Haider Ackermann, Louis Vuitton with Kim Jones, and Lanvin with Lucas Ossendrijver, still remembers design projects he did with Huelle during his MA at Saint Martins with Louise Wilson.
“Louise selected five or six students who were allowed to work with Lutz. He asked us to produce a jacket in three days, but the design had to start with the sleeve. That was so difficult and new, even for us. This kind of disruption, taking things from a different angle, to be open to new things, not take yourself for granted and to be curious about the world, that’s what Louise taught us.”
Stumpfl had sailed through his BA at CSM, but found himself failing in the MA at first. “She made me question everything; She said ‘you can draw, but you have to think about other things like why you’re using this portfolio.’ These were things I’d never thought of before. Louise completely destroyed me and then she built me into a better designer. The meetings I had with her were some of the most difficult I’ve ever had in my life. Now when I think about work meetings, it seems like children’s play. I remember she had three rooms. She had one favorite room and she placed the people who did very well in that room. Maybe she was testing us to see if we really loved it enough to take the hard work. Fashion is a business that sounds glamorous, but it’s a hard business. You give yourself and you feel very vulnerable when you show your designs to the studio and present them to the market. What Louise really taught us was to believe in something, defend it, stand up for ourselves and not break down.”
“I was terrified of Louise at college, says Tomas Persson, Creative Director of L’Uomo Vogue. She was my professor as I was on the MA as a journalist, but she really didn’t get directly involved with the journalists. You had to approach her. Every time I walked down the corridor I’d hear her booming voice shouting so I never dared go into her office even though everyone was talking about how wonderful she was. She really only took me under her wing after I graduated. She was there to extract the best from her students. When I interviewed her for Self Service magazine in 2012 I was able to ask her all the questions I had wanted to ask her as a student in the role of a professional which was much better for me. The interview began with her asking: ‘why didn’t you come into my office when you were a student?’. And I replied: ‘because I was too scared of you.’ And then she said: ‘well that was your own fucking fault.’ ”
Craig Green, 33, arguably the most visionary menswear designer of his generation, launched his eponymous brand in 2013, directly after completing his MA at CSM. Having dreamed of painting or sculpture, Green had “never bought a fashion magazine” before his undergraduate studies as Saint Martins and he was considering another school for his MA when Fleet Bigwood (Print Tutor of the MA course) brought him to Louise Wilson’s office for an interview. “Louise gave me a DVD of “Valentino: The Last Emperor“ (as she was shocked that I had not seen it) and told me to go and watch it and come back at the end of the day to tell her what I thought. Luckily, when I came back to see her, I must have given the right answer and I was offered a place on the MA course and awarded a full scholarship.”
“Louise taught me many things, but the key things that stuck with me and that I try to apply in what I do now is to never be too precious and just because something takes a long time to create it doesn't necessarily mean it’s good. It is important to constantly question everything as nothing is ever finished. Louise taught us that if you ever feel uncomfortable about what you are creating this is good as it often means it is something new and something that you haven't seen or experienced before.”
In AnOther magazine’s tribute Wilson after her death, Kim Jones, Artistic Director of Dior Men, revealed that he still keeps notes she wrote to students during his year. Wilson became a friend to Jones, and like Huelle, he tutored for her class and vacationed with her in Bali. “In tough situations I always ask myself , ‘what would Louise do?,’” he recalled. The text from one of Wilson’s ‘to do’ notes for students kept by Jones says it all : “Believe in your fucking self. Stay up all night. Work outside of your fucking habits. Know when to fucking speak up. Fucking collaborate. Don’t fucking procrastinate. Get over your fucking self. Keep fucking learning. Form follows fucking function. A computer is a Lite-Brite for bad fucking ideas. Find fucking inspiration everywhere. Fucking network. Educate your fucking client. Trust your fucking gut. Ask for fucking help. Make it fucking sustainable. Question fucking everything. Have a fucking concept. Learn to take some fucking criticism. Make me fucking care. Use fucking spell check. Do your fucking research. Sketch more fucking ideas. The problem contains the fucking solution. Think about all the fucking possibilities.”