Life, etc

Chronicles of Chic: Louise Wilson, the high fashion’s foul-mouthed mistress, goes silent at 52

By Emilie Gambade 22 May 2014

She was known for her brusque rudeness, her high expectations and her incredible flair. Louise Wilson taught at the famous London Central Saint Martins (that produced John Galliano and Alexander McQueen) and died on 17 May, aged 52. She will be remembered for her wall-trembling presence, and a personality that could trigger fear, sweat and tears, but also inspire staggering successes. By EMILIE GAMBADE.

Central Saint Martins is one of the world’s leading centres for art and design education, a reputation based around the achievements of its graduates and the creative energy of its current staff and students”, says their own website; they are right. And the creative energy at this revered and acclaimed fashion design school was mainly thanks to its former Fashion MA course director, Louise Wilson.

Born in Cambridge, Wilson grew up in Scotland, where she excelled in horse riding. “I always thought I was going to be a professional horse rider because I rode horses competitively from zero to 17 years old,” she told the Telegraph in 2011. From riding horses to painting the family-house walls with charcoal, Wilson had a wild and unrestrained childhood; interestingly, the freedom she had as a child didn’t lead her to be a careless, free-spirited adult but rather a tidy and exigent perfectionist: “I was told by my heart doctor recently that if I allowed something in my life to get out of control, then perhaps I would be able to control my overeating. He suggested I leave my clothes all over the bedroom floor one night, so I did. It took about 40 minutes before I had to get out of bed and pick them up.”

Though she had a commanding presence, Wilson still followed her father’s suggestion to study art, first at Preston Polytechnic, then Saint Martins, while she was originally opting for business. After graduating from Saint Martins in 1986, she worked for Italian brands Les Copains and Gianfranco Ferré, and later at Donna Karan.

At Saint Martins, where she taught from 1992, the professor was known for being awfully blunt and borderline offensive; she delivered swear words and acerbic comments with the precision of a guillotine, cutting through her pupils’ work when it was not satisfying. Wilson didn’t have time for wasteful talking and she made it clear to anyone walking anywhere near her dragon’s den; sometimes one could hear fucking morons”  raging from behind the door.

But it is this very unswerving, straightforward and uncompromising approach that shaped some of the most incredible designers British fashion has known. The late Alexander McQueen, Chloe’s Phoebe Philo, Christopher Kane, Simone Rocha, Giles Deacon, Christopher Kane, Jonathan Saunders, Louise Goldin, to name but few, have all been taught and hardened by Wilson and all have only praise words for their teacher. “When you’re in there it’s the most intense experience you will ever have, it’s like hell, but at the end you see what you’ve achieved and realise you couldn’t do it without her”, said Simone Rocha.

Louise had a special talent to see right inside of us all,” Greece-born London-based fashion designer Mary Katrantzou told Vogue magazine. In 2008, Wilson was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for her services to education and the fashion industry.

If fashion is the epitome of frivolity, daring silhouettes and intricate detailing, then Wilson was its vociferous antithesis. She dressed every day in a uniform that consisted of a black top and a black bottom, her leather-strapped Hermès watch around her wrist. “I have a uniform; it’s the same outfit every day so I don’t have to think about it. As the outfits get older they go from being best to everyday to gardening. No one else could tell the difference, but I can.”

Her playfulness was bound to extracting the talent from raw, unrefined and often-perplexed students; with patience, dedication and uncompromising exactness, Wilson worked around their flaws, sharpening their skills with the precision of a surgeon: she cut right through the flesh. She once told Style.com associate news editor, Katharine K. Zarrella, after she had submitted a draft for the Central Saint Martins Journal, that it looked “like a ‘venereal disease’”.

How could her students possibly admire her so much despite an evident propensity to swearing, shaming and tearing apart? Because Louise Wilson did not have an ounce of arrogance, her raucous outbursts only coming from a place of caring and an honest desire to make one’s work better, if not the best. She was a generous, kind and fun person and her comments, no matter how unsettling, were rooted in her wide experience and understanding of a complex and unforgiving industry.

In 2013, chatting about her role as a teacher, she told Marie Claire South Africa features editor Zanele Kumalo, “I just see it as a long, hard, miserable job. You’ve got to focus on the facts: you come in, you teach them and, at the point when they become people you might want to know, they leave. And you might stay in contact with them through the industry or jobs or whatever – but that’s not your day-to-day life. Your day-to-day life is dealing with people learning. How could anybody say they’re a great teacher? That’s what’s wrong with the world.” Sarcasm was her manifesto.

Wilson was a great teacher, and one that will thoroughly be missed. Louis Vuitton’s menswear style director, Kim Jones, once said, “In tough situations I always think, ‘what would Louise do?’” She would shout, swear and complain. And she would make one’s work improbably better. DM

Photo: Louise Wilson with Giorgio Armani. (Photo by University of the Arts, London)

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