people in fashion: Tough at the top
No wonder Louise Wilson, MA course director at Central St Martins, has a reputation for being uncompromising. Her job isn't to flatter egos but to prepare students to work in a hard, unforgiving industry, says James Sherwood
Sunday 10 August 1997
It is the end of term at St Martins, arguably the world's most famous fashion college and alma mater of John Galliano, Alexander McQueen, Antonio Berardi and Hussein Chalayan. As a breeding ground for British fashion stars, St Martins is under pressure to perform. Its reputation as eccentric, capricious and slightly pretentious extends to the tutors who nurture the next big thing: none more so than Wilson.
Wilson lights another Silk Cut and looks exasperated. "I always hate it when fashion is trivialised. Fashion is an incredibly tough, unforgiving industry. American Vogue said I was rough as burlap in this month's issue. Well, I am as bloody rough as burlap, but no more so than the design directors at the major labels my students want to work for. We are preparing them to work in a hard, competitive industry. We are not here to flatter their egos. We would be doing them a disservice if we were anything other than critical."
Wilson, invariably robed in black with signature black scarves and silver amulets, hand-picks each crop of candidates. "It is always bandied about that we choose personality over talent. That's crap. Talent always comes first. The portfolio has to be outstanding but there also has to be a level of knowledge from postgraduate students and an intelligent dialogue when I question them."
Wilson's interrogation technique in interview is legendary. When one young girl presented a "Biography Jacket" in a tutorial, Wilson quipped, "If that was my biography I'd kill myself." Her bluntness is not an affectation. When she barks that an idea is crap she means it. But like a camp Disney villainess, Wilson's mannerisms are loaded with knowing irony. Though she says it's extremely rare for a student not to graduate, one candidate made so many errors in his collection that Wilson was heard screaming, "Dye it black."
An MA student of St Martins herself, Wilson graduated in 1984 - the same year as Galliano - and spent eight years as a highly paid freelance designer. "I sold out for money," she says matter-of-factly. "Remember this was the Eighties, the decade of the sad Yuppie. We were all encouraged to snap up jobs in international studios. I worked in Italy, Korea, the US - anywhere they paid me.
"Students are different now. I admire them for turning down a job with one of the big names. People who struggle and do what they do are usually more successful in the long term." In 1992, Wilson was offered the job as MA course director. "I thought it was the right time to come home. I always knew I'd come back to St Martins".
Wilson's authority and belief in her own judgement is unshakeable. She is, after all, leading students who will eventually make more money and gain more recognition than she ever will. "The students have to lead the course forward. They have to lead me forward," she says. "I may sound like a corny bastard, but I love fashion. I love the clothes. I read everything, look at everything and make damned sure I know what the students are talking about. There is nothing worse than kids thinking, 'Why am I listening to her?' However, I don't think 90 per cent of the students respect me until they've left."
Wilson will always bring up her size (large) before you do: "You don't get any freebies in this job. None of them would fit, anyway." She admires the work of Yohji Yamamoto and Martin Margiela, but only wears black and rightly says most designers don't address larger sizes. For a woman passionate about clothes, it seems odd that her personal style is so rigid. "Most people in the industry have a uniform", she says. "This is mine. I'd rather wear black than bright florals like most fat ladies do."
St Martins prides itself on being ahead of fashion, much to the disdain of its rivals. A tired criticism claims that St Martins students can do a mean catwalk frock made of chicken wire and Bacofoil but can't sew on a button. "Well, that's bollocks", says Wilson, not unsurprisingly. "Our students have to know how to cut and construct. But they also have to communicate their work to cutters and technicians. If you can't, then you won't get on."
St Martins students invariably grab the column inches during the MA student shows. Fashion observers put this down to the shock of the new rather than commercial success. Wilson nips this in the bud succinctly. "I tell students to be careful. You can be so forward thinking that you miss the point. Students tend to be scathing and reject what is happening now. We can't frighten off potential employers with work that is too far ahead of its time."
This year, St Martins will add jewellery to the existing option of design, print, knit and journalism. "We are covering all aspects of the industry, as we should, without losing our focus. We are here to train designers for the industry, not to produce the next McQueen and John Galliano."
Wilson does not use "we" in the royal sense of the word. "St Martins is all about the students and the brilliant tutors we have. But at the end of the day we are beholden to the students. If I died tomorrow, the course would continue without me. Nobody is bigger than St Martins itself."
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