Professor Louise Wilson: Formidable professor of fashion design whose outspoken style inspired some of the industry's brightest figures
Tuesday 20 May 2014
A one-off in the world of academia, Louise Wilson, who has died suddenly at the age of 52, was famously outspoken, uncompromising, demanding and incisive. Physically and intellectually, she did not fit the fashion prototype. Described in this newspaper as "the single most well-known fashion educator in this country", she blended deadpan delivery, cutting comments and acid wit in an educational approach she summed up as "always to rock the boat a bit and get people to think for themselves."
Wilson built a formidable international reputation as head of the MA Fashion Design course at Central St Martins, carving a unique niche in an industry which was becoming more corporate and less about raw creativity. "By the time a student comes on the MA they have probably been in education for 20 years, since they were five years old. That's longer than you get in jail for murder," she told Nick Knight's Showstudio. "They only become people you would even like to say hello to when they leave. When they arrive they are nervous, usually morons, quite frankly."
Calling her method of teaching "re-training" and referring to herself as "just a fat fucker who by some fluke gets to teach", she summarised her career as "a tragic non-plan" and the teaching process as "agony". Her alumni often hailed her as a genius.
Born in Cambridgeshire, Wilson spent her childhood in "the "middle of nowhere" in the Scottish Borders. With a father who was a farmer and a mother who bought Vogue, she covered her bedroom walls with pictures of a young Janice Dickinson and pored over pictures of Jerry Hall. As a child she harboured ambitions to be a professional horse rider. Forced to make her own clothes because she couldn't get to a shop, she excelled at art and was advised to do a degree. A slight blip occurred when she suggested to her father that she was going to take business studies in Newcastle. He told her to "put nightclubs and a certain type of man to one side."
Wilson graduated from Preston Polytechnic (later the University of Central Lancashire) in 1984 with a first class honours degree, moving to London in 1986 to study for an MA in Fashion at Saint Martin's School of Art. "There was nothing there," she recalled. "I don't think we had desks. It was about the people. We had grants. Basically you took risks and made mistakes. It was much more art school."
Graduating with a distinction, Wilson embarked on a life in the fashion industry, working for Les Copains, Gianfranco Ferre, Daniel Hechter and Guess Jeans, circling the globe working for denim companies. When her son TJ was born she took up part-time teaching at Central St Martins to enable her to spend more time with him.
From the outset, Wilson's approach to fashion education was hands-on, interactive and no-holds-barred. "She spoke her mind," observed Professor Wendy Dagworthy, who worked with her at Central Saint Martins. "She had a vision. She had a good aesthetic. She had a powerful influence and liked people who stood up to her."
She struck a chord with the student who craved a reality check rather than a fake compliment. Jimmy Stephen-Cran, Head of Fashion & Textiles at Glasgow School of Art, remembered, "She was outrageous but also an absolute genius. She would point out something that you hadn't noticed yourself and you would think, 'Oh God, she's absolutely spot-on.'"
Iain R Webb, Visiting Professor at the Royal College of Art, believes her track record, together with her larger-than-life persona, built her reputation beyond the walls of academia. "She was often portrayed in the press as a harridan but there was a great humour and humanity to her. She understood that the industry wasn't this veneer of glamour."
During the 1980s, a time which Wilson retrospectively summed up as "a seismic change in education", she decried the change in emphasis, when the educational system became all about research. "If you were a doer you were considerably out of favour," she reflected. "I got incredibly angry and incredibly passionate." She was head-hunted by Donna Karan, only to return to Central St Martins two years later to become Course Director.
During her 22-year reign there Wilson endured periods of poor health, including two bouts of cancer. One spell of invasive surgery resulted in the removal of an eye.
Receiving her OBE in 2008, she agreed with her mother's observation that it stood for "Other Buggers' Effort". Tellingly, she did not wax lyrical about the ceremony but instead told Nick Knight's Showstudio about "the really fabulous certificate signed by the Queen in a slightly different colour ink from the Duke. The ink is a divine colour of blue." When The Lady compiled a list of 125 of its most "intelligent, empowered and inspirational" women, Wilson was included.
Wilson's legendary critiques, which often left the student contingent quaking in their boots, produced some of the fashion industry's brightest stars, Alexander McQueen, Sophia Kokosalaki, Peter Jensen, Emma Cook, Jonathan Saunders, Ely Kishimoto, Basso & Brooke, to name just a few. "She was like a Disney Villainess," said Jimmy Stephen-Cran. "She was always performing. It was camp high drama. She was more exaggerated than anything you would see on any parody. It's a complete mystery how she got away with being so politically incorrect."
Louise Wilson, professor of fashion design: born Cambridge 23 February 1962; OBE 2008; partner to Thomas Kwamina Aggrey (one son); died 17 May 2014.
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