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Louise Wilson: 'As much as I might decry the students, as much as they're a nightmare, it is a privilege to be among youth'

On the eve of Central Saint Martins moving into its new £200m home, Susannah Frankel meets Louise Wilson, fashion's most influential educator
  • @IndyFashion

Imagine you're the student," says Professor Louise Wilson. "Stay there." She strides across an impressively grand studio space to a mirrored back wall, leaving me standing (or cowering perhaps?) in the doorway what feels like miles away.

Wilson, director of the celebrated Central Saint Martins MA fashion course, is showing me around the college's new campus in London's King's Cross. Known as the Granary Building, it opens to students on Monday. And she's on a roll. She talks – that's when she's not shouting or laughing, both of which she does a lot – at breakneck speed, jumping between subjects. The efficiency (or lack of it) of builders, the wonders of fold-down hooks and enormous mirrors might capture her attention one minute; government cuts, the mores of the fashion industry or a high-octane tutorial consume her the next. She is brilliantly intelligent, relentlessly quick-witted, side-splittingly funny and, above all, passionate. Saying exactly what she thinks is something she does as if she just can't help herself. Her lack of diplomacy is dazzling.

Her reputation as a formidable taskmaster – and even fiercer critic – precedes her. Wilson is the single most well-known fashion educator, certainly in this country, if not the world. But her success rate is more remarkable still. She's run the course in question since 1992 and, with a skeleton, cleverly chosen team, has seen everyone from Christopher Kane to Mary Katrantzou and from Louise Gray to Louise Goldin make it on to the professional catwalk in recent years, to name but a few. She gets frustrated, she says, by the description "star maker" because that overlooks the fact that her former students are also currently in significant positions behind the scenes at Louis Vuitton, Celine, Lanvin, Balenciaga. Pick an internationally-respected label – any label – and the chances are they will be there. Over 90 per cent of her graduates go straight into employment. And that is unprecedented.

We meet a month before the college opens its doors and building work is still in progress. "Look for the bathroom shop. It's opposite that. I'll meet you at the front gates because I'm kind," she says by way of directions. We grab a cup of tea at the local café that can hardly be described as heaving ("They're not going to know what's hit them when over 3,000 students turn up here") and then move into Granary Square. In fact, the new school will eventually house around 4,500 students.

"I think I'll miss John Lewis," Wilson says of her relocation from Charing Cross Road, where the fashion arm has resided for decades – John Galliano, Alexander McQueen and Hussein Chalayan are among those who cut their teeth there. "I'll have to go to John Lewis on my weekends off. That's it. I can put it as succinctly as that." Saturday trips to Britain's favourite department store aside, Wilson is determinedly upbeat, and this despite the fact that the project has attracted its fair share of critics. How will Central Saint Martins (CSM) function without the seedy environs of Soho to inspire its students? Given that Soho is about as seedy these days as Henley-on-Thames, that is unconvincing. Or, didn't the formerly make-do-and-mend facilities make students all the more resourceful? In light of the magnificence of the space students will soon occupy, this appears retrogressive in the extreme. Far from being counter-creative, this is a site that maintains many of its original features – expanses of the most beautiful old brickwork have been left exposed, ranks of original columns support floors and ceilings. They are fused with a spare and appropriately industrial modernity that ensures the atmosphere is as raw-edged and expressive as might best befit its soon-to-be occupants. The scale of the place, meanwhile, is nothing short of awe-inspiring.

"You can't refuse to move forward when you're educating in design," Wilson says, "because that's what we're asking students to do the whole time." She's been working throughout the summer moving materials, putting fixtures and fittings into place and supervising the installation of everything from Pax wardrobes ("I love Ikea, it's non-design but it works") to cutting tables. "It's all focused and completely rejuvenating. When you're responsible for leading a group of young people, you have to be positive. If you're not, you shouldn't be in your job, should you?"

There's much to be happy about. The college press department estimates that 2.4 million man hours spread out over 882 days have gone into the development to date. Overall, it boasts a massive 10 acres of floor area. "There are so many unique spaces," project director, Phil Crew, says in the most recent edition of CSM Time magazine. "You can't walk more than 20 steps without entering a completely different environment. It's not just a formulaic collection of identical studios, it is a collection of spaces that have been adapted to Central Saint Martins' needs." The art studios, for example, have walls of windows facing on to a terrace and ideally positioned to catch north-easterly light.

Both BA and MA fashion courses are known for their excellence worldwide, but the college's reputation as a hive of creativity is by no means restricted to the design of clothing. Central Saint Martins is also alma mater to artists Gilbert & George, Lucian Freud and Frank Auerbach; Harold Pinter, Mike Leigh, Sade, Polly Harvey and the Clash are all former alumni. The Sex Pistols played their first ever show there. In recent years, cross-fertilisation between disciplines has been hampered by the fact that students have worked in separate buildings scattered across London. At Granary Building, they will all be in one place.

"Until now, we had lots of different buildings all over the place and that's not really a community," the head of college, Jane Rapley, confirms. "And the original Saint Martins [School of Art & Design] and the original Central [School of Speech and Drama – the two merged in 1989] were not about ghettos. They were about students mixing with each other. As we've got bigger and bigger, that has become more difficult. Very often the most interesting stuff is where the disciplines start to overlap and you get someone like Hussein Chalayan or Anna-Nicole Ziesche. It's that overlap that really gets the new thinking going."

On a practical level, too, the move was necessary. "In terms of all sorts of legislation, to update our old building was going to cost more than developing this one," Rapley argues. "And the logistics of doing it would have been an utter nightmare and would have taken twice as long."

even so, such an ambitious project has not been cheap. Central Saint Martins is part of the University of the Arts London (UAL) – the London College of Fashion, London College of Communications, Wimbledon, Camberwell and Chelsea are all under its umbrella. "The Central Saint Martins redevelopment has cost just under £200 million," the UAL rector, Nigel Carrington, explains, "which is a very big number at any time." UAL has been responsible for funding the development, which has been achieved "by a combination of selling our old properties and borrowing £100 million. I think there's been some perception in the media that we had a choice, but at least some of our properties were rented and the leases were coming to an end. Central Saint Martins has been a world centre of excellence for a very long time and we knew we had to do something to ensure the best long-term facilities."

For her part, Wilson is no stranger to raising money in an economic climate which is squeezing education, and arts education in particular, like never before. She works with the fashion industry's main players continuously, many of whom sponsor course projects on a regular basis. Last year, she launched a fund asking designers and retailers to contribute £20,000 to the college's benefit. So far, Donatella Versace, Alexander McQueen, John Rocha, Net-a-Porter, Converse, Stella McCartney, Joan Burstein, American Express and Dries Van Noten are among the 21 companies that have chosen to donate – maintaining a healthy working relationship with Wilson and her team is nothing if not a sound investment for the future.

"Yes, the Government should support education," Wilson says, "but times have changed, the system is changing and because of that it is vital to partner with industry to ensure that talent can always be supported. It can be quite a small amount of money for a company but it makes a big difference to four or five students. Because education has always been there, it's never been in any doubt. If the NHS is failing then there's an uproar about it, but it is a given that we have great art colleges. Now you do have fees, you do have the recession and, whether they understand it or not, people need to support it. This is an art college and it feeds into all the industries so I feel very passionately about that."

louise wilson was born in Cambridge and grew up on the Scottish Borders – "my formative education was in Jedburgh." She describes her father as a "gentleman farmer" and merchant banker; her mother "dealt in antiques and things like that. Flower arranging. Member of this. Member of that. Horses. She had a very active life. She loved beautiful things. She owned Dior couture. That makes her sound fabulous but it's true. And there were always copies of Vogue around the house."

At school, Wilson excelled in art. "In those days, fashion didn't exist like it does now. You had Wallis shops and they had a bad YSL rip-off and that was about it. So you made your own clothes to go out in at the weekend. You did home economics at school. You bought your bits of fabric and you sewed. It seems very quaint now."

Advised by her teachers to pursue further education, she applied to and was awarded a place on the MA fashion course at Saint Martins. "There wasn't really any press on the colleges back then," she says, "but everyone knew about Saint Martins. Still, it was within your grasp. It worries me now because I hear anecdotally that people are told they shouldn't try for it, because they won't get in – but that's totally wrong. It's usually the student who's being told that who will. You know, apply, because it's about the work and we're looking for many different things. There's no given formula."

At the time Wilson was a student, Bobby Hillson, famous for identifying the talent of Alexander McQueen in particular, ran the course. She also founded it.

"I was much thinner then," Wilson says of herself as a student, "and wore white mascara. That was very trendy at the time. And so were Japanese designers. We all saved up and bought their clothes at that Yohji shop at the bottom of South Molton Street and then starved to make up for it. That was my time. Leigh Bowery, Andy Warhol, Café de Paris. I think the difference between then and now is that young people know a lot more about fashion today. I was taught by Ossie Clark but Ossie Clark wasn't Ossie Clark to us because there hadn't been a resurgence of people wearing his vintage. It sounds so disrespectful and if I had my time again I would make absolute use of being taught by Ossie Clark..." She pauses for thought. "But then maybe when you're young, the beauty of it is that you really don't think anybody else is much good, do you? And that's the way it should be."

After graduation, Wilson worked first in Italy for Les Copains and Gianfranco Ferre and in Paris for Daniel Hechter. After that came a spell designing for denim companies, including Guess jeans. In the early 1990s, she became pregnant and moved back to London to teach as an associate lecturer on the Saint Martins MA fashion course and then, following Hillson's retirement, as director.

In 1997, Wilson was head-hunted by Donna Karan and became creative director there. "There was this seismic change in education and in art colleges in particular and it all became research-driven," she says. "The Government gave schools more money if they had a research rating. I did feel I wasn't valued. I didn't spend ages thinking about, you know, fabrics that massage your arms or anything. I was much more about true fashion, about gut instinct."

She stayed in New York for two years. "When I arrived in America, I remember it vividly, they were all sitting at their desks every morning reading Women's Wear Daily. I read i-D and Dazed and just thought, 'Why on earth would you want to do that?'. It just left my jaw on the table." It's difficult to imagine corporate life suiting Louise Wilson and it is therefore not surprising that, before long, she returned to her old job, although now with a professorship. "I continued working for Donna until 2002, though," she says. "I did both. Donna would wake up as I got home from here. I remember getting massive boils all over me. Talk about burning the candle at both ends. I loved it in a way. I love hard work, energy, feeling involved."

The designer Peter Jensen, Wilson's former student and now head of menswear on her team, will testify to that. "I do teach at other colleges and there's a huge difference," he says. "Louise works on every single little thing, with every single student. I think she knows exactly what it is that each person is about and where the value of their work lies and even if she doesn't like that work she still wants them to do the best they possibly can."

much has been made of the tears-and-tiaras-style theatrics for which Wilson is famous. "It's sort of true and not true," Jensen says, laughing. "She will hate me for telling you this but there was one time when she was screaming so much at the students that I literally thought she was going to have a heart attack and die right there on the cutting table. I had to tell them all to leave to make it stop, but then she just started screaming at me." Emma Cook, another of Wilson's protégés, has said that she'd rather not share her memories of Wilson's tutorials, because "I'm worried she might be arrested if we put it into print".

"But all those stories, really, that's not what it's about," Jensen concludes. "Louise is scary. Of course she is scary. But what you always have to remember is that she really, really cares."

Missing from Louise Wilson's new and still far from finished office is a sign that occupied her former lair. It reads: "Same shit, different year". "That's what it's like," she says. "It's the same set of problems, the same small group of students that cry. But they're not really crying because of what I do, they're crying because of the state they've got themselves into. They arrive here at the top of their game and then they plummet to become the worst students known to man. I think that every MA course has that effect. They don't understand about sourcing and sponsorship and context. I hate the word 'market' but it's very valid. Where does their work sit and why? So then they have to climb up to the top again. They cry. I cry. I cry in front of them all time. It gets emotional."

"Louise puts them through it, she won't compromise," says Jane Rapley. "She takes them apart and then she reconstructs them. Teaching is a fix for her. She loves it. The way our culture and education system is going, everything is becoming homogenised and that worries me. What I've always said about Central Saint Martins is that it's about managed anarchy and that's exactly what it should be. Louise is a one-off and she's the sort of one-off who fits in a place like this. If we can't host people who are that passionate, that outspoken, that unconventional, then this place shouldn't exist."

Today, Wilson is an institution, but it wasn't always that way. "I'm of an age now where we've all grown up together," she says. She's 48. "When I took over the course it was a different age and I knew hardly anybody in the fashion industry. Alastair Mackie, who I taught, is now a seminal stylist. I didn't know a seminal stylist in 1992. I don't think there were any. I know Kim Jones. He's design director of Louis Vuitton menswear. I didn't know the design director of Louis Vuitton back in 1995. Was there one? So I've amassed knowledge which it would be very foolish of the university not to tap into. I'm interested in the industry and, yes, I understand education, my business is education. But I try to sit on the periphery of all of it."

Above all, she says, and for all her outspokenness, she loves working with her students – teaching is her life blood. "As much as I might decry the students, as much as they're a nightmare, it is a privilege to be among youth. I'm 50. I'm walking about town and there's no way that young people would be stopping and speaking to you normally. But they do because I'm working with them, I taught them. There's no way in real life I would be going out for a drink with Christopher Kane because our age group is different. We would never have met. In fashion, you're very privileged because you're consistently working with a vanguard of youth."

Should anyone think that Louise Wilson might just be romanticising her position, she's quick to assert that that is far from the case. "People always ask me, are you proud of the students or of what has been achieved, but that's not a word I would ever use," she says.

"When one group has gone, you're just relieved. They've gone. You start again. You think to yourself: 'Wow, we got through that'. And I think that's the ethos of the course and in fact of Central Saint Martins as a whole. 'Wow, we got through that'."