Is creativity innate and random? Are some people simply struck by it or born with it? Many teachers might assume so.
Not Louise Wilson.
She was a formidable fashion matriarch, a head professor at Central Saint Martins, one of the world’s most revered fashion schools. Wilson probed her students to explore and discover their personal manifestos in order to cultivate a unique sense of individuality that would illuminate and guide their designs. But what was so remarkable about her teaching?
Her unorthodox method of pedagogy, which she called “re-training”, often left her students – or victims – stunned and frightened. Yet, it was this very belligerence that moulded many of fashion’s finest design talents. Alexander McQueen, Christopher Kane, Stella McCartney, Jonathan Saunders, Roksanda Ilincic and Mary Katrantzou all have one thing in common – they survived the blast. “With an iron rod, Louise Wilson, made me identify with who I am as a designer”, recalls Jonathan Saunders, “After all, it’s our points of difference as designers that make us relevant”.
She championed originality and her two-decade reign at Central Saint Martins is a testament to that. “A lot of designers today tend to do ‘fashion’ without actually knowing who they are. If you line up their work, you can’t see a DNA running through it. Therefore I’ve always respected designers like Dries [Van Noten] or Comme [des Garcons], whatever they do”.
In a recent interview she expressed, “I feel very strongly about original [ephemera]. The problem today is that the rarity has gone”. She felt that the current education system got in the way of originality and that many students are often afraid to take a risk, experiment or make mistakes because “students are accruing huge amounts of debt, feel an incredible amount of pressure and have a terrible need to succeed instead of letting life happen”.
She had a point. But who could blame anyone for trembling under the pressure of merely breathing in her legendary, black-clad presence?
“I’ve seen Louise Wilson drop-kick a mannequin across the studio when she was frustrated with a student’s work,” said Richard Nicoll, “And believe me, there are hundreds more stories like that”.
Wilson was no doubt passionate and although this sometimes manifested itself in brutal and terrifying ways, there was no denying that she cared. “People like to talk about she’s crazy this, crazy that, she swears a lot. But the other side of her is so compassionate, she’s always going to give up so much time for you”, adds Kane who studied with her until 2006. “She would tell me everything like a mother would—if my hair looked shit, if she liked something I did. I found her very ‘mother-y,’ says Roksanda, “Louise has a great ability to push the boundaries of her students, while nurturing their creativity. It’s about learning how to give the best that you have and a bit more. She told me: “There are no rules or wrong answers, as long as what is created is fresh and new.”
She was and will continue to be an inspiration. Her recent and untimely death has undoubtedly etched a distinct hole in the heart of contemporary British fashion and academia but though her loss is mourned, the heart of her message to creatives in the industry is still clear: Be yourself.