Saturday, August 12, 2006

Louise Wilson

The Met's spring fashion exhibit—"AngloMania: Tradition and Transgression in British Fashion"—could easily have been named after Louise Wilson. Since 1992, Wilson has dutifully served as the course director of the 2-year Master's degree program of London's Central Saint Martins, arguably the world's most influential and revered fashion school, which she also attended. While at the same time, the 40-year-old mother of one has done so with an unorthodox teaching method that goes well beyond exacting. Former students have called it loud, brutal, abrasive and terrifying—even fascist. Reaching back, imagine the cane-pounding dance instructor in Fame ("You've got big dreams? You want fame? Well, fame costs. And right here is where you start paying. With sweat."), multiplied by ten in fearsomeness, dressed in a uniform of black and hurling insults laced with profanity. (Not even "AngloMania" escapes a dagger from the punctilious professor: "It's very well-done and affords British fashion the clout it deserves. But it was difficult for me to look at because it felt staged and overdressed, like a Ralph Lauren shop.") The strategy, however, has paid off, as a high ratio of her former students have gone on to greatness, usually after taking part in the now-legendary annual graduation fashion show, where scouts from key stores, magazines and the occasional conglomerate come from far and wide for a glimpse of the future. Having first met Wilson during London Fashion Week, I caught up with her again in New York. She was in town representing the university at the "AngloMania" opening-night dinner. Perhaps owing to the sunny day of our meeting in SoHo, I found her to be open, warm and cheerful—if cheerfully contrary—as we spoke about everything from building a super-brand to her own transgressive past.

In my mind, Central Saint Martins is like an atelier or an elite workshop. What is it really?

A hellhole. (Laughs.) No, Saint Martins is a government-funded central London studio with many disparate students from different backgrounds. It's a big multi-disciplined art college, within which there is the fashion school. It's a scruffy place. You could paint on the walls if you wanted to. I'd hate to think there's a kid in East Berlin or Slovenia who's put off by the image of professionalism that we have.

It's quite competitive, isn't it?

Yes, and it takes a bit of time to get in the rhythm. Students sometimes turn up at my course and they look a bit like they're going to Bali with only Wellingtons and a map, and they never leave their hotel room because they didn't think to bring a bikini. I'm full of bizarre analogies like that.

You told me before it was difficult getting your professorship. Why?

That's just me being sarcastic. It didn't appear I got my professorship for any work I did at Saint Martins, but because I left and came back. I went away to be the head of Donna Karan in New York, and came back with a veneer of something else. In my twisted and bitter view, I think it's a shame that you have to leave and do something outside to gain recognition, although I'm sure the university will say it was my work on the MA. As the course director, I'm also a professor, which I'm really happy about because there's no other professorship in the school. There are, however, honorary professorships. And honorary doctorates, like [Alexander] McQueen and [John] Galliano. As for me, I'm basically just a fat fucker who by some fluke gets to teach really great people, and some really tragic people who become great people. Don't forget there's also the BA course, which is extremely good.

Difficult as it is, how would you describe what you teach?

I have no idea. I've been asked to give lectures, and I think how would I sum it up in a lecture. It's amorphic. I know what my job description is, but I don't know what I teach. Basically I teach across all pathways. We have women's, men's, knitwear, textiles, fashion journalism, and we just added accessories. I teach all of those except journalism. I also teach portfolio design.

Do you have a particular method? Is it hands-on or more theory-based?

Very hands-on with lots of interaction. I work very much by tutorials, or going up and moaning at everybody. You have to get inside their heads. Until you realize what they're capable of, you can't push them to achieve that. I get more out of them than they ever expected. And I teach them that people are out there. If their work is good enough, those people will help them realize their goals. I often ask students is this what you would show Tom Ford, and they say, no, we'd have done more work or we'd have dressed better. So I say, why don't you do that here?

Do you like fashion?

Yes. But what you'll find is many students don't really like it. If they don't like it, they won't be able to tell you who the stylists are or the photographers. If they say they can't remember the names but they recognize the work, I'll say that's bullshit because if you were selling mobile phones, you'd know all about the phones' features and tariffs. You can't subvert knowledge until you have knowledge. At the same time, I respect a student coming at it from a totally different position and trying to move it forward, and not falling into the rattrap of work that came before. It's not about the mark; it's about the work. Once you've entered the industry no one cares what marks you got. They care about whether you can do the work or bring something new to it.

What do you look for in students?

When people ask what I want, I say I only know what I don't want. When they ask what I don't want, I say I'll know it when I see it.

Who are some of the graduates of the MA course?

Alexander McQueen, Sophia Kokosalaki, Peter Jensen, Emma Cook, Jonathan Saunders, Eley Kishimoto, Jens Laugesen, Bora Aksu, Marios Schwab, Basso & Brooke. There are also a lot of people who go work in the industry, but you never read about them. You only ever read about people who started their own labels. Alber Elbaz has two MA students at Lanvin, Phoebe [Philo] had three at Chloe, Gucci men's had two, plus there's Adidas and Puma. But those aren't sexy, or they don't appear sexy to the press. We had a boy go to work for ACNE jeans in Sweden, but you'll never read about him doing that. You'll read about Christopher Kane.

Do you try to create fashion stars?

Absolutely not.

It happens by accident?

Yeah, it really does. A lot of people have tried to figure out the mystique of Saint Martins, but it's simply a group of students in a building that's not that glamorous, taught by a committed staff who the students probably hate.

How much do you have to wean them from the time they come in?

There's quite a bit of weaning. Sometimes they come in towing the line of respectability, and yet you have brands like Comme des Garcons who are being urban and edgy. It should be the other way around. It should be the youth who are making their own guerilla stores. They should be posing something that we react badly against, not something we already understand. But not all of them should be doing that because some of them do want to go to America and work for Calvin Klein or Banana Republic, or whatever.

Do you set out breaking the students' spirits?

I don't think so. Students may feel the criticism is harsh, but I think it's possible they haven't had criticism before. It's my job to point out when something is badly done, or when there's no point of view. To build a brand you have to have something about you. If not personality, then some thought process. I'm forty, and they're young, so they're meant to be informing me. They should be bringing me a book or something that I haven't seen, not like some obscure chant book by Dominican monks, but an image of the way they see the world.

Are you sad to see them graduate and leave the nest?

We're lucky because once they've left us, nine times out of ten we have a good relationship with them and they come back and give talks. People like Kim Jones, Giles [Deacon] and Emma [Cook] come in like three times a term and see a small group of students, so they get an objective viewpoint as if they took their portfolio outside. Someone like Peter Jensen has his own label and also teaches menswear at Saint Martins. Most others come and say hello at some point. I'm always glad to see them, but if I see ten people a day and it's five minutes each, that's fifty fucking minutes a day.

Do you keep up with students after they graduate?

I keep up with them on the Internet and in magazines. I don't usually go to the shows in London, because if I go to one I have to go to them all. Besides, they usually go on to be so successful and huge, and I'm just some sad fuck stuck in my office. They end up having far more exotic and fabulous lives than me.

Do they ask for advice?

Some come after me for my advice. I just laugh. What advice could I possibly give them? Sometimes I actually ask for advice from them.

Are you like a mother figure?

No, because I'm a terrible mother. And I don't feel like their best friend, either. Sometimes you hear rumors they've seen tutors in gay clubs and they're laughing about it, and you realize you are not them. They are going to be the gods. I have a fear and dread that one day I am going to be in some one-room cottage in penniless retirement, and they're going to be whizzing by in their fucking Ferraris, clutching their bloody god-knows-what bags and throwing morsels to me out the window. I suppose I could keep a photocopy of their first project so that later on I could bribe them. That could be my retirement fund.

I know you don't like playing favorites, but can you give me an example of a student you felt great about?

I never taught Hussein [Chalayan] because he was in the BA course, but I remember seeing his paper dresses and they were fantastic. The craftsmanship was something else, and he had magnets under the catwalk so the clothes moved. That year was a fabulous year. More recently, I've felt great about Christopher Kane. It's not that I admire him above anyone else; it's that he works so effortlessly. He comes from a point that I would never start or finish at. Now, he's doing Versace couture as a consultant and he's hoping to do his own thing.

Do you put graduating students in touch with, for example, Versace?

No. Well, in an indirect way, because the older you get, the older your friends get, and they end up everywhere else in the industry. Do people phone me up when they have a position? Yes. Do I put them in touch? Only if I've been phoned, and only if the work is right.

Do you tip off the press to hot students?

No, I've never been that clever.

Changing gears, what's your opinion of High Street and fast fashion?

I've changed my mind on that. When you speak to young designers who are supported by High Street, they'll tell you they wouldn't be able to do what they're doing without it, unless they were living in a squat and starving like some people have done. And they'd never be able to compete with those companies' manufacturing. Every now and then strict tailoring will come into the picture to try to knock High Street off-kilter, but you can't quite get the masses to wear that. Everyone knocks Britain, but you could always say we had a great High Street, even if our designers were not super-brands. We create people who are brave enough to do their own thing. So what if Britain hasn't built a super-brand since Burberry?

Would it be possible to build a Burberry today?

I'm not being facetious, but if I knew that I would be bloody retired and have my house on Fire Island. I know absolutely fucking nothing about Burberry. They've been doing it for hundreds of years, and they had Rose Marie Bravo and they have Christopher [Bailey]. Like Balenciaga, it's a brand that only had to be reawakened. They're not starting form scratch. Or like Yves Saint Laurent, which only had to pull in the licenses and restart. I don't get this obsession with super-brands.

Then I presume you're not a fan of American brands.

I'd like someone to write a book about how American designers make their money. I'm not naming names, but how do they live in penthouses, employ their staff, have their shops and travel around the world—when they're not moving that much stock? There must be some fabulous tax dodge that happens in America. I've often tried to work it out. And then you have companies like Abercrombie & Fitch, which is exactly the same as Ralph Lauren, but with a loud soundtrack. I just went to an Abercrombie & Fitch store this morning—I was buying for my son—and thought, oh my god, it's like being in some ecstasy acid house.

What do you make of a big brand like Hilfiger buying Lagerfeld?

I haven't thought that much about it, but maybe that's me being a bitter and twisted cow. I respect Karl Lagerfeld and what he's achieved, but why not build a new name? Although, who's going to invest much money in a new name? But I really have no idea. I live in a microscopic bubble of cancer-causing chemicals called my office.

What about British designers who didn't go through Saint Martins, like Julien Macdonald?

I've never given it any thought, apart from wondering whether he's had facial surgery. He's changed beyond all recognition, and he's wearing his hair in a strange way. Now he'll never speak to me again. And those television commercials. There's this Julien Macdonald for Debenhams advert that you can see when you're at home lying slumped in your bed. It's most unflattering, and you wonder why he put his face on the telly. Do I think he's a designer? Not in my book. Am I sad he wasn't at Saint Martins? Not really. But that's me being a cow.

What are you wearing?

A black dress that I designed many years ago to clothe my semi-deformed body. Thank god, because when I read all these bloody magazines, I wouldn't know if I have the right cropped nautical jacket, or if my trench is the right length, or how to be more boho. It's my Chairman Mao uniform. I have about 39 identical black dresses, and in white and taupe linen for when I'm in Bali. I'm also wearing a black Lanvin scarf, black knickers and black sandals. The jewelry and leather bracelets are Hermes.

Do you wear designers you've helped bring into the world?

Alber [Elbaz] gives me really nice pieces of jewelry, pearls and stuff. I have to thank him for that. I didn't teach him, though. This bag is from Jens Laugesen, and Phoebe sent some nice Chloe bags. I have a student at Pucci who gave me a dodgy Pucci bag—not the one I wanted, but beggars can't be choosers. And I have a stash of Donna sweaters to keep me going for years.

We're in the middle of SoHo in New York. Would you ever think about shopping here?

Well, I nearly bought a Chanel bag today, but it would have been the sad fucker that's in the advertisement. I caught myself and thought I really wanted the small quilted one that you wear under your arm when you're a size 8, but that would look ridiculous on me. I spend a lot of money on bags and beauty products. I think most fat people are quite obsessive about their furthest extremities.

Let's talk about your background. Do you come from wealth like so many Brits?

My father was a gentleman farmer, so I had something of a privileged upbringing. I was born in Cambridge and raised in Scotland. I rode horses, and competed all through my teens. Eventually I gave up horses because you can't go to school and continue that level of competition. Also because I wanted to be in Newcastle where the black men were; they had a great time and played loud soul music and drove fast cars. It was an American naval college, and it was a short trip away by train. The man I hooked up with, though, is from Ghana, and I met him in London. We were together like twenty years and we have a son, but we never got married because I can't bear fat brides. Anyway, I nearly didn't go into fashion at all, but I remember my father taking me into the garden and putting his foot down. He said I was not going to do business studies in Newcastle. I had to take the offer of doing fashion at Saint Martins.

But why fashion?

I don't know. Saint Martins was where it was all happening. And, to be corny and un-me, my mother was always interested in fashion and always had Dior outfits out and nice handbags and things. Since the age of ten or eleven I was buying British Vogue and plastering [model] Marie Helvin all over my walls. I arrived to Saint Martins looking quite the fright in electric blue shoes and white mascara.

I love that. What year was it?

1982. There we were at Cafe de Paris with our jingles, our bangles, our Gaultier and our tragic hoop earrings. The forgotten thing about fashion today, and this makes me sound ancient, is we had to make clothes. Everybody in my generation remembers the horrible things we made in college to be different. Nowadays you will find a lot of people make nothing for themselves because it is cheaper to buy.

Did you have any professors like you?

A tutor who comes to mind is Ossie Clark, but in the ignorance of youth, I didn't even realize who he was. He had had his fame and gone back to teaching. I wish I'd kept some sketches or something.

What did you do after school?

I worked in Italy and Hong Kong for various labels. Then I came back to Saint Martins because the course director asked me to help as a tutor on the MA. Then I went to Donna Karan in '97 as a consultant for the collections, then left Saint Martins on sabbatical from '98 to '99. I then came back to Saint Martins to resume my position as course director and remained a consultant for Donna until 2002.

What was it like working for Donna?

An eye-opener. I could tell you a hundred crazy stories. I'm fond of her. She's a genius to have done what she's done. And she's fucking passionate about it. What she taught me was how to fit. She can take a sack and turn it into something. And she worked so hard herself. She really put the hours in. Sometimes people say bad things about Donna, but everything she's done has been slightly ahead of its time. As a woman, I can look at it objectively now and see that it gets personal if you're a woman. The things that have been written about Donna have been so much more personal than the things written about Calvin. But she stayed very open. I wouldn't be a very pleasant person in that environment. I'm already rude, objectionable and generally a loony.

What do you do to relax?

I go to Bali every year for six weeks. I'm on that bloody beach in a bikini bottom and a straw hat pretending I'm Elle Macpherson. It used to be absolutely fab because there was no one there I knew and I could be on the beach topless. Then people I know started coming up and saying hello.

Any regrets?

No. I'm lucky because what was essentially my hobby became my job. Some people have their jobs but have other hobbies like fishing, therefore the magazines they read on the toilet are fishing magazines. The magazines I read on the toilet are fashion magazines.

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