In Dazed's new 20th-anniversary issue, we speak to the opinionated and revered CSM professor about moving campus, tuition fees and discovering the talented
Professor Louise Wilson greets me in her office on the first floor of Central Saint Martins’ Charing Cross Road branch. There are blue plastic boxes stacked up on top of each other in the corner and the paint is peeling off the walls. It’s the end of an era for the 72-year-old art institution, which is relocating to a shiny £200million complex in King’s Cross. The ramifications of such a move are considerable – Alexander McQueen, John Galliano, Stella McCartney and Hussein Chalayan all walked these crumbling halls.
The alumni of the MA Fashion course that Wilson has presided over since 1992 are some of the most influential names working in fashion today – from Sarah Burton, Gareth Pugh and Christopher Kane to Giles Deacon, Riccardo Tisci and Phoebe Philo. Dressed in her customary black, Wilson is opinionated, funny and liberally peppers her rants with expletives. Today, she is also typically forward-looking. “It’s quite a seismic thing moving to King’s Cross,” she reflects. “I wasn’t for the move and I’m not sure about it now, but I can recognise that it’s a brave thing to try to move ahead. I would much rather stay at Charing Cross but it’s about investing in the future.”
Dazed & Confused: Many designers have cited you as an inspiration – what are the key encounters that have shaped who you are?
Louise Wilson: I can’t think of any. I know it sounds arrogant but it really isn’t. I think you would have to be aware of the encounter to know it shaped you, and I’m not aware of anything because I work quite fast. It’s only by looking back that you can even begin to think that, and I haven’t enough time to think of it. The best encounters for me are with my staff who’ve worked here for years – Fleet Bigwood, Julie Verhoeven, Jane Shepherd, Peter Jensen.
D&C: Central Saint Martins has been home to Gilbert & George, The Sex Pistols, Galliano, McQueen – real iconoclasts. Do you think a place like that can only exist in a capital city like London?
Louise Wilson: It’s an art school that’s tried to hang on to everything it stood for over a long period of time. I think that’s very important. I think it would have to be in a capital city and I think London’s one of the best capital cities in the world because of its diverse nature. It’s a grim city in many aspects, but out of that comes something special – it’s not fake and you can still find pockets of reality. So, I think Saint Martins could only be in London, and should only be in London.
D&C: How have the dynamics of the students changed since you started teaching in the early 90s?
Louise Wilson: I think the students work harder than we ever worked, but they have to because a lot of them haven’t got the skills that the old courses trained people in. The dynamic hasn’t changed – they’ve always been poor, they’ve always been untalented and then become talented, and they’ve always been insecure. At some point, they become people you want to know because you’ve worked with them and then they leave and you start with another group.
They have less skills now though, and I don’t care who hears that – they outsource more. When you talk about people like Lee McQueen or Christopher Kane, they did everything themselves – with no money, they could generate whatever they needed to. But the pressure on the students is greater now. What is expected of a student is beyond human – the MA fashion show is shown during London Fashion Week and is on style.com. It’s viewed in a professional arena we never had. We were allowed to fail, and to make mistakes.
D&C: What is the greatest challenge for you when faced with a new batch of students?
Louise Wilson: Being engaged, because I have to want to be engaged. That’s my biggest personal challenge – engaging myself not to be bored, and engaging the other person to want to go on the journey.
D&C: Are your ideals the same now as when you started out?
Louise Wilson: I didn’t have any! A lot of people of your generation think there was some sort of life plan. That didn’t happen to me or any of my friends – you fell into it and did the best you could. There was no plan to get an OBE or be on the internet. You come in and work and try to make it better. I don’t know if that’s an ideal, but we’ve always held true to that – trying to get students to engage with you to get to the next level.
D&C: With the rise in tuition fees, will fashion become the preserve of the elite?
Louise Wilson: I don’t even want to discuss it. You don’t need my voice on how I see that changing. It’s obvious. It’s too frightening. They’re very dozy about education in this country. We have the finest art school system in the world but it’s been tampered with a lot lately. It’s changed fundamentally. But there is a whole industry coming out of it. If there are no young designers, who are you going to write about, blog about or support at shows? I think it’s time for people to wake up.
D&C: What does the fashion industry want from young designers today?
Louise Wilson: I don’t know. If I knew what they wanted, I would be fucking rich. I know what employers want. Employers want someone with something new to say. They want to be fed information and be enlightened. They want a point of view.
D&C: Is there a fashion show that sticks in your mind as the perfect expression of its era?
Louise Wilson: I don’t think like that and I think it’s a good job I don’t think like that because if there were a show that I thought was perfect, I would be trying to make students do that. That would mean you’re always looking back. I have been to McQueen shows where I got a tingle up my spine – I remember that show where they walked into the water, the epic-ness of the girls walking in and the first splash.
When Dazed did that special issue for the Hussein Chalayan show in 1993 – that was a great show, a brilliant show – it embodied Central Saint Martins. There were things you had never seen before done in a way you’ve never seen before mixed in with humour, and the people were absolutely diverse. Now, it’s hard to embody that – to take a risk and have fun.
D&C: You’ve talked about the long, gruelling hours you work, but could you imagine doing anything else?
Louise Wilson: I haven’t got time to look for another job! But the good thing is that the people in fashion are brilliant. I’m talking at the student level and at a higher level in the industry. I met all of my friends at college. That’s the thing about fashion or art – you are meeting like-minded people and you become friends for life. It’s a life-enhancing experience as education should be. What keeps me in it is youth. It is a privilege to have a dialogue with youth. You miss it when you’re not around it. You miss that whole dialogue – you’re searching out what they have to offer.
Kin Woo is a qualified medical doctor and a regular fashion writer for Dazed, go figure...
Photography Marcelo Gomes
Dazed & Confused's October issue, 'Come Together: 20th Anniversary Special', is out now. Click HERE to check out the other, already published, Q&As celebrating the issue