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Louise Wilson: master of arts

In her last ever interview, 
the late Central Saint Martins fashion professor tells Susanne Madsen why this year’s MA graduates 
are embracing modern craft over online excess

Lead image by Marcelo Gomes.

Taken from the summer 2014 issue of Dazed: 

The Central Saint Martins MA Fashion course and Louise Wilson OBE have long been intrinsically linked. Headed by the professor since 1992 until her sudden and deeply saddening death last week, the intense and demanding two-year bootcamp is revered as the pinnacle of fashion education. Although she never took credit for her students’ successes, fashion owes her a great and resounding debt. Under her watch, the course produced Alexander McQueen, Christopher Kane, Craig Green and Simone Rocha, along with countless brilliant designers who might not be household names but fill major positions behind the scenes at fashion’s 
biggest houses. 

“We were shocked to hear she passed, deeply sad for maybe never having thanked her enough and incredibly sad for the loss of an inspiring voice in the fashion industry,” say Marta Marques and Paulo Almeida of Marques'Almeida, who graduated from the MA at CSM in 2011. “We were scared and confused when we started the MA at Saint Martins, and when Louise started dissecting our personalities and lives and how that would translate in our work and what we had to say as designers, everything became that much more intense. We have our whole lives and career now to thank her because of that. ‘It's right to be wrong and it's wrong to be right’ was given to us on a black-and-white photocopy when we first started the course, and it has been on our studio wall ever since.”

It’s hard to grasp that this year’s graduates were the last group of students to show their final collections under Wilson. In her office, she famously had a sticker that read “same shit, different year”, but make no mistake: she was unflinchingly passionate about educating her students. Respected for her brutally honest and sharp-witted approach to fashion education and her unfaltering eye for what worked (and what didn’t), Wilson pushed her students to question their ideas and pursue originality above all else. When Dazed spoke to her three weeks before she died for what would become her last interview, she was as firm as ever. “They’re all individuals,” she said when asked if she saw an overall thread in the work of this year’s graduates. “That’s the whole point of the MA.”

Under Wilson, the February MA show during fashion week was the ultimate rite of passage, stitched together with blood, sweat and tears and sent out to a thumping soundtrack before rows jam-packed with editors and proud parents. Again and again, the personal and gutsy collections underscored what London is all about: young, vibrant talent and fearless ideas. It was one of the first places to give voice to new undercurrents in fashion, as with this year’s batch of graduates, who have largely reacted against their “generation internet” status to produce collections researched from musty books and crafted by hand.

“They put a red military beret on you from the day you get in there,” says 2014 grad Rory Parnell-Mooney, who dressed an army of boys in powerful, ecclesiastical shapes born from images of black-clad European rioters, distilling church dressing rituals into something serene and quietly sinister, with ominous headgear that covered his models’ eyes. “Louise taught me how to work incredibly fast, how to really look at research and how to see when something is wrong instantly. Afterwards, she wasn’t there holding your hand. It was, ‘Goodbye, go and work.’ Maybe it is a good thing but it’s scary for sure.”

Michael Power was one of two graduates (the other was Ondrej Adamek) to win this year’s L’Oréal Professionel Creative Award, judged by Kane. There was something almost totemic about Power’s distorted black mesh pieces, with their glass bead scribbles trapped between gauzy layers, that made everyone sit up and take notice. What he calls the collection’s “very graphic, glitchy vision” was further enhanced by massive bucket shoes that swallowed up the models’ legs. “In my head, the girl definitely walked with a very audible stomp,” Power notes. “For a while, the boots did actually make quite a loud noise when the models walked due to the echo created inside them, but we padded them for the show.” If his collection had a sound, he says, it would be “snap, crackle and pop”.

According to figures from the college, close to 80 per cent of its MA graduates will be in employment three months after leaving. But even so, a lot of them talk about how overwhelming the prospect of job hunting can be. “It’s daunting,” says Drew Henry, whose nonchalant union between utilitarian olive-green tailoring and tactile raw cowhides, born partly “from mistakes”, seemed to prompt a dialogue between modern fashion and something primordial. “It takes a lot of conviction to believe you have a unique voice that needs to be heard. With so many brands and new designers, everyone overlaps to a degree.”

It’s easy to see why it might feel intimidating to head out into an industry that is not only highly competitive but also defined by a visual overload and excess of designers. “Yes, but are there a lot of designers that matter?” Wilson said. “That’s the difference. The industry hasn’t got a litmus test any more. Now, if a girls’ school from Bradford has enough money to put on a show during fashion week, not only would it be reviewed but it could also get some celebrities there. And everybody gets the same review, because none of the reviews are even critical since everybody is networking to their next post. So the whole thing has imploded. Watch it die, like the banking industry.”

“Are there a lot of designers that matter? The industry hasn’t got a litmus test any more. The whole thing has imploded. Watch it die, like the banking industry” – Louise Wilson

Having made it on to the course and survived, Wilson’s graduates have already passed one crucial litmus test. And in addition to talent, they have skills. Proper old-school hands-on skills. “The clothes were very well-made, which is something you don’t see in a lot of places,” Wilson said of her 2014 crop. “There was a return to craft or modern craft, but I think that’s people shouting out the skills that they’ve got. Craft is very hard to duplicate. Everything else is churned out crash-bang-wallop and copied so quickly that I think the students find it very difficult to compete. So to have skills is the cornerstone of their work. It’s their point of difference.”

A laundry-day walk past Thomas Heatherwick’s stainless steel Boiler Suit façade at London’s Guy’s Hospital sparked Graham Fan’s undulating handwoven mid-century silhouettes and arresting textures. “I was thinking such a ‘twist and turn’ idea could probably work well on the human body as a textile,” he says. Using traditional basketry techniques to weave together recycled PVC strips, mohair, metallic plastic cords and elastic fish wire, Fan created sensory surfaces that seemed almost alive with shimmering electricity and 3D details. “Probably due to the fact that I lack a solid background in textile innovation, I literally hand-wove any available material in reference to my research, aiming to create texture that speaks for itself rather than defining a collection by its silhouette and shape.”

Given the times we live in, the CSM graduates are perhaps surprisingly wary of heading down the internet rabbit-hole. “No one can deny the fact that the internet provides instant access to what’s happening outside, but it just feels different flipping through pages of decades of magazines and books,” Fan says. “There is always a sense of personal touch and even smell when I go through archives. It feels way more intimate.” Jessica Mort – who specialised in Textiles for Fashion during her MA and recently accepted a position as junior designer at Loewe under J.W.Anderson, the label’s new creative director – thinks the constant regurgitation of images online also risks the regurgitation of ideas. 

“Not a lot looks new any more,” she says. “I don’t think you can research properly on the internet alone and I personally find it hard to get inspired this way.” She developed her own weave technique, looking to photographer Mary Ellen Mark’s portraits of Indian circus children in worn-out polo shirts for her faded, unravelling rugby shirts, which trailed along the floor like a beautiful, warped commentary on the classic preppy piece.

Mort says that fashion’s online excess has made her want to have “as small a presence on the internet as possible – my only concern is getting on with my work and making it as good as it can be.” Fiona Blakeman, who also specialised in textiles, agrees: “We see so much online without even intending to that it’s impossible not to be influenced, but there’s more value in finding inspiration from something real.”

You also only get half the story online. Looking at images of Blakeman’s collection, you wouldn’t know that her sensuous black jersey dresses, with their laser-cut nude chamois leather inserts that revealed naked flesh, had a strong, animalistic scent. “My collection smells quite horrible actually!” she admits. “The laser-cutting of the chamois leather creates a strong aroma of burnt flesh. I ended up dry-cleaning the skins in an attempt to eliminate the smell but it never went away completely.”

“My students are noticed by the people I respect from the quality of their work. It’s not all fur coat and no knickers. It’s fully knickered under the fur coat” – Louise Wilson 

All the graduates speak of the internet as equal parts friend and foe. “It’s such a great tool, but it can be crippling,” Henry says. “Knowing every collection on can turn you off an idea, and the volume at which you can find things makes me feel as though I absorb less.” Inspiration has become ubiquitous, according to Power: “Research has become relatively easy. You can just type in what you’re looking for and find it in an instant. The hardest thing now is the edit. Internet fashion has become this all-consuming beast which regurgitates fashion images with little regard for merit or relevance. Everything becomes elevated. I’ve come to really appreciate the make of a garment, the technology within it, the story behind it. The things you can’t see on Tumblr.”

“Yohji Yamamoto said that fashion students’ eyes ‘have become dirty’,” Parnell-Mooney recalls. “When they come to work for him he almost wants to wash their eyes out and stop them from looking at Tumblr.” For Parnell-Mooney, we have been desensitised by the internet. “After our show in February there was no one buying the collections like they did back in the day with McQueen. They’d already seen it. It’s happened and it’s done and it’s been fodder on Instagram and, and you’ve moved on to the next pre-collection or cruise or whatever.”

Although it’s tempting for students to splash their work all over the web, especially during job-hunting periods, Wilson thought it a bad idea. “I try to stop my students doing random things on the internet or putting work online,” she said. “It doesn’t get them jobs. This concept of being noticed, I don’t know what it brings you. Because it’s a hell of a lot of people being noticed and having funded dinner parties and goodness knows what else, and I really don’t know if they’ll still be around at the age of 40. My students are noticed by the people I respect from the quality of their work. It’s not all fur coat and no knickers. It’s fully knickered under the fur coat.”

What will the future bring for this year’s graduates? Power has given this a lot of thought. “There is simply too much fashion, in my opinion,” he says. “It doesn’t feel sustainable. Sometimes I think about the clothes in everyone’s closets, and all the clothes sitting in shops and warehouses all over the world. What’s it all for? It’s an issue I struggle with at times, seeing as I am a fashion designer and plan on spending my life contributing to this cycle.”

The volume and speed of fashion worries Parnell-Mooney too. “As a young designer you’re expected to be able to go and work with a brand and they’re like, ‘Oh yeah, you’ve got two weeks to design the main collection,’” he says. “Where is the time to develop anything beautiful? There are amazing companies out there like Dries Van Noten, who still only does four collections a year, and more power to him. And he still sells, and people still love that. The main thing I would worry about in the industry is going mental by the time I’m 40.”

You can’t predict the future, but one thing is certain: Louise Wilson leaves behind an immense and incomparable legacy, and her graduates are the proof. “Professor Louise Wilson was the most interesting, challenging, and devoted person I have ever met,” Power says. “Studying under her, while never easy, was filled with moments of acute wisdom, incomparable intelligence and true passion. The lengths she would go to for her students consistently went above and beyond the traditional reaches of fashion education. Interacting and working with her was incredibly formative, an experience her students are profoundly lucky to have had. Her passing is immensely sad and is only matched by the impact she had upon the fashion industry, her students and all those who knew her.”