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Louise Wilson remembered by Jonathan Saunders

Opinionated, outspoken, incisive and uncompromising – Louise Wilson was all these things, but she was so much more as well. Her first words to me were fearsome (to say the least), and our last contained another f-word, but amid all the expletives were genuine praise and encouragement.

I remember my interview for the fashion MA at Central Saint Martins vividly. Straight off the train from Scotland and surrounded by painfully cool students (seemingly all carrying Louis Vuitton folios and a palpable London nonchalance), I was nervous to the point of nausea. I wish I could say she made me feel immediately at ease, or that she calmed my insecurities, but that wasn’t the case. Instead, she had pulled the venetian blinds entirely so that the light streaming in behind her created the most formidable of silhouettes – a trick, I’m sure, usually reserved for interrogation rooms, but more on that later. Less than three minutes into my interview, Louise assumed a full-on, frighteningly authentic Glaswegian accent to mimic my own which, as you can imagine, didn’t help either.

Louise’s approach was brutal at times, perhaps (the tales of drop-kicking mannequins across the studio are actually relatively tame), but it was by no means one-way. She encouraged people to stand up to her; she urged us to be confident in our opinions and in our decisions. She wasn’t relentless in her brutality either; there were just enough glimmers of praise amid otherwise constant condemnations to boost your confidence tenfold. Just one syllable of approval was enough to inspire another month of tireless hard work.

There were very few tutorials; instead, she favoured interrogation over teaching (she called it “retraining”). By questioning our ideas, she pushed us to question too; by challenging our conceptions, she pushed us to challenge ourselves. Final design decisions were arrived at only after trying every possible tool and tactic so that, by the end of the course, you knew your own mind entirely. A kaleidoscope kaftan that was part of my MA collection is a prime example; a piece I’m really proud of that wouldn’t have come together nearly as well without Louise’s input. Lulu Kennedy wore it in a shoot we did for i-D magazine to mark our 10th anniversary – I’m as proud of it today as I was the day of my MA show.

Louise Wilson at Central Saint Martins college in 2011.
Photograph: David Levene

Nothing was more important to Louise than proper hands-on skills. While tutorials with her were practically unheard of, she could spend an hour discussing a single seam, 40 minutes on a fastening. In an internet generation of 3D printers and three-second search results, she taught students the importance of old-school artistry. “It’s not all fur coat and no knickers,” Louise once said. “It’s fully knickered under the fur coat.”

With an unmatchable knowledge of her subject, its history and the industry, she was a teacher in the truest sense of the word. Every student in my year was doing something completely different but, be it Belgian minimalism or gaudy decadence, she knew exactly which references to offer or which path to guide you down. She pushed you to the nth degree, regardless of taste or talent, ensuring that every single student ended up with their own, unique aesthetic. It’s because of her unfaltering dedication to originality and individuality that London has one of the most diverse and distinctive range of designers.

The one phrase I remember Louise uttering more than any other was: “This is the worst year yet.” Over and over again, we were told the same thing: that we were less talented and more disappointing than any of her previous students. After a whole year of being lambasted daily by Louise, there was a noticeable transition once I’d received my diploma. The tremendous energy that had gone into such dedicated derision had been reassigned; Louise did everything she could to support and protect her graduates from the often harsh and fickle world of fashion.

Being taught by Louise Wilson was one of the most formative experiences of my career and one that I feel profoundly lucky to have had. For the impact she had on the fashion industry, on her students – who included Roksanda Ilincic, Alexander McQueen and Phoebe Philo – and on those who knew her as a supporter or friend, she was incomparable, and for that I and many others are eternally grateful.

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