Friday 20 February 2015 marked a historic moment for fashion.
Ten months after the passing of Professor Louise Wilson, a memorial was held at St Paul’s Cathedral, the first time the historic London institution has opened its doors to the fashion industry since the untimely death of Alexander McQueen in 2010.
Upon arrival, the 1000-strong congregation was welcomed by the striking sight of a lone horsewoman sitting side-saddle on a calm brown horse outside the cathedral. Dressed in head-to-toe mourning, comprising of an equestrienne skirt, jacket, stock-shirt and veiled top hat, it was a powerful image that nodded to the life of a truly powerful woman.
The horse stood still and the elegant equestrienne sat silently, both unabsorbed to the bustling crowds desperate to get a photo for Instagram. The moment was remarkable and unbeknownst to those stunned passers-by, it was a fittingly grand visual tribute to one of the fashion industry’s least grand visionaries.
“Louise Wilson was an educationist who truly believed in a democratic fashion system that should give everyone a chance to learn, study and, most importantly, improve.”
This was no mean feat. The memorial was organised over the period of eight months by a group of Louise’s friends: in large part by Sarah Mower, Contributing Editor to US Vogue and the BFC’s Ambassador for Emerging Talent; as well as Sam Gainsbury, one half of production consultancy Whiting & Gainsbury; Wallpaper*’s Nick Vinson, who was the student-helper on Louise’s own graduate collection at Saint Martins; Fleet Bigwood, Louise’s compadre in print on in the MA department; Alistair O’Neill, curator and head of the History & Theory pathway at CSM; John Vial, a close friend of Louise; and Hugh Devlin, London’s most prominent fashion lawyer.
The lone horsewoman was the result of a collaboration between Alister Mackie, one of Louise’s favourite students, and Alexander McQueen’s Sarah Burton, who was not one of Louise’s students but had become a close friend, often encouraged and advised by her. When Louise told Sarah that she had a “cupboard full of cups” from her childhood days of riding, it prompted her to ask for the photo of her as a young girl jumping at a gymkhana to be printed on the back of the Order of Service. The money was raised to pay for the service through generous donations, many of which came from Louise’s graduates, and some of their grateful parents, while other services, such as those of Sam Gainsbury and TCS’s Daniel Marks, were offered in-kind.
This gives some indication to the impact that Louise Wilson made on people around her. In an industry where designers are heralded as ‘geniuses’ and the majority of journalists play the role of cheerleaders, she was a formidable, honest voice that many felt grateful for, and which often went uncredited in the breath of its outreach.
“Nothing was perfect enough for Louise, especially not her students. There was the annual autumn agony; “I’m not going to have a show! None of them are good enough! They’re not working hard enough and they’ve got no ideas!” – Jane Rapley
She was an educationist who truly believed in a democratic fashion system that should give everyone a chance to learn, study and, most importantly, improve. She was also a match-maker for students and fashion houses, a fund-raiser for countless scholarships and bursaries and a true modernist at heart, always interested in the vanguard of design and youth culture, constantly pushing for it to be better; and better; and better.
All of this, of course, was often overshadowed by her unforgettable, authoritative voice, often peppered with witty curses and could be heard through the corridors of the Charing Cross Road building before being echoed through the high ceilings and open studio space of the third-floor MA classrooms in the Granary Building.
“What people forget is that there was a context, always,” says Louise’s successor Fabio Piras of her hyperbolic enthusiasm. “The yelling, for instance, was never yelling for the sake of yelling. The rudeness was actually informed rudeness; it was educated rudeness. It was theatrical and if you were to listen to the rudeness, it was beautiful and there was always an enormous amount of care.”
This was a sentiment that was repeated throughout the various speeches and readings at the memorial. Jane Rapley, former head of CSM, delivered an account of Louise as a colleague, unpredictably brilliant and confrontational, working not for the college itself but for her own standards and passions that had a direct impact on the fashion world today. “The world at large did not meet her standards,” said Rapley. “Nothing was perfect enough for Louise, especially not her students. There was the annual autumn agony; “I’m not going to have a show! None of them are good enough! They’re not working hard enough and they’ve got no ideas!”
It was these standards and high expectations, combined with an innate encyclopaedic knowledge of global fashion and history that made her students hang on to every last bit of feedback, largely because we knew that it was honest and entirely accurate, even if it did leave us wobbling in fear, anxiety, and occasionally, resentment that we didn’t anticipate such feedback.
“Alber Elbaz poetically described their relationship as that of a blind tango, entirely based on trust of her decisions – the type of trust that would be delivered with anecdotes such as “He’s so horrible, you’re going to like him,” or “She is so bad, you have to have her!”
Her core belief that education should be free was matched with action. In the programme for the MA show, held later that evening at Somerset House, her efforts to persuade fashion houses to put unrequited investment into education underscored the majority of designers – luxury behemoths such as Chloé, Alexander McQueen, J Crew, Tod’s and Stella McCartney are all listed for their contributions to the line-up of graduates, including the winners of the L’Oréal Professionnel prize, Matty Bovan and Beth Postle, largely thanks to Louise’s undeterred disregard for privilege.
What’s more, Louise had no time for egos, even though she was arguably domineering in her own demeanour. While there are a long list of names on the London Fashion Week Schedule that owe their presence there to Louise – Christopher Kane, Jonathan Saunders, Roksanda Ilincic, Mary Katrantzou, Craig Green, Simone Rocha, to name but a few – a large number of her students went on to happily work for fashion houses and studios of creative directors around the world.
Alber Elbaz, creative director of Lanvin, spoke of the enormous trust that was bestowed upon Louise to source talent and match her students to the right working environment. He poetically described their relationship as that of a blind tango, entirely based on trust of her decisions – the type of trust that would be delivered with anecdotes such as “He’s so horrible, you’re going to like him,” or “She is so bad, you have to have her!”
What Mr. Elbaz described as her “fashion kitchen” was left distraught following her death. No student can forget the eerie atmosphere in college on May 16 2014. Flowers were laid near the fountains outside the college, mostly by those who weren’t taught by her and countless tears were tasted by those who did. Many felt her death was abandonment to those left behind, especially her class of 2015. But as Louise understood every year at the beginning of the academic year, even if she did sometimes deny it, the show must go on. And that’s exactly what it did.
“Her legacy is in everyone that was touched by her, educated by her and affected by her and I do believe that flows down through generations.” – Sarah Mower
There was no mistaking that designers who presented their graduate collections on Friday were what the MA is all about. Each designer had a distinct point of view that felt honed and informed, largely thanks to the courage of Fabio Piras to take the helm of a captain-less ship. Visually, it was clear that they were all the product of not only Louise’s mentorship, but what Fabio has described as the “tightly-knit nucleus” of the MA staff.
Who could confuse Matty Bovan’s rainbow-hued, Lucky Charm-flavoured psychedelic fantasy with Erik Litzén’s crisply tailored menswear-with-a-flourish? Or the witty charm of James Theseus Buck’s textured scarecrow-boys from the salmon-pink woven-polyester boas and cobweb knits of Hayley Grundmann? These were collections that were achieved by the support and mentorship of extremely good teachers, who understand how to encourage growth in skill and creativity.
However, among a number of students and journalists, the show stirred consideration for what it was that made Louise’s students special, and whether this will continue, even though it is evident that Louise’s approach was tailored to the personal development of her students, not herself, so that every February her students had a collection that had not only travelled light-years from their initial sketches, but provided them with an entirely unique visual identity and process that could be taken away and applied to the real world.
“Her legacy is in everyone that was touched by her, educated by her and affected by her and I do believe that flows down through generations,” said Sarah Mower on the phone yesterday evening, following the end of another London Fashion Week dominated by designers that owe much to her and Louise’s mentorship. She added that Louise taught her the value and meaning of fashion education and, more importantly, good fashion educators; something that initially prompted her to start visiting colleges to personally meet students on a regular basis.
“Louise’s loud, quick-witted voice will continue to echo through the third-floor studios, reminding us to continually push ourselves no matter where or what we’re working on.”
“Her teaching was centred on being true to yourself, finding out who you are and having a point of view; and to execute it to the nth degree of excellence,” she elaborated. “A man who was taught by her and taught alongside her is now in her chair and he is fully equipped [to direct the MA course]. Louise would not have wanted it to stay in the same place; she didn’t want it to stay in the same place. She wanted more – more money, more scholarships, and more of the right people applying. Her total belief was in access to education.”
So fear not, students, the MA Fashion is not going anywhere, and it certainly won’t be any less demanding, intense and bloody hard work under the eyes of Fabio Piras, who has brought twenty years of international experience with him, showing his own eponymous label at LFW from 1994 to 2000, and who has since enjoyed a successful career in both creative direction and luxury consultancy in Europe and China, as well as over twenty years teaching alongside the rest of the MA staff and Louise, who once taught him.
Louise’s loud, quick-witted voice will continue to echo through the third-floor studios, reminding us to continually push ourselves no matter where or what we’re working on. Given how unforgettable and pertinent it is in the minds of her students, colleagues and peers – and as a result the industry at large – the MA Fashion course can and will only get better.
And we all know who believed in better.
Words by Osman Ahmed