How to introduce a woman who single-handedly nurtured and transformed a generation of fashion designers? While running a course at any creative institution is a true team effort, there will always be one mastermind steering it gently (well, at times firmly) into an envisioned direction. Willie Walters is creditable for a considerable measure of Central Saint Martins’ international reputation for having grown some of the fashion industry’s most brilliant minds, many of whom experienced her tutelage as the Head of BA Fashion. Without further ado, we give Willie a moment to reminisce about her own fashion education and all that followed; coming to a full circle after closing her long two-decade tenure at CSM this year.

“Obviously, you’ve got to work hard and do your best, but as long as you’re not actually failing, relax!”

Willie Walters: Fashion has always been my daily experience! I grew up loving clothes. My mother liked to be fashionable, and I liked to put together my own look, which wasn’t always to my older sister’s delight though. Quite often I upset her for being inappropriate. But I was extremely fascinated by clothes, jewellery, make-up, hair, everything! You know, it took me hours to get dressed in the mornings! It started off as a personal interest, but I never imagined that my fascination for clothes was something that I could translate into an actual career. A lot of the fashion courses at the time were called ‘dress design’, and were mostly aimed towards the industry and the current strictures of what you could design and wear. There wasn’t really any space to do fashion in a very investigative and interesting way. I went on to college where I started studying painting, but it wasn’t long before I realised that I was probably not in the right place after all. The people that had a passion for painting were the ones who couldn’t live without doing it, and I could take it or leave it, really! Back in the sixties, the painting courses were also very macho. Like, really macho! All the boys were either creating delicate, flat paintings with tiny, fine edges, or whacking away with brown paint, slapping it on the canvas. There were only about three girls on the course, and even though they were very provocative and progressive, the tutors never really appreciated their work. I was a lot more related to design. I wanted an end product. And so, as I discovered the fashion education at St Martins, I realised this was a place where I could do fashion exactly the way I wanted it. I have to say the tutors on my painting course were really brilliant. The moment they knew that I was applying they supported me throughout the whole application process, and allowed me to go into my own projects completely. I went and drew in the V&A, did historical dress studies, started to make and design my own clothes, and did photo shoots with my best friend who was a model. So I worked really hard on my application, and was finally accepted onto the course.

When Walters graduated in 1971, the fashion industry in England as she describes it was still very primitive. There was no Fashion Week and the jobs that people went to were often based in Milan or Hong Kong. Even though there was an explosion of Swinging London, Walters saw the early seventies as a dull time to be working in fashion in the UK capital. As her work had a very conceptual take what one would call avant-garde she realised that she wasn’t going to fit in with any of the traditional fashion companies.

When I graduated I was offered to do a postgraduate course in Theatre Design at Central, but I turned it down because I had a child to look after, and I didn’t know how to cope with that. I had to put food on the table! So, I got together with two partners and found an old cobbler’s shop that was up for rent in Camden Town. One partner was a friend of mine from school and the other one was actually Esme Young, who’s teaching on the Fashion Design Print course at Central Saint Martins. It was so cheap in those days; you could literally rent a space for no money at all! So we got the idea to open up a shop where we would design and sell our own collections. And that’s the story of how we came to open up our own small first business, Swanky Modes.

When we first started, we didn’t have any other space than the shop, so we had to make and produce everything in our homes. We were literally cutting our clothes out on the kitchen table! We used to make certain styles and have a couple of each in different sizes, and started by putting together a small stock. Sometimes we’d make bespoke, and we used to put garments from my collection out in the store window. By that time, what we were doing was completely unstructured. There were these warehouses and sample sales that would sell fabrics that weren’t popular anymore. We found one warehouse that had this huge amount of shower curtain fabrics from the fifties. They were called things like ‘Boudoir’ or ‘Aqua’ and had the most hilarious prints on them. We got this idea of turning them into plastic macs. In the fifties, a plastic mac would be what you kept in a little bag and put over your suit when it was raining. But in our innocence we thought that we could make really practical, lovely raincoats with our plastic shower curtains. So we bought them up – we literally got rolls of them, they were like ten pence per metre. We did recycling forty years before it was a concept!

We started making our plastic macs and thought they would be best sellers. Well, of course, we hardly made any money at all. It was completely bonkers! They were probably like something that CSM students would wear today. Although there were all of these alternative movements on the rise, and punk was waiting around the corner. You really just have to look at a film of London in the seventies to realise that it was actually quite tight-lipped and very conventional. So, things didn’t really turn out the way we planned. What was our immense bit of fortune, which kept us going when things were really going wrong, was the feature in Nova. Back then, we used to take our clothes to the magazines that existed in those days. We took them to Vogue, Nineteen magazine, and to the legendary fashion editor Caroline Baker at Nova, which was the best magazine at the time. This magazine was like an amalgamation of The Gentlewoman, Love and Vogue. It was a monthly that covered really serious aspects of politics and it had the most avant-garde fashion of the time. So when Caroline Baker saw the raincoats we brought her, she said: “These clothes would be amazing for Helmut Newton. He wants to do a shoot of naked girls in plastic macs!” So we left our garments with her. We waited and waited, and nothing happened. But, six months later, out came a full four-page spread. Every month in Nova there was one main fashion story, and this was us! This exposure made an amazing impact and fired us up to carry on!

In fashion stories today it’s all about suggestion, aura and ambiguity, and the focal point would never be where you could buy the stuff you see in a picture. Back then you had to have it in store, and you had to have a price on it. From that point on, lots of people started to notice us, and we started getting orders for plastic macs coming in from other stores. Then we just continued bit by bit, getting more buyers, doing wholesale and retail, sending stuff out to factories and growing to bigger numbers. We joined an alternative fashion show by the end of 1977, and got more mature and professional. We really had to learn everything about how to run a fashion business, which I think was actually really good training to become a teacher. You get to know everything about research, design, production, selling and press. From ordering the fabric to cutting the patterns – you name it. We had a 360-degree view. Everything that I didn’t learn as a student at St Martins, I learnt by working.

After being in the business for 17 years, Walters had made a fair contribution to the brand and decided to leave it with her other partners. At the same time, as she was taking a photography course at Westminster College, she was offered to teach as a visiting tutor at St Martins. Eventually, as her teaching hours increased, she had to give up her course. In 1992, she was offered a permanent job on the course that would later turn into Fashion Design Womenswear.

At that time, the course was actually called Fashion Design, and it covered both womenswear and menswear. They developed all the new pathways the year after. So the students did a bit of everything in the first year, and at the end of the year, you had to pick one of the five courses we offered. The only issue was that everybody wanted to do Womenswear, and it took a bit of time before people realised about the alternative choices. Therefore, we got an imbalance. So, after 1997, we decided to recruit directly to the pathways. What I like about the course now is that each pathway has its own important value. Sarah Gresty has really transformed the Knit pathway and turned it into something sculptural. Chris New joined Menswear, and Heather Sproat, who had such a good business background, started in Fashion Design Marketing. They’re all strong.

With hundreds of aspiring fashion designers applying to the BA Fashion Course each year, what Walters looks for in an application is anything that seems like a spark of originality.

“We’ve always loved those students that have been out partying all night and crawl into the studios like zombies in in the morning!”

Well, I mean, we’ve kind of got tear-sheets from magazines already, so we don’t want to see this sort of work. Since we’re looking at a lot of portfolios, we have to be quite quick. Last year there were 600 applications for 25 places in womenswear. Obviously excellent illustration skills are always good for communication reasons. And don’t make the statement too long. I really don’t want to hear about your whole life, I want to hear something interesting. So we’re looking for originality, we’re looking for communication, we’re looking for something different. A sort of excellence if you wish. If we manage to find that, we invite them in for a full portfolio review where we can have a look at their full body of work. If you get as far as actually being interviewed personally, we just want you express yourself. We don’t expect you to be clever, we don’t expect you to be terribly witty. We just expect you to talk about your work. It’s actually quite fascinating, because those who are truly passionate about what they do are also able to talk about it. You know, some of these applicants are shaking with fear! What’s not a good sign, though, is if you notice something interesting, but they can’t see what it is. Instead, they talk about something else that looks really boring. It’s almost like their tutor is sitting on their shoulder, saying “This is a good piece of work!”, which in fact might be really dull just because it’s been reduced in a very formal way. But you’ve also got to be aware that people are educated in very different ways. The person who’s been to a really good private school education and has middle-class parents probably has amazing access to Duchamp or really considered movies, and can present something that appears very intelligent. But coming from a working-class background, or just arriving to the country, your cultural access might be more limited just because of your life experience. So you have to be really careful that you don’t miss out on a rough diamond. And everybody feels very strongly about that. You know, Alexander McQueen’s dad was a taxi driver.

In the last two decades, there has been an increase in student numbers and less studio space available. Walters can definitely see a shift in how the surrounding circumstances of studying in London have affected the attitude of the students.

In the nineties there was a drive to attract more students from outside of the EU. We’ve always had European and British students, and even when I was a student we had people from Japan, Malaysia, America, Scandinavia. But there were countries we had never had a student from before on the course, because of conflicts or political matters. Down came the Iron Curtain and the USSR, and then you got people from Ukraine, Russia, Latvia and Lithuania. We had students coming from Serbia who couldn’t go back home for five years because the war broke out! We’ve always had people coming over from Hong Kong, which is a big area for fashion. But the republic of China was Maoist until the eighties! It was an amazing door opening with all of these possible new students, and we started getting another huge pool of people applying. When we moved the campus to King’s Cross and lost about twenty percent of our space, we had to plan to take on less students. We didn’t want to move here in the first place and were really horrified. I must say the people who were planning it had a horrible job to do. They had to fit three buildings into one. But the fusion of departments has worked well, and it’s great being close to all the different disciplines. Like I say on the open day: you’re not coming here for the equipment. It’s efficient, but you won’t be spoiled. I visited as a guest tutor at a school in Scandinavia, and was amazed by what facilities they had and how few students there were. I could spend a whole morning talking to two students! I would say they had no sense of urgency. I was shown a six-week project by one student, thinking that if she’d been at Central Saint Martins she would have totally failed by that point! You know, their projects went on for the whole term. In a way it’s good for fashion that London is such an immediate, speedy and diverse town. It keeps you on your toes. But back in the 1990s, when the terms were longer and you just paid a thousand pounds, the students at Central Saint Martins were much more relaxed and felt a lot more entitled to question however things were set up. The fact is that half of them didn’t even turn up until two in the afternoon! But when all of the overseas students started coming in with a very high work ethic, those other students certainly had to re-think their level of performance. This group was always on time, had everything ready and had done a photo shoot by the end of each project. That definitely created a huge energy. But also, you know, students should be a bit naughty! We’ve always loved those students that have been out partying all night and crawl into the studios like zombies in in the morning! It’s part of being a student, isn’t it?

Plagued by the ever increasing anxiety of creating imaginative yet professionally compelling work in an extremely competitive environment, the students on the fashion course might deserve some pity, even though some envy the people inside the concrete walls that surround the Granary Building. There are many ambitious students that experience stress and confusion when it comes to their performance. Can you actually teach creativity? Walters’ experience is that it became harder to mark someone’s work as she progressed over the years.

“It’s not worth killing yourself just to produce a huge amount of stuff.”

The grading system and the learning outcomes can be quite useful in the first year. To divide and mark the subjects into research, design, pattern-cutting, garment construction, and drawing will tell the students quite a lot about their performance. The fashion industry is very competitive and the students learn that right from the beginning. You’ll be selected because you’ve done the job. But that’s not without saying it’s quite difficult to put a value on someone’s work. Marking someone could be quite counterproductive if it’s working to produce anxious rather than informed students. If you come from the foundation at Central Saint Martins, you probably have a better idea of what to expect, since you’re already familiar with our training. But if you come from a completely different culture, I understand that the way we teach might be very confusing. If you’re from South Korea or China, you might think that you’re expected to perform precisely what a very knowledgeable person instructs you to do. I’ve had students in the past asking me straight up what they should do with their project. If I told them exactly how to do something, it would be my work! Also there are students who feel they aren’t being pushed enough, but it’s not really our job to drag you around and whip you with a stick! If you’ve gotten this far, you really need to run by your own motor. Nowadays, students are pushing themselves very hard, but some might still be working their way towards the peak of their potential. I think they usually stress that they have to be really good straight away. I’ve experienced students that get quite upset when they come to group tutorials and realise they haven’t produced anything close to the amount of work that their classmates have, and also get quite angry if they aren’t being commended for their work. In that sense, I do see more worry among students now than I did in the past; people used to be more relaxed about their situation. Probably it’s because money’s being spent, you know. There are also many students who are struggling with emotional or mental problems of one sort or another, which almost seems to go with being creative. In some cases we can tell really early on those who are experiencing difficulties, and try to do everything we can in order to help. There are lots of areas here now where we have more resources and can put in individual support agreements. They’re not perfect, but please use them. Don’t just run off and disappear: talk to your tutors, they’re there to support you. Obviously, you’ve got to work hard and do your best, but as long as you’re not actually failing, relax! Sometimes I just tell people to stop working for a day. It’s not worth killing yourself just to produce a huge amount of stuff. Enjoy your time being a student! You’ll be happy you’ve stocked up some energy by the time you get to make your final collection. There are many students who are weaker in the beginning, but really fire up towards final year.

Along with structural reforms that have forced the Fashion Course to apply standardised ways of teaching, there has also been an introduction of a whole new bureaucratic sector to art schools. Compared to how the briefs were designed in the nineties, where the students sometimes would get just a sentence or a drawing to start off their projects, the current ones need to be written like a recipe. Walters feels very strongly about maintaining a student-friendly environment, where one cannot conform students along a grid that has marks and values attached to them.

Our education was, and always has been, to develop creative, innovative and versatile designers. The industry doesn’t want boring employees! They come to us because they want the most exciting designers. The students that can do something really creative can also take themselves to a diffusion level quite easily. But I don’t want to start with a diffusion level. I hear students from other courses whose main goal is to go into merchandising as a top buyer, but I think that they should be thinking of some more esoteric future at that point! Of course, they might end up in just this position eventually and earn an amazing salary, but when you’re at college, your aim should be more extravagant! You should be fearless! There are many other colleges that are turning out people who are ready to jump straight into the industry. But we’re one of the few colleges left that is putting the innovative, imaginative and creative side first. That is our first love; that is our direction. I don’t want to be the director of a program where we’re recruiting people straight into companies. That’s not the pleasure and the delight that our students take from what they get here. Some students’ work makes the hair stand up at the back of my neck, it’s extraordinary! But those who can make a collection that’s both innovative and commercial, they’re often offered really great jobs.

Central Saint Martins has provided the industry with many talents throughout the years, and has gained a lot of recognition from its successful alumni. But when John Galliano was selected as the creative director at Givenchy, he was the first British graduate to be at the head of a couture house. Contrary to what most of the current students – who probably weren’t even born then – might believe, Walters reveals that this represented something out of the ordinary.

Everybody was astounded! But you have to remember, before Galliano went to Givenchy, he had worked as a designer on his own for ten years. He started off in the eighties when designers were given backing every way, but then dropped when their collections did not make a return instantly. Galliano suffered from that attitude before his success in 1994. Designers were not making a living. Bankruptcy all over Britain, Black Wednesday, values falling through the floor. There was no money! When you look at students like Hussein Chalayan, who was burying his final collection in his backyard, it was an interesting period, since students felt an entitlement to push the boundaries. So when Galliano was offered the job at Givenchy, he suddenly had all the power of LVMH behind him, which enabled him to create whatever he wanted. It was stunning! We’ve always believed in our students, but to have that was enormous. Then it all went quite quickly. McQueen left the MA a year later, and then it kept on going with Stella McCartney and Phoebe Philo. This gave such a boost to young British design and really helped with the recruitment worldwide. And so gradually, one by one, the graduates started being taken more seriously. By the end of the nineties the British economy was improving, and so the whole thing rose up together.

Today, fashion courses are providing students with knowledge about the business side of fashion by including a year out in the industry. There have been previous attempts at putting business in the curriculum, but the outcome has failed to impress. Even though the students won’t be fully equipped with all the tools for how to run their own companies by the time they get back, Walters underlines how important it is for students to gain real work experience from their placements.

“Everything that I didn’t learn as a student at St Martins, I learnt by working.”

They’ve got to know quite a bit about the business by the time they come back. They learn that they can go to a top company and see their contribution towards the designs on the catwalk, and they understand that their value is genuine. We used to have business seminars back in the nineties, where the students would learn about production and things like getting a bank loan. It was useful, but not necessarily exciting. So, that turned out to be a complete catastrophe. We dreaded Wednesday afternoon, because we would go through hell dragging people out of the studios to go to these classes. Students just wouldn’t go! But that’s a very important thing about the students at Central Saint Martins: they won’t do what bores them. They will kill themselves to do what they want to do. And that is nearly always their projects, because they find a value in them. So eventually we learned that if we want to provide them with professional studies, we had to merge that part of the education into their own projects. Then it works. During the second year of the Fashion BA, everyone has to make a sustainability project. We try to give them an awareness of what’s happening out there, and then they can decide whether to embrace it fully. All the luxury brands are anxious to tie into that at the moment; it’s become a buzzword. Obviously the industry has to become more sustainable, both in products and in its chain of employment. The selling rate is ridiculous! I think the sooner that goes, the better. I’m disgusted by people who just buy a shirt, wear it once and then throw it away. Being brought up just after WWII, make-do-and-mend is not a new thing for me. If you couldn’t spend money on designer clothes back then, you would have to make for yourself. There wasn’t such a thing as good cheap fashion in the nineties. I actually have to say, I really applauded it once high street fashion started to improve in the noughties. It meant you could dress quite well out of a very limited income. But you know, it’s a very difficult political decision. Who would like to erase the opportunity of buying cheap clothes for people who don’t have much money? We can try to raise awareness and talk about catastrophes like Rana Plaza, and obviously we don’t want people to die from making our clothes. Hopefully, if the public changes their ideas, the market will eventually follow. I think we’ve got to teach our students to be imaginative and versatile, but I can’t really have any authority over how many collections are being produced per year. If the industry demands that they do sixteen collections a year, they have to be able to do that. And vice versa, if the industry decides to go back to having two collections, as they did when I started, they work on that. They have to be versatile and to think on their feet.

Along with increasing financial pressure for those studying in the UK, and as the expense of surviving in London peaks higher than ever before, the rising numbers of students reaching out to university support teams shows how the current crisis has undermined the living conditions of British students. As people are facing the risk of giving up their aspirations of completing higher studies, Walters is concerned with how this will affect the demographic strata of Central Saint Martins.

Yes, necessity is the mother of invention. The spoiled student isn’t necessarily the good student; the brain is probably working faster for the one who really had to work harder to get along from an early stage.”

What you saw in the nineties was a real spirit of rebellion, which was very healthy. But one of the things that I regret was that the work ethic of our students increased to the point where they never socialised, they just worked! I feel a huge empathy for the fact that they had to work so hard, but it was too much. The really sad thing now is the government’s decision not to support art and design students, although they are a huge money spinner for Britain. To introduce these nine thousand pound fees… The students seem to think that’s all fine, since they never really see the money they borrow to pay off their tuition fees. We have got to raise many more scholarships – both for final years and for students throughout the whole course. But what’s much worse, to me, is the expense of living in London! That’s horrific, and we have no control over that. Flats are built in London and sold for millions of pounds to people who live far, far away on the other side of the world and never even set foot here. It’s completely out of control. No wonder students can’t afford to live in London. They have to live miles away, and then the travel is expensive.

It’s especially difficult for those who have to work on the side to earn money; who can’t afford spending either as much time or money on their studies. Yes, necessity is the mother of invention. The spoiled student isn’t necessarily the good student; the brain is probably working faster for the one who really had to work harder to get along from an early stage. But there’s a limit past which you don’t want to go. If you have to work at a job and produce good work at the university while also creating huge debts for yourself, you’re actually sort of exploited. What we’re risking here is the possibility of not attracting really talented students, especially those who don’t come from an affluent background. I am awed by how the students manage today, they work so hard. But I don’t think it’s tenable in the long run. What I see now is a spirit of resistance coming back again. I see a lot more rebellion in the final collections this year. There’s an increased questioning of taste, something that people might be repulsed by to begin with, but further on find quite interesting. Students are always inspired by their lives, surroundings and attitudes. When I first got back to teach after I left my business in the nineties, I was stunned by the diversity and the level of work. My first ever group of first years shocked me totally when I walked into the studio to discover some encrusting silks with dainty glass beads, whilst others were creating forms in wood and burning plastic sheeting. I think that health and safety standards were slightly different back then! That creativity and imagination is what we continue to see on the course. You know, after forty years there isn’t much I haven’t seen, but the students’ work still continues to excite me. They inspire me each day with their vision! The tutors are not here to tell people what to do; God, I’d be worried. We respond to what the students do and then try and encourage them to do it the very best they can. That’s what we’re here for, and that is what I want to maintain.

Words Matilda Söderberg

Illustration Edén Barrena