Why I Loved Louise Wilson: Katharine K. Zarrella Remembers What It Was Like to Be Taught by the Fearsome, Brilliant, and Irreplaceable Fashion Educator-------
I woke up to a devastating e-mail from Roger Tredre, my Central Saint Martins graduate tutor, this morning. “Louise Wilson has died,” read the subject line. “This is a great shock,” the message continued. “A very sad day.” Wilson, the revered Central Saint Martins Fashion MA course director, passed away in her sleep on Friday night. She was 52.
It is a sad day. Not only for the Saint Martins students fortunate enough to have been yelled at by the at once feared and adored professor, but for the fashion industry as a whole. Wilson, who was known to have some, let’s call them “unorthodox” teaching methods (screaming profanities was the least of it), helped mold many of the most brilliant design talents of the last twenty years. Alexander McQueen, Christopher Kane, Jonathan Saunders, Mary Katrantzou, and more all at one point stood (and probably cried) in her whitewashed office, the walls of which were covered in thank-you notes from graduates and heavy-hitting designers like Lanvin’s Alber Elbaz. He was a friend of Wilson’s who often came to speak at the school at her request. Such was the irreplaceable educator’s influence in the industry: While she was a force to be reckoned with—and a terrifying one at that—she was beloved by alums and movers and shakers alike. No one said no to Louise Wilson—not because they were afraid to, but because they didn’t want to.
I studied on the journalism pathway of the Central Saint Martins Fashion MA from 2010 until my graduation in 2012. And while I refused to admit it at the time, I was scared shitless of Louise. I remember the first day of my two-year stint at the school, when she walked into a room filled with aspiring journalists and designers and invited them to ask her questions about the course and the industry in general. It took a good while for anyone to come forward, thanks to Wilson’s famously intimidating presence. Eventually, I sheepishly raised my hand and inquired about her thoughts on a pair of American designers who were particularly hot at the moment. She leaned on the desk, looked me straight in the eye, and said, “Not much,” before taking the next question.
That was Louise’s way, both in conversation and education. She was refreshingly blunt, funny in the borderline offensive way that only the English can be, and had the ability to teach you more about not only fashion, but life in one terse sentence than most could in a decade. All eight of the students on my course initially thought Louise hated us. And who knows, in the beginning, she may have. She told us that we were “visually blind,” that we spat out too many words without saying anything, and, as a classmate noted today, she taught us that we needed to go to the design studio, not just the classroom, to learn how to be good fashion journalists.
I’ll never forget when I walked into her office to present the first draft of our class newspaper, The Central Saint Martins Journal, which was set to be distributed during the Fall ’12 CSM graduate show at London fashion week. Needless to say, she had her reservations (we were visually blind, after all) and wanted to ensure our work was fit to sit alongside that of her designers. At first, it wasn’t. She told me that the draft looked like a “venereal disease,” and proceeded to scream about writers’ lack of attention to aesthetics and the poor state of journalism for a solid forty-five minutes before dismissing me. After weeks of deliberating and arguing, the class decided that Louise’s disapproval only made us want our paper more.
She was surprised to see us back at her office door two months later, a second draft in hand. With a little guidance, we finally got her stamp of approval (we weren’t allowed to use any images, and our cover was blank, but that’s beside the point), and the final result still sits on my bookshelf. At the CSM show’s after-party, Louise gave me a hug, put her hands on my shoulders, and said, “Did you see it? It was on the seats!” before walking up the stairs of the since-shuttered London outpost of Le Baron nightclub.
That’s another thing about Louise. She didn’t wash her hands of you after you stepped off campus. Until her death, she attended many of her students’ fashion shows—I’d always see her backstage in London offering praise and, sometimes, advice to the likes of Louise Gray, Richard Nicoll, and Simone Rocha. She may have tortured them at Saint Martins, but she was there for them until the end. “She was a truly brilliant teacher because she showed students how to make ordinary work into extraordinary work, and took them on the journey with her,” recalls Tredre. “It was tough love all the way with Louise, but that tough love was, she believed, the best preparation for the real world.”
But it wasn’t just that Louise wanted her students to be prepared for the unforgiving beast that is the fashion industry—she wanted them to put their whole selves, and their best selves, into each stitch of their designs. She hated unnecessary flash; privileged, unwarranted arrogance; and, most of all, laziness. Nothing but heartfelt, sweat-infused perfection was allowed on the CSM fashion week runway. And given the caliber of collections we’ve seen year after year, her high standards paid off.
While I wasn’t as close to Louise as her design students, I still can’t begin to list all that she taught me. We don’t have the bandwidth. One thing I will say, though, is that her approach was flawless. For instance, during my final year, I needed to interview her for a story. She thought my questions were absolute crap and, as punishment, gave me only one-word responses. (Even so, they were some of the best answers I’ve gotten in my journalistic career.) Ever since, when preparing for an interview, I think to myself, Would Louise answer this? before settling on a query.
“There’s a phrase, ‘All fur coat and no knickers,’” Louise told me during a 2011 interview for Style.com. “Saint Martins has always focused on the knickers.” With that in mind, I’d like to say thank you, Louise, for helping me, and so many others, find our knickers.