Remembering Louise Wilson OBE

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Louise Wilson's Sketchpad
Louise Wilson's Sketchpad

At the sad news of her death, we revisit Donatien Grau's candid interview with the inspirational Louise Wilson OBE from January 2013

Louise Wilson OBE is unanimously acclaimed as the most extraordinary and the most demanding of all figures teaching fashion. Head of the Fashion MA Course at Central Saint Martins, the list of designers she has trained is legendary: from Alexander McQueen and Hussein Chalayan to Giles Deacon, Roksanda Ilincic, Christopher Kane and Marios Schwab, almost all the elite of British fashion design came under her scrutiny and her criticism. A famous saying goes: “if you can survive Louise’s comments, you’re ready to go into the world”. But Louise Wilson is not only a unique master, she has also collaborated herself with brands such as Donna Karan. Her experience and knowledge of fashion is unequalled – and today, she still trains the next generation of leading fashion designers.

How would you connect fashion to elegance?
Why would I be asked to connect it? I wouldn’t be connecting that dot, I’d be expecting the students to connect it. In their work, you’ll be experiencing the presence of elegance or of different forms of elegance – the way people move, the way they dress – but you wouldn’t be thinking of the connection yourself, nor should you be, because then you would be dictating your view. Elegance for one society is not elegance for another. It’s in the eyes of the beholder. It’s also about construction, 3D, and the space around it. Elegance is the 3D aspect of fashion. So much of it is 2D now, on computers. But the 3D version, on the 3D human, that is the elegance of it, and how it works in the space it is in.

What is the role of history and art history in your conception of fashion?
I’ve never really pondered this role, because it has always been there. Without it, there wouldn’t be much fashion, because so much of it is looking back, isn’t it? Reworking, resampling, remixing. It’s a fact. It’s been there before fashion, and it has underpinned fashion. It would be a better question to ask: if it didn’t exist, what would fashion be? It’s subliminal, it’s just there. Fashion reflects the society and the time it’s in. It’s a reaction to everything that surrounds it. Moreover, I’ve always believed in the history of things. A lot of people believe that you don’t need to know the history and that creates newness. I disagree: we should always be informed and then destroy it. Art history helps you to be informed.

"A lot of people believe that you don’t need to know the history and that creates newness. I disagree: we should always be informed and then destroy it"

Would you describe fashion as a language and a discourse, as Barthes did?
It’s a secret language, known to all different people, in different ways, that enables them to read a subliminal message without realising they’re reading it. It affects people on many levels, and even people who think they’re not into fashion or reject fashion are then being informed just in the case of rejecting it. The fact that they had to react against it was a conscious decision.

The word "intellectual" was coined in a time of great political distress. Does fashion have a political role? And in which way?
It depends how much you know about politics. My gut instinct is: not as much as it probably once did. If someone had asked me that twenty years ago, I would have said “yes”: it reflects anarchy, punk. Even in Georgian times… I don’t know if it has the same political role now. Now it’s a consumer-driven industry, which of course it always was, but it was a bit more rarefied. Now it’s global.

How would you relate the concept of "fashion" to the one of "style"?
It falls apart now. They used to be intrinsically linked. Now they’ve been driven so far apart that I don’t think the one has anything to do with the other. Even more so: I think that there is almost a reaction against style, that brute ugliness somehow has been interpreted as being the way to go. Vast tracks of society have forgotten about style. Style, in terms of fashion, was being dictated by great couturiers, and that was at the time when everyone dressed in very similar ways. You would be dressed according to your wealth and status and everybody would virtually dress the same. That stopped in the 1960s, and style got lost on the way. You can’t just say that style is about stylish people, like Nancy Cunard, because that isn’t necessarily right. I do wonder if it’s still relevant anymore…

What does fashion have to do with intellectuality?
I believe intellect is needed in order to develop any creative output and that intellect alone is not enough!

"I think that there is almost a reaction against style, that brute ugliness somehow has been interpreted as being the way to go. Vast tracks of society have forgotten about style. I do wonder if it’s still relevant anymore…"

You teach fashion design. What is the role of skills in fashion?
Years ago, you would have assumed that all the students could draw, pick up a pencil, that they could cut but maybe not drape exquisitely, or that they could print but they could and would drape cloth to create 3D forms. Now, they hardly ever pick up a pencil. They have lost the ability to take an idea, and just work it through, and through, and through, and enjoy doing it. A lot of fashion might seem boring, but it is actually quite fun: the inside, the outside, the silhouette… All the different finishes. That’s a skill. I’ve always believed that you have to have the skills before you destroy the skills. If you want to be crude, be crude, but don’t be crude because you don’t know how to do it, because you’re not perfect at drawing and pattern-cutting. You also need to look at clothes. A lot of that has been removed from this generation. When I used to go to markets in London, you would find Chanel jackets or Victorian pieces of clothing, but now, if you go, you actually just see sorts of tracksuits. I don’t know where this generation see things, because you don’t see them in the shops either. It’s very hard for them.

What of fashion can be taught?
Skills. That can all be taught. Skills enable you to be happy and do things. It is easy to blog, and to style something. But you still need the creativity behind it. At the end of the day, you’ve got to have the designers, which seem to be the least understood and the least supported figure in the fashion sphere. The amount of people I meet in the industry who are good at merchandising makes me sometimes want to ask them: if you are that good at merchandising, why don’t you design the line? I have a lot of people who are not that happy because they don’t have skills in the first place. When you watch this industry as an observer, which I always feel I am, you just think: isn’t it doing tremendously well with everybody that commentates on it? Bloggers, journalists, online-this, online-that? Lots of ways to feed off it. But without the creativity there is nothing to feed off. And that creativity is something less and less visible and less and less respected.

Louise Wilson, OBE (23 February 1962 - 17 May 2014)

[This article was first published January 29, 2013]