• Louise Wilson
"Education is the beginning of everything"


Professor Louise Wilson (OBE) is head of the MA in fashion at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design. Every year, beginning in April, Wilson looks at more than 650 portfolios. Ultimately, 45 of their owners will start the fashion MA that autumn. Half of graduates find a job immediately after finishing the 18-month course. Louise Wilson talks about UK education, not being proud, and why she hates fashion competitions.


What struck you about Lichting? It’s not different than anywhere else. And it should be. Because although the world is globalised, if art education is not going to make the difference, then really, we’re all a bit fucked. Because education is the beginning of everything, not just in art. But once you lose that fundamental standing-apart or being radical, or not feeling that you have to conform… If we understand student work, that’s the dangerous thing. It’s far better to came away and just think, ‘Jesus.’ It means you don’t get it. Something new is coming.


I thought Lichting was incredibly professional, incredibly supportive—the colleges, meeting the headmasters, how they all got on. I never met Dutch headmasters before.


You became quite upset at a few of the things that came down the Lichting catwalk. I saw lots of positive things. The things that made me recoil, like the bad make, the terrible shoes, the dodgy outfit that wrecked each collection… Each collection was going along all right, and then there’s a curve ball. You think, “What’s that, then?” Why didn’t anybody say, “Sorry, mate, drop it!” But that happens all over the world. It’s not unique to Holland.


I also liked winner Marije de Haan, because her collection looked a bit Dutch—what I imagine as Dutch—slightly twisted, but with a little bit of decoration.


Dutch students often apply to study at Central Saint Martins. Have you formed an impression of Dutch education? You can have an discussion with them in an interview. But generally, most undergraduate students now lack quite a few skills, because again, it’s all service. That also goes back to the generational thing. When I was at college we made our own clothes, because you couldn’t buy them, you couldn’t get them cheap as chips. Now students don’t tend to make clothes for themselves, therefore they don’t know the basic craft of making. And of course to teach people pattern-cutting skills is very costly and not really glamorous… Fifteen years ago, they were lot more technically skilled, from every country they came from. It’s a massive change, massive, and that, again, comes back to the generational thing, because now everything is packaged. Everything is produced. Everything is put through the computer. So they like to see a 2D image. They always do a photo shoot, even though they’re designers. But designers don’t do photo shoots; they employ experts.


Why did you accept the invitation to come to Amsterdam? Because I like Antwerp and Holland. If I had to go anywhere and do anything educational, it would be Antwerp or Holland, because of the art, the easiness and introspection. You are not in a vacuum. And honestly, I don’t do enough education outside Saint Martins; I don’t have time. Personally, if my colleague Wojciech Dziedzic, who also teaches at the Gerrit Rietveld Academie, hadn’t lived in Amsterdam, I wouldn’t have come either. He kept saying, “You must come, you must come.” But also, I’m so disillusioned by the students I see from around the world that I wanted to come and see what’s happening. And it’s also good to step outside to see where I sit. And are we [Saint Martin’s] still good? Does what we do have value?


And…? Luckily, I can go home quite happily and think: Yes.


Do you feel proud of all you’ve accomplished through your years of dedication? “I would never say I’m proud. Because the students, by the end, have done the work themselves. I am not proud of them; I don’t own them; they’re not my children. In fact, I would say it’s the complete opposite: if you speak to most to the staff of Saint Martins, we’re not proud. We think we’re failing! We think it’s a nightmare. We think we’re not delivering, because we’re always questioning ourselves. So if I had to sum up one difference based on my very short visit, it’s how the academies are very proud of themselves. Now you can interpret that however you want. You know, where they think they’re doing a marvellous job in the main, I cannot imagine people in English education ever sitting around. They are always think they’re failing. It’s part of the British psyche, but it’s also part of what keeps us on the edge.“

You’ve devoted half your life to education. What kind of state is it in now, in your opinion? “I think education has to stand apart to allow and nurture talent to develop. Education—I don’t know so much about Holland—but especially in England, it’s become very much about being judged. Judged on results, judged on whether they get a job, or how many things they win, or how much PR they have, or which college got the most money to do the fancy brochure. The fact that a college is producing a fancy brochure, but nobody in the design industry is… The money is all getting distorted.


“The work ethic is different. I don’t remember when I was at college people having the idea of fame, or of making it. They had a much more humble idea that they wanted to work and were into going into a long apprenticeship… But the whole system plays into that celebrity culture thing.”


After you graduated, you worked in the fashion industry. Has that experience been important for you as an instructor? “I think yes. And it’s important to have friends in the industry, because they keep you up to date. But as they often say, the industry hasn’t changed that much in 25 years. Education has, but the industry hasn’t. I have yet to meet a design studio that wants a student that can’t draw. I have students that can’t draw. And when I say draw, I’m not talking illustrate, but put an idea on paper. They can’t do it. They can do moulage, collage or computer—we don’t do that in any high-level studio I know.”


As an educator, where is your focus? Or which direction do you try to go in? “People say, “Can you teach creativity?’ We try and teach taste. I don’t care if it’s bad or good. But it’s handy to have a bit of taste. Yes, I think you can teach taste. You can point out why a pin with a pink marabou feather on it might not be cracking it. And at least you can ask them to think about, ‘Is she right or is she wrong?’ But then I have only 18 months. That’s why I’m fat. I’m a self-harmer. I could equally take heroin in my office, because it’s so fucking shocking what I have to do. Sorry, but it is!… I do forty collections a year with students.”


Do you have any advice for the Dutch academies with respect to philosophy or teaching materials? “My fundamental point is it’s more important to get your education system watertight. Because that’s where the cuts will come. You have to salvage your education. I fundamentally believe, in a country as small as this one, everybody should mark out their territory. It’s vital to have technical people too—pattern cutters, things like that. It’s a backbone of the industry, but now it’s a dirty word, because everybody now needs to be a designer. A college doesn’t want to be known for being technical, because that’s not trendy, and they can’t produce a glossy booklet.”


Are you looking forward to the next fashion competition? “I never liked contests. I’m not aware that we’ve ever entered a contest. I think students signed up for ITS in Italy. We would always lose. They would vote us out, wouldn’t they? Because it all has to be fair. You’re not allowed to be the leader or the winner. Once you are, you’re ready to be knocked down.”


By Georgette Koning