LONDON — Louise Wilson, who has died at age 52, shaped the creativity and fueled the ambitions of scores of students — including Lee Alexander McQueen, Christopher Kane and Simone Rocha — during her tenure of more than two decades as course director for the M.A. fashion program at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design here.
This story first appeared in the May 19, 2014 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Wilson was well-known for her histrionics and utter lack of political correctness — her language was more colorful than a Pantone chart — but she was also famous for her dedication to students and their talents — and her attention to detail. The perpetually black-clad Wilson, her long brown hair gathered in a ponytail or falling across her shoulders, was the woman famous for cutting her pupils to pieces and building them back up.
Stella McCartney, who worked closely with Wilson as a sponsor of the M.A. program at Saint Martins, called her “a true hero of fashion. She held no prisoners, and had a voice that all looked to in our industry. [She] inspired and created some of the greatest talents in fashion. No one will ever replace [her] because [she was] a true one off. What a lady.”
Sophia Kokosalaki, a former student, said Wilson changed her life. “I remember what a long shot it was for me to dream of being part of her M.A. class, having come from literature — and basically clueless — but she saw through me and she gave me this chance.” Kokosalaki called Wilson a “show woman, hilariously funny and caustic. She had an unorthodox and no-nonsense approach. She was always bemoaning the lack of talent this or that year, while producing fantastic designers at the same time.”
Richard Nicoll, another former student, said it was impossible “to paraphrase the influence that she had on all of her students or the industry. It’s a great loss to us all.”
Katie Grand, the stylist and editor of Love magazine who knew Wilson socially and worked with her on various events, including the closing party for Saint Martins on Charing Cross Road, called Wilson feisty and fearless.
“People say she was particularly honest for someone in fashion, but she was particularly honest for anyone,” Grand said. “She would terrify most people around her, but she was smart and just wanted her students to be good and do well. She didn’t take any crap.”
Kane said, “Louise was one of a kind. She was one of the most passionate people I have ever met. I will forever cherish the time I had with her at college and afterward, as a close friend. The fashion world has lost a true leader. No one can beat Louise’s courage and conviction. Her influence with live on in the walls of Central Saint Martins forever.
Articulate and ever the academic, she talked to WWD last month about the meaning of modernism, saying she has never used the words “modern” or “modernist” in her classroom, preferring “contemporary” to connote something suitable for today.
“Students should be aware of contemporary fashion in order to confront it,” she said, warning “modern” is as overused as “fashion,” rendering it somewhat meaningless, even passé.
Born in Cambridgeshire, England, on Feb. 23, 1962, Wilson grew up in genteel countryside surroundings in an area known as the Scottish Borders, just to the north of England. It was in Scotland, at her sister’s home, that Wilson died in her sleep in the early hours of Saturday. The cause of death has not been released.
Wilson’s was a fashion-loving household, with a mother who owned Dior couture, was an avid reader of Vogue and dealt in antiques. After studying art, Wilson nabbed a place on the M.A. fashion course at Saint Martins — one of her teachers was Ossie Clark — and she would later succeed the program’s director, Bobby Hillson, when she retired. After graduating, Wilson worked for a variety of companies, including Les Copains, Gianfranco Ferré, Daniel Hechter and Guess, and served as creative director for Donna Karan from 1997 through 2002, before taking up her post permanently at Saint Martins.
“She has taught a huge proportion of the world’s leading fashion designers and her course continues to produce talented, ground-breaking graduates,” Saint Martins said in a statement following her death. “Her commitment to her students and passion for creative excellence are legendary. Her deep understanding of fashion and her drive for funding for bursaries, facilities and opportunities are part of what made her such an extraordinary educator.”
Wilson was instrumental in raising money to fund new resources and equipment for the new Central Saint Martin’s campus near King’s Cross Station. In 2010, during a dinner at The Connaught to unveil one of those initiatives, the 20:20 Fashion Fund, Wilson burst into full-on tears as she thanked guests and donors, who included Donatella Versace.
Wilson received her OBE, or Order of the British Empire honor, in 2008 for services to the fashion industry, and in 2013 she received the Isabella Blow Award for Fashion Creator at the annual British Fashion Awards.
“Over 30 designers on the current London Fashion Week schedule have been taught under her guidance, including Christopher Kane, Roksanda Ilincic and Jonathan Saunders. It is hard to imagine Central Saint Martins or British fashion without her. She will be sorely missed,” the British Fashion Council said.
Wilson is survived by her partner of more than two decades, Timmi, and her son, T.J. Details of funeral services have not been revealed.