The Fashion World Remembers Louise Wilson

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

c.2015 New York Times News Service

LONDON — St. Paul’s Cathedral, rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren following the reduction of its ancient structure to ashes during the Great Fire of London in 1666, has long been the setting of some of England’s most notable events, from the Jubilee celebration of Queen Victoria, to the wedding of Prince Charles and Diana Spencer, to the funerals of the Duke of Wellington, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher.

It is a mark of honor to be remembered here. The last time St. Paul’s opened its doors to the fashion community was for Alexander McQueen in 2010.

On Friday morning, on the day that London Fashion Week started, much of the fashion world gathered again for a memorial service celebrating the life of the great fashion educator Louise Wilson, who died May 16.

It was nothing if not apposite that the fall/winter 2015/16 ready-to-wear season in the British capital should begin in this way. Over five days, 78 designers show collections.

The majority of the most notable names on the schedule — including Christopher Kane, Jonathan Saunders, Marques’Almeida and Roksanda Ilincic — were taught by Wilson. She headed up the Central Saint Martins Fashion M.A. for more than 20 years, passing on her unrivaled knowledge and experience, and shaping their work with her impeccable taste levels and an aesthetic refinement that was second to none. In 2008 she was awarded an Order of the British Empire for services to fashion education.

Alongside Wilson’s partner, Timmi Aggrey; her son, T.J. Wilson-Aggrey; and close friends, were Victoria Beckham, Saint Martins alumna Phoebe Philo, Sarah Burton and milliner Stephen Jones. Donna Karan flew in for the occasion — Wilson moved to New York to become her creative director in 1997 and returned to teach at Saint Martins two years later, although she continued to work with Karan until 2002. So, too, did Kanye West. Wilson and West were fond of each other, by all accounts. He hired her graduates and she went to his concerts, one of which fell on her 51st birthday on Feb. 23, 2013: “It’s Louise Wilson’s birthday. Happy birthday to Louise,” West called out, presumably to the puzzlement of the rest of the crowd.

Because if, with her auburn hair, perfectly pale skin and permanently black-cashmere-clad frame, Wilson was a giant as far as the fashion world was concerned, she was also private, an insider motivator par excellence and one who preferred, always, to remain behind the scenes.

Mary Katrantzou, who showed Sunday and who dressed Michelle Obama in a pink rose-print trellis dress for the annual Kids’ State Dinner last July, was in attendance. “There was no greater motivator than Louise,” she said. Going into the course “without much knowledge of fashion and having to have the strength in your convictions and to convince Louise was probably what unlocked me as a person”

“We became very close,” said Simone Rocha, who dedicated her current collection to her teacher and whose fall/winter show also takes place this weekend. “She meant so much to me, from being absolutely petrified of her to uncontrollably wanting to please her.”

Reference was made, inevitably, to Wilson’s legendary temper. Her lack of diplomacy was nothing short of dazzling, her teaching methods fierce to the point of brutal. “But it is important to remind ourselves of the woman behind the icon,” said Jane Rapley, professor emerita at Central Saint Martins. “She was a consummate educator with an encyclopedic knowledge of global fashion, a driven perfectionist. The world at large did not meet her standards. Her death was a horrible robbery for those left behind.”

Of course, Wilson’s impact was felt further afield than Britain. The London catwalks are unique for their showcasing of fledgling talent starting labels straight out of college, and Wilson was often described as a “star-maker” for that reason.

It was a moniker that frustrated her, however, as it overlooked the fact that as well as nurturing homegrown designers throughout their education and beyond — she sat front row at every one of her students’ shows long after they’d left the college — her graduates also fill many of the most revered fashion studios globally, everywhere from Balenciaga to Balmain and from Dries Van Noten to Céline.

Alber Elbaz, for whom Wilson acted as unofficial headhunter in recent years, addressed the congregation, confirming this. “All of them came from Louise’s fashion kitchen,” he said of the many Saint Martins students he has employed. “She often said: ‘He is so horrible you’re going to really like him.’ Or ‘She is so bad, you have to have her,'” Elbaz remembered.

As guests filed out of St. Paul’s, they were met by a lone horsewoman, sitting sidesaddle, a reference to Wilson having been a prizewinning equestrian as a young girl. She was dressed in a reinvention of a Victorian riding habit courtesy of the aforementioned Burton, who was not taught by Wilson although her mentor, Alexander McQueen, was.

“As much as I might decry the students, as much as they’re a nightmare, it’s a privilege to be among youth,” Wilson told me in 2011, on one of the many occasions we talked. “In fashion you’re privileged because you’re consistently working with a vanguard of youth.”

With that in mind, Friday’s shows closed with Wilson’s last group of M.A. students showing their final collections on the London Fashion Week catwalk. The loss of the woman who taught them with such dedication will be felt for many years to come.