Disegno No.2

Louise Wilson (1962-2014)


19 May 2014

Louise Wilson, the influential course director of Central Saint Martins (CSM) MA fashion programme, has died aged 52.

Taking her cues from the late 1980s and early 1990s, Yifang Wan produced a minimalist graduation collection. Long, flowing garments in cashmere wool were punctuated by sculptural accessories made from resin and glass fibre. Photographed in the north-eastern stairwell

This perceived simplicity of fabric and form was also present in the final collection of Chinese Yifang Wan who made a collection entirely out of cashmere wool. The colour palette is focused on only black and grey and the dresses, tunics and tops fit loosely on the model. Inspired by minimalist sculpture Yifang added decorative flourishes with oversized belts and necklaces created from resin and glass fibre. “Hooking” onto the wearer rather than working as a fastener or for pinning in the outfits, the pieces sit stiffly around the neck and waste. The overall impression is of that of the garment and its wearer as sculpture – as a piece of art. Fellow womenswear graduate the Dutch Hellen van Rees similarly treats her garments like sculptures – they are like an exploded 3D version of the traditional Chanel suit and require many hours of work. “I weave everything into the shape of the garment – so it’s all in 3D, then I add square foam-blocks made out of the same fabric, so it all looks like one seamless thing, they are all fused together with the help of a heat-press.” Van Rees spent many hours in the fashion studio to achieve the finished result. “When we moved in I sat here working in the dark some evenings because there was something wrong with the lighting system,” says van Rees. “It was frustrating sometimes.”

The portfolio selection and interview process for next year’s MA students is in full swing today and Professor Wilson, always dressed in black, makes brief appearances from her office, to call students. In Wilson, the students have a living legend. Having served as the outspoken course director for the MA fashion since 1992 (except for a stint as head of Donna Karan in New York) she has been instrumental in creating a strong and diverse British fashion scene, feeding young talent through to the international fashion houses and creating quite a few stars along the way. Watching her stride, royally, through these new premises, it seems that the first MA fashion students from Central Saint Martins at Granary Square has little to worry about. With her eye for talent, the future legacy of the fashion studios at the new campus are already secured and Wilson’s decisions today on who will and will not be granted a place at the school, will influence the future of fashion for years to come.

Inspired by found vintage postcards of Greek luggage-carriers, Craig Green's sculptural frames gave his graduation collection an extravagant three-dimensionality. Pilgrimage, religious uniform, and workwear served as points of departure for the collection. Photographed on the roof terrace

The sun is setting on this fresh spring evening and someone has left the door open to the huge east-facing roof terrace. It is obvious from the excited students that spill out on the terrace that this is a pretty special experience. It’s hard to imagine another educational institution with such splendid views – the city of London – as far as you can see, shrouded in a fine evening mist.

Our last photograph of the day is set up here, of Craig Green’s black canvas structure. As Green helps adjust it on the models’ back, he shares his thoughts on the future. “I was just interviewed for a really interesting job today,” he says. “I always thought that I would like to pursue my own work, but there’s something really nice about working under constraint as well, and in a team. Maybe it’s just because I’ve been here for so long I’m used to this community atmosphere. I feel like I’m institutionalised and I need therapy back into the real world – re-adjustment therapy.”

Wilson was a highly respected figure in the fashion industry. Born in Cambridge in 1962, she trained as a fashion designer at Preston Polytechnic and later Central Saint Martins, from where she graduated in 1986. She worked briefly as a designer for brands such as Les Copains, Gianfranco Ferre and Daniel Hechter, before rejoining CSM's fashion MA programme as an associate lecturer in 1990. In 1992, she succeeded the course's founder Bobby Hilson as director.

Just as Hilson had been influential in the development of students such as John Galliano, Alexander McQueen and Stephen Jones, Wilson was an outstanding educator and cultivator of talent, playing a vital role in the emergence of her pupils Jonathan Saunders, Roksanda Ilincic and Mary Katrantzou. While some students founded their own studios, others would rise to important behind-the-scene roles at houses such as Louis Vuitton, Celine, Lanvin and Balenciaga. Few other educators can have claimed to shape their industry to the degree to which Wilson influenced fashion.

Bar from a brief period as creative director of Donna Karan in New York in the late 1990s, Wilson spent the bulk of her career at CSM. She was direct, witty, confrontational, formidable and insightful, always dressed in a uniform in black. Wilson had famously high standards and pushed her students to meet these. Speaking to The Independent in 2011, she summed her position up thusly: "As much as I might decry the students, as much as they're a nightmare, it is a privilege to be among youth." Wilson died in her sleep on 16 May.

To commemorate Wilson's career, Disegno is republishing a feature from our second issue, to which she was a contributor. The article focused on the story of CSM's move to its Granary Square campus in 2011, told through the first class of MA students to graduate from the new space. The new building changed the way in which the students worked. It represented a fresh start for CSM, but also perhaps a period of uncertainty. Through Wilson however, CSM retained a strong sense of continuity. Under her stewardship, the school was in safe hands.

Generously paint-dabbled smocks featured in the collection of Luke Brooks, one of the first MA fashion students to graduate from Stanton Williams'new Central Saint Martins campus. Photographed on the roof terrace

Central Saint Martins’ new campus on Granary Square stands on a 27,000 sq/m site just north of King’s Cross station. It’s a former wasteland made up of train barracks and a Grade II listed building – a grain warehouse from 1851. The development is so large that it has its own postcode: N1C. “But my post doesn’t arrive any more,” says Professor Louise Wilson, the charismatic course leader of MA fashion from her office on the top floor of the new complex.

Wilson’s students are the first to graduate from the new campus. Its a place they have called home for less than six months and this year’s graduates are laying the crucial foundations for a new history of the college. It’s a position they cherish and fear simultaneously. “The old building had a spirit, somehow,” says Icelandic MA fashion graduate Erna Einarsdottir. “It felt like an extra student, like an extra tutor, even. So many past students have gone through it, and you feel like you have to live up to their reputation. But this is a clean start. We are the students that are putting down the legacy here.”

The old building that Einarsdottir refers to is from 1939 and located on a rather run-down, but soon to be regenerated, stretch of Charing Cross Road on the outskirts of Soho. Despite its obvious shortcomings, draughty and cold and with insufficient space for the 4,000-plus student population of Central Saint Martins, it holds a special place in many of the students’ hearts. It’s creaky and dark corridors have seen fashion history in the making. It was here that John Galliano learnt his trade, where Alexander McQueen was discovered for his tailoring skill and Hussein Chalayan started making his first successful experimentations in the hinterland between art and fashion. But it’s not only the fashion students who are nostalgic about their old premises. Central Saint Martins is in fact only 23 years old, the result of combining Saint Martins School of Art (on Charing Cross Road), founded in 1854, and the Central School of Arts and Crafts, (in the Lethaby building in Holborn) from 1896. It is one of the most famous art and design schools in the world and the illustrious alumni include graphic designer Alan Fletcher, designer Terence Conran and artist duo Gilbert & George. It’s as if the spirits of both former students and tutors offer comfort and guidance just by the fact that they’ve been there and at some point have battled with the same difficulties and shared the same successes. But up until October of last year the different strands of education – architecture, product design, graphics, sculpture, fine art and fashion design – were spread over various different sites in Soho, Holborn and Clerkenwell. So Central Saint Martins on Granary Square is a new start in more ways than one – it is the first time in the history of the college that all disciplines share the same roof.

Weaving architectonic blocks into her Chanel-inspired tweeds, Helen van Rees added a new dimension to the classic tweed suit. Photographed on a balcony over "the street"

The architects Stanton Williams won a competition in 2002 to redevelop the existing 1896 Lethaby building in Holborn. However, soon thereafter the real-estate developer Argent offered the site at King’s Cross to Central Saint Martins and Stanton Williams were asked to do a feasibility study for the newly proposed location, instead. “The strength of developing the King’s Cross site, was that it had a wonderful footprint,” says Stanton Williams founder Paul Williams. “We had to build vertically in Holborn, but at King’s Cross we could build horizontally and that is often a better orientation for an institution of education.” He first visited the site in 2004 when it was still an industrial railway wasteland. “But a very rich wasteland,” says Williams. “There was a physicality and a history there that we wanted to keep, and we were worried that it would get lost in the new development.”

Horizontality is certainly a word that springs to mind upon entering the new campus, as well as transparency, but not at first approach. In fact, the piazza in front of the campus – Granary Square, that upon completion this summer will become one of London’s largest public spaces, is currently laid out as a labyrinth of metal fences and diggers completing the surfacing of the vast land. The building that greets you is part heritage and part modern office block, as two new additions flank either side of the 19th-century Granary building. And here is the surprise. You enter through the bowels of the Victorian warehouse and end up in a vast and voluminous space of concrete, glass, steel and lots of light. The entrance works like a tardis, because as you enter it, nothing prepares you for the mass of real estate that sprawls out behind it – 40,000 sq/m to be exact.

Icelandic textiles graduate Erna Einarsdottir built her collection around the reinterpretation of wool. Shapes were kept simple – jumpers and pencil skirts – lowing for the full expression of the intricacies of layers wool and polyurethane. Photographed in the knitting workshop

At the back of the Granary Building lies “the street” a long and high space that has been created between the two new four-storey buildings housing workshops and classrooms. It is 110m long, 12m wide and 20m high with a roof of translucent ETFE plastic. Above ground level, walkways criss-cross the space. The first impression is that it’s like a cruder version of a modernist factory, such as the Van Nelle outside Rotterdam where the transportation of workers was achieved via transparent walkways between the building’s different hubs. It’s not without reason that the new Central Saint Martins campus has been dubbed “an art school for the Tate Modern generation”. The street is like a mini Turbine Hall and its usage is meant to be similarly multipurpose. “The building is designed to morph,” says Williams. “That’s what Professor Jane Rapley, head of Central Saint Martins, always asked us for, which was a new scenario for us. The projects that we are best known for are the ones where we create a total architecture, down to the graphics, but it was very different with this. It was more about creating the spaces that will then be handed over to the students and staff to make their own.” This central street is meant to function for pop-up classrooms, catwalk shows, exhibitions and installations and Stanton Williams has left it sufficiently wide and high to accommodate pop-up structures as and when it’s needed.

It is at the farthest corner of the street and all the way up on the top floor that the MA fashion department has its studios. They are flooded with light and although the fit-outs are all new, it has an “undone” aesthetic. “A lot of the spaces are intentionally left raw, and it’s up to the departments to make it their own,” explains Williams. Maybe most incredibly – it has a view. The contrast couldn’t be bigger from their old studios where the first-floor windows were often so black from the pollution outside, that it was difficult to see out. So how has the move to these bigger, better and more streamlined premises affected the students?

Drawing inspiration from early 20th-century Russian constructivism and contemporary fashion, Timur Kim's graduation collection sought to upgrade denim from coarse workwear material to fine eveningwear fabric. Photographed in the MA fashion studio

“I think everyone is a product of their environment,” says British Craig Green who has been studying at the college for seven years. “We have more space here, a lot of empty space – maybe I was trying to fill it with all my giant things. Maybe, they wouldn’t be so big if I was in the old building.” Green is referring to his graduation collection of menswear, which featured large nomadic structures, some house-like, others like multiple rucksacks sewn together into an attractive turtle-like shell. Originally, they were meant to become fully functioning pieces of luggage, but he settled on keeping them just as portable sculptures. They are put together in a make-shift way, with cotton fabric stretched over wooden frames which fits like harnesses over the wearer’s shoulders. “After my first crit I actually did go home and created these perfect prototypes, but when I came back with them, the tutors said, ‘What have you done? You’ve ruined the whole point of the piece’.” So Green kept it rugged and it works well with the simple tunics and straight trousers in cotton that he as created as part of the collection. There is something of pilgrimage over his graduation show, a purity and simplicity with religious undertones. “Not intentionally,” says Green. “Although I was very inspired by the aesthetic of the 1960 British science fiction film Village Of The Damned.”

“The work is really refreshing this year,” says another MA fashion student Helen Lawrence. “I think that it might have been something to do with the move. Everything is really new in the building so maybe that’s why all our work seems really energetic.” Both her own work and that of fellow graduate in knitwear Luke Brooks could be described in this way. A peculiar energy goes through Brooks’ pieces which use an amalgamation of different knitting and crocheting techniques. He marries contrasting materials and comes up with structures that partly look like they were crafted from leftovers on a rubbish heap, partly look like the most exclusive and wondrous knitwear you could ever see. His Olympic rings headpiece speaks particularly of the time and place of his graduation and has already been touted in fashion blogs and magazines internationally.

Focusing on seams, joins, and panelling, Helen Lawrence's collection was partly influenced by 1970s nail art; specifically Maurizio Anzeri's threaded vintage photographs. Photographed in an ad-hoc work space

There are two key points to the campus’s architecture: its fluidity and transparency, aiming to create an interchange and openness between departments, but this year’s MA fashion graduates haven’t really had the time to pursue the building in this way and as a result many see the move as disruptive. “It has been painful,” says Russian Timur Kim, another MA fashion student who has been studying at the college for six years. “When you’ve been somewhere for a very long time the building becomes a protective shell and you have your own system of working in there. I feel like I’ve been dragged out of that and into this new space at a very crucial point of my education.” Kim has been working on his final MA project for the duration of his time at the college. The initial idea was to translate the concept of denim from the area of workwear into something more elegant and sophisticated. He has created long robes, tunics and dresses, using panels of denim interchanged with velvet, but treating the denim as a fine fabric, while using the velvet in a cruder way.