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Teaching Style - The Louise Wilson Way

By Jackie Mallon


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On the tail end of Louise Wilson’s Memorial I find myself reflecting on those years in the late 90s when I attended St Martin’s to gain my Master’s in Fashion. To this day I can hear Louise’s voice in the classroom. But now it’s my classroom and they’re my students.

I can hear her saying things I might be thinking, but don’t say. She planted those thoughts there over fifteen years ago and they lie dormant until she tugs at them like a master puppeteer. Even dead, she can still command them to pop up. The sound of her dull foghorn drawl never really leaves the brain, much like an indentation in the malleable skull of a baby who was dropped on his head at birth might remain through to adulthood.

The difference in how she taught me and how I teach is vast. That was then, in cold and rainy Britain, where the national character leans towards pessimistic on a good day. This is now, in the land of hope and glory, these United States, where the greeting “Have a good day” regularly punctuates the onslaught of goal-oriented positivity. Here I wouldn’t get away with a fraction of the things she used to say to students in that drafty building on Charing Cross Road. Nor could I deliver those blistering pronouncements with her nonchalance.

"The difference in how she taught me and how I teach is vast"

In a New York City school, if I asked a student what color underwear they were wearing, before surmising it was probably grey, I would be hauled before a board of aghast governors and stripped of my credentials. If I asked a student when was the last time they’d “had a shag,” I’d be sued to kingdom come. These were questions Louise put to me at various points of my admittedly not always glittering St Martin’s career in order to illustrate why my day’s designs were unsexy, uninspired, didn’t make the earth move for her. If only it had occurred to me to ask in response what colour her knickers were, she’d have chuckled, lit a cigarette and it would have lightened the mood.

Her interrogation tactics might be considered bullying in today’s sensitive, PC world. But her aim was to make you plumb the depths of your research and then dig several strata deeper to get to the bedrock of original ideas. Nothing would satisfy her until you’d reached pure heat, the scorching epicentre of things. "Students may feel the criticism is harsh,” said Louise “but I think it's possible they haven't had criticism before. It's my job to point out when something is badly done, or when there's no point of view.”

Ah, yes, the point of view. The importance of deep research to fuel a unique point of view is something I impress upon my students today above all else––but without cursing at them. I encourage anarchy in their approach to design and I react adversely to formulas of any kind. However I draw the line at throwing mannequins.

Louise’s methods formed your mettle psychologically as well as academically. The fashion industry is the most unregulated industry there is; it is a mean girls’ schoolyard on an international scale. I consider myself privileged to have been treated roughly by Louise. Nothing the fashion industry has thrown at me since ––and there has been some doozies –– has made me flinch.

Some months ago a student was displeased with a critique I’d given. After some probing she explained I would get the best out of her if I could open with a positive, close with a positive and bury the critique somewhere in the middle. “And by doing so, do you think I would be preparing you for the fashion industry?” I asked. Louise would have enquired, “Are you taking the piss?”

Much has been made of the Millennial personality: they’re not used to hearing no, they feel deserving of a pat on the back just for showing up, they expect praise for mediocrity. All this may be so, but they already wield considerable power. We are living in an era in which students review the performance of their instructors and these reviews are a deciding factor in whether the instructor is invited back to teach the following semester. Describing a student’s work as “shite” might not therefore lead to a long-term career in today’s educational establishments.

However it drew results from Louise’s students, me included. I wanted to please this foul-mouthed, ill-tempered harridan. And when I did it meant more to me that if I had pleased every other instructor I’d ever had, whose names escape me now, mild-mannered and respectful though they were. When I didn’t please her, I was devastated.

Louise cut students off if their explanations bored her. Her restlessness for innovation made her haughty as a queen at court, dismissing us like the grovelling commoners we were. Do you feel respected by your instructor? is one of the questions on today’s student surveys that must stay at the forefront of my mind if I am to keep my job. I listen to what my students have to say, no matter how poorly considered and hackneyed it may be. My eyes may glaze but I hold my tongue. Later I will invariably use their own words against them, not only to demonstrate I have been listening but, more importantly, to put a mirror up to their work and make them really see it. I try to go to where Louise went using entirely unconfrontational methods. Under no circumstances do I say what Louise’s voice is telling me to say.

In an age of diminishing grants and soaring tuition fees students demand a tailor made version of value for money. In Parsons The New School, a thesis student working on their final collection can request to be transferred to another section if they don’t agree with the critiques given by their instructor, the idea being that another instructor might be a better fit.

In other schools retention is a driving force behind a school’s perceived success. At St Martin’s my classmates were dropping like flies as we staggered towards the final weeks, unable to hack the pressure. The wheat naturally separated from the chafe before the fashion industry shredded the field entirely. But if we are to try to keep every student in school through a mixture of compromise, mild threats and allowances, despite their lacklustre attitude and poor work, how do we give enough attention to those deserving of it and prepare them adequately for what’s beyond?

Occasionally it saddens me to think that no student will ever again stand in the line of fire of one of Louise’s gale force tirades. Nor will they face that withering stare that could haunt, just as the image of the horsewoman outside St Paul’s Cathedral haunted during the days following the Memorial service. Who will confront students with the bracing reality of the fashion industry so that they have time to prepare? For they will suffer when they leave the cushioned confines of the classroom.

Louise knew this. That’s why she continues to invade mine.

By contributing guest editor Jackie Mallon, who is on the teaching faculty of several NYC fashion programmes and is the author of Silk for the Feed Dogs, a novel set in the international fashion industry.

Central Saint Martins
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louis wilson
New York City
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