My Late Fashion Mentor Taught Me as Much About Life as She Did About Designing

Nothing pissed off Louise Wilson more than people letting themselves down.
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Publish date:
July 10, 2016
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fashion, careers, college, mentors, fashion designers

Professor Louise Wilson, head of the MA fashion course at Saint Martins, was the heart and soul of the place. Everyone looked at her with awe and terror, including most of the tutors.

She wore all black, had fire-engine-red hair, and was a self-proclaimed "miserable, fat fuck." It was like she embraced her students' troubles and stored them in her body where they developed into fat cells and cancer. She was impossible to fully embrace should you ever have the guts to give her a hug, which she very well deserved.

The first time I saw her I instantly knew who she reminded me of: Marjory, the Trash Heap from Fraggle Rock — a source of infinite wisdom and guiding light. Marjory's song "I've Seen Troubles" suited Louise perfectly; it was almost like she could have written the lyrics herself.

"What the fuck is this?!" I heard Louise's voice before I had reached her office for my interview. "Don't try to impress me with your bullshit. I like Lion bars, Mars and Snickers. No one of sound mind eats Green and Black's Organic unless it's to relieve themselves of middle-class guilt. I want proper chocolate!"

A frightened-looking student hurried out of her office as I approached. I wasn't ready to meet Louise. You never feel like you are ready for her raging fires of wisdom; you feel like an asshole in front of her clarity, but you will always benefit from it.

There was a chair in front of her desk. Should I sit?

"Oh sit down, for fuck's sake. You're so tall I'll do my bloody neck in."

I sat down and looked at the wall to avoid eye contact, trying to keep a straight face. What facial expression would be appropriate? I was scared. The walls were filled with notes, letters, images, and quotes. I wanted to study them. To carefully look at every single hand-picked piece that meant so much to her that she decided to pin it to her wall.

"What are you doing?" she said.

Did she mean what was I looking at? No, she must mean work wise.

"I've been looking for a job," I said.

"Well, it shouldn't be too hard for you. I remember your collection. It had great energy."

Interviewing for jobs post-BA graduation had left me feeling low-spirited and depressed. I had gone from being a scruffy student to someone who wants to pass off as a professional. Having spent too long in education, I had no idea what a real job in my chosen career would look like. I went for everything and came back with nothing.

In Louise's office, I managed to hold back my tears while explaining my disastrous year. I had learned that marks don't matter in the real world of creative arts, and if you haven't done any work, it's hard to get work. I was stuck in an unfashionable loop of Catch 22.

Louise listened to my rant while sucking on the longest cigarette butt she could locate in the ashtray in front of her. She scrunched up a Mars Bar wrapper with a perfectly manicured hand and said, "The truly talented usually have humility or a lack of confidence. That makes them realize that they are not the dog's bollocks even though they have the potential to be."

I immediately identified with that.

She continued, "Figure out where your work fits in and if that is where you see it. Do you want to produce work that sells on Net-A-Porter and gets blogged about, or do you want to create one-offs featured in Italian Vogue?"

Either/or? I just wanted a job. Not the correct answer, so I kept my silence.

"If it's the latter, have you got the package? Can you speak? What PR company would you hire if you had any money? Who are your favorite stylists and photographers? Do you study current magazines, and do you have knowledge of past events? Do you have a context?"

I provided more silence.

"Do you know what the fuck you are doing? Do you want this enough even if it means you won't eat for five years?"

Louise paused and took a moment to stare at my terrified face. She looked at me like I had a special gift but was especially stupid.

"If you don't know what you are doing then you have some work to do. In 18 months, it's all over and you are truly on your own."

I wanted to cry because I suspected that 18 months with her would be the scariest thing I had ever taken on and it would forever change me. Was I ready for it?

Yes.

I mean, no!

Definitely maybe.

"Don't be too down on yourself for not having found a job. Move on, get better."

I noticed a slogan behind her on the wall: "Fail. Fail again. Fail better." She saw me notice it and whipped out a book out from under a pile of other books, It's Not How Good You Are, It's How Good You Want To Be by Paul Arden.

She chucked the book towards me.

"You need to project the version of yourself that you want to be, not the version of yourself that other people have told you that you are or what some negative voices in your head might be telling you that you are. You become the best you can be by bettering yourself every day, and when the opportunity comes up, you take it and run with it. Be prepared. Persevere. Don't fucking procrastinate. Learn how to spell. No one cares what grades you got in school, but you need to be able to write an email. Be a functioning human being."

She looked angry.

How the fuck was I supposed to become a functioning human being in 18 months? Had she given me a place on the course? What was happening?

"The best people always get pissed on. Mark my words. I have no problem with taking you on the course."

Oh my God.

I cried tears for fear of not being able to live up to my own expectations of myself, and by extension, a fear of letting her down.

"Thanks for your time!" I said and smiled like a deer relieved not to have been crushed by a truck. I got up and looked at her hand, wondering if I should shake it or if that was too middle class. I decided against it and rushed out the door like I had somewhere to be.

To get access to Louise's rambling wisdom, you had to prepare work that you weren't too ashamed to show her. Her personality was such that you didn't go seek her advice unless you had something to give her in return for her thoughts. An offering. Great work, or something she hadn't seen before.

Just like the Fraggles worshiped the Trash Heap, so did Louise's students. They had a look in their eye that seemed to be saying, She's our oracle, knower of all our wisdom. She was similar to a dictator, but who actually cared for her people behind an aggressive façade of unrelenting rage. Nothing pissed her off more than people letting themselves down. She wanted for her scrappy Fraggles what she herself had not achieved.

Happiness.

In the words of Edith Sitwell she was "...one of those unhappy persons who inspire bores to the greatest flights of art."

Louise used all of her force to make us understand how to think about what we were doing. I called these sessions The Marjory Monologues.

"In a job, you need to have something to offer, and I don't mean computer skills — any robot can do that. People are looking for new ideas, someone who can add something fresh to their stagnant way of working. It's an industry renowned for inventing the latest trends, but it's more than that. You need to function in an office. It's a business. If you want to work for someone else, you need to wake up every morning, be employable, deal with office politics, and don't take it personally. But that's not what we teach you here. Here, we hopefully teach you to have your own unique selling point. You have to figure it out. Is your work relevant? Is it needed? Is it new? There are a lot of slots out there. Some are sexier than others, and therefore more exposed. Are you sexy? If not, then what are you? Find that out and work on that. Do you have something people would pay you for, or should you have become a dentist? These are questions you have to ask yourself. This certainly isn't X-Factor or a star academy. Generic designers are the last thing the world needs. Fashion has become too fashionable, everyone wants to do it, and think that they can. Pretend I'm Miuccia Prada or whoever you are dying for. Always conduct yourself in the way you'd conduct yourself in front of Mrs. Prada. Don't call me Miu Miu — I'm not your friend, I'm your potential boss. Be coherent, to-the-point, and be professional. What can you add to her brand? Why would she want to pay you money?'

I couldn't think of a single reason that Miuccia Prada would pay me money.

"You have to really want this. Don't do what I did. I made the wrong life choices. Every annual health check, they tell me I have six months to live, and still I'm sitting here on my fat ass digging for cigarette butts to suck on. I'm miserable. I'm fat as fuck. I have no life. Don't let yourself down is what I'm saying."

When I came to her with my male models for a final check before the graduate show at London Fashion Week, she burst into a fit of rage.

"Pull the fucking turtleneck down like a condom. Don't fucking fold it like a fucking librarian."

Her dedication to her job consumed her; she was tormented by her brilliant vision. To submit yourself to your calling and let it take over your whole life was something that couldn't be shared. It was all-encompassing. It was her whole life and a very lonely existence. Louise worked from her heart, her gut, and her brain all at once. Her whole being was part of her work, and her work affected her whole being. She was blessed with clarity of vision that was often overwhelming, forceful, and devastating. I knew she wouldn't have changed it for the world or cut down her hours. She was everyone's mom, and she wouldn't give up her children even if there were hundreds of them. I hoped there would be thousands. I hoped she would never die. It was her life.

I wondered if fashion really was my life.

Years later, I dreaded to tell Louise that I had left my prestigious job without a back-up plan. I wasn't sure what she would say or if she would even remember me. I reminded her that I was the tallest girl who cried a lot and attached a picture.

I received an email a few hours later.

You are delusional. It's a bloody insult that you would think I don't remember you and need a memory jog !!!!!!!You look fab.You look happy.You took the right life choice - you only have one so live it - do not even think about the future.I'm so happy for you.I'm fat fatter super fat.I'm unhappy.I took wrong life choices and always thought about the future not the present. Xxx

We made plans to meet up and cry on each other's shoulders about the state of fashion and student funding before she suddenly passed away.

What she taught me will stay with me forever. Like Marjory the Trash Heap said: You cannot leave the magic.