01 August 2009


Louise Wilson: Listen Up

Today in Paris, before Alber Elbaz presented an early spring collection to some editors gathered at the Crillon, he said, “It’s kind of an emotional season in haute couture, because a lot of us are questioning.”

Well, yes: questioning the future of the craft, the role of the Internet and big brands. Designers like Mr. Elbaz are sensitive to the small vibrations as another couture season begins. Christian Lacroix has financial problems, though he will show on Tuesday. Dior moved inside today—in the gray salons on the Avenue Montaigne. That was a treat for guests and John Galliano’s clothes were beautiful—inspired by photos of half-dressed models during the 50s and called “C’est la fievre de la cabine,” or cabine fever. But the smaller scale of the prosentation also reflects the economy.

During the gap between Paris men’s and couture, I was in London, where I spent an instructive hour with Louise Wilson, the course director of the M.A. program at Central Saint Martins. Without Saint Martins, I doubt fashion studios in Europe and New York would be able to function. The school is a prime source for assistants, and it is Professor Wilson whom designers like Mr. Elbaz call for recommendations. The MA program at Saint Martins has also produced top designers, among them Alexander McQueen, Christopher Kane and Marios Schwab. Very little seems to escape Professor Wilson’s eye and lashing opinion. She is tough and funny, with a flurry of unprintable words and self-deprecating jabs (“a bitter and twisted cow” she once called herself). Suffice it to say, the professor has high standards.

What she sees from her office in Charing Cross Road:

You know, the fashion industry hasn’t changed. Companies want ideas. And they want more than one idea when they interview students for jobs. They want multiple ideas. My mantra now is the only thing these students have to offer is youth, and if they can’t offer that, then we’re all in trouble. I can still draw and do flats. I know how to do research, as does anyone my age who might happen to be a design director. When you employ someone you want youth. You want their fresh take on things. So I’ve been thinking a lot about what is youth.

Did the industry plan that everyone would travel to the same countries, that everyone would have disposable means of income, that everybody would be quite bland? I recently interviewed someone coming to the MA program and they said the last film they had seen was “Valkyrie,” with Tom Cruise. I said, “You’re joking, aren’t you?” I said, “Did you go to the cinema?” And they said yes. And I said, “Well, I could understand watching it on an airline flight. But it’s not the thing you would say. You would lie.”
There are immensely talented people around but I feel huge vortexes of them are sucked into this mediocre world where nobody criticizes and it’s all terribly politically correct. Even journalists are the same. You now hardly get a bad a review. In their mind the journalists are supporting the industry, so they don’t want to dish it. For me it’s that banality of what is youth. Even the way they put themselves together. Again, today, I was interviewing people for the MA program, and I said, “Why are you dressed like Topman?” Maybe it is a Miu Miu shirt, but essentially it’s Topman. It’s got no individuality at all. You’ve not stretched the neck of the T-shirt. You’ve not denoted your uniform. You’re not even wearing non-fashion. You’re not even saying that. You’re saying nothing.

When did she first notice this change?

About four years ago. You used to see people all the time in the corridors and you’d think, That’s a great look. That’s clever the way you put that together.

So what’s the explanation?

Most of them have no opinion. They do the work so well, and so diligently, and who cares? There are loads of people already doing it. I have come to the viewpoint that nothing is happening. That’s why straight men now look gayer than gay men. I ask the students why that is, and they look at me like I’m mad. It’s that blurring of the lines, the stripping down. They take no risks about anything, not even the way they go up against the industry or show their clothes. It’s all about being professional.
I always say to students, “You’re never going to have all the skills but you have to have a skill.” I was talking to a girl today and she said, “Well, I’ve worked really hard.” And I said, “It’s not about working hard. It’s about feeling sick and waiting for the idea and not knowing what to do but making sure you have the skills so that when you do get the idea, you can do it without relying on other people.” That’s another thing I’ve noticed today—everything is farmed out. Someone else is going to cut it, and someone else is going to supply the fabrics. The hands-on gets more and more removed. If Lee McQueen or Christopher Kane had nothing, they could still make their garments. They have the skills.
I think the problem is that fashion has become too fashionable. For years, fashion wasn’t fashionable. Today fashion is so fashionable that it’s almost embarrassing to say you’re part of fashion. All the parodies of it. All the dreadful magazines. That has destroyed it as well, because everybody thinks fashion is attainable.

Today fashion is dominated by big luxury brands. Talented designers are stars but they also lose touch.

I think what happens is designers get older and they travel more comfortably. They go on holidays to places where they wouldn’t have gone before. It all gets removed. And then they think they’re dressing those people. It can’t be sniffed about. Once you have met all those clients, it’s hard to erase them. Once you know that your customer is 67 and about to pop it, it’s always at the back of your mind. But when you are starting out, and you’re Ann Demeulemeester or any of them, you’re dressing your friends, and your friends reflect something. And this goes back to nowadays. When you speak to designers, they’re not dressing their friends, because they’re friends don’t wear the clothes. That’s pretty scary to me.

What will be the impact on design innovation?

If I knew the answer to that I wouldn’t be sitting here and I’d be very rich. It might be very good for fashion if fashion goes out of fashion, and maybe nothing does happen for awhile and a few companies shut down. When the light turns away that’s when the new work will be done.

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