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Suzy Menkes

Vogue International Editor Suzy Menkes is the best-known fashion journalist in the world. After 25 years commenting on fashion for the International Herald Tribune (rebranded recently as The International New York Times), Suzy Menkes now writes exclusively for Vogue online, covering fashion worldwide.

Remembering Louise Wilson

21 Февраля 2015

Picture credit: Gary Wallis
Picture credit: Gary Wallis

Under the soaring cupolas of London’s St Paul’s Cathedral, Professor Louise Wilson’s life was celebrated by those who loved her and a British fashion world that recognised her teaching skills. 

The noble interior, with its marble statues and black and white mosaics, was filled with those whose lives she had touched, especially an entire generation of students at Central Saint Martin’s College of Art and Design, where her combative teaching produced so many stars, from Christopher Kane to Simone Rocha to Roksanda Ilincic. 

Picture credit: Getty
Picture credit: Getty

“I was super-shy — I didn’t talk to anyone. She made me,” said Mary Katrantzou of her early days at the famous school. 

The event was both sad and uplifting. To mark Louise’s passion for riding, Louise’s close friend, the fashion critic Sarah Mower, arranged for a model to ride sidesaddle in front of the Cathedral, dressed in Alexander McQueen by Sarah Burton. 

Picture credit: Getty
Picture credit: Getty

Mower remembered “So many things,” including “Louise calling me into her office, where there was a young Scottish boy wearing a Versace neon-bright Medusa belt,” who was the young and unknown Christopher Kane. (He was unable to attend as his mother suddenly passed away.) 

Alber Elbaz insisted that his tempestuous relationship with the Professor, who provided him and his company, Lanvin, with so many graduates, was “like a tango”, as the two danced to the same beat. 

“When you tango, it is about trust  that is my definition of love,” the Paris-based designer said, adding that Louise’s single functioning eye was sharper than of those who had two. 

Having been at the whipcrack of Louise’s rage when she disapproved of a review, or merely what I said about one of her students, I knew it was because this was a teacher who cared deeply about her work. 

I also had an opportunity to see the warmer side that her son Timothy, known as TG, spoke about, partly in his father Timmi’s words. 

Less than a month before she died, I invited Louise to a lunch to celebrate the birthday of photographer Christopher Moore, who teaches students at Saint Martin’s. She, of course, was too busy — “Don’t save a space for me,” she insisted — but then turned up and with her big belly-laugh told us unprintable stories about the students. 

Professor Jane Rapley, technically Louise’s boss, spoke about the “essence of Wilson”: “Always in black, with her beautiful hair, radiant skin, resonant voice and foul language.” 

“I was going to say that she worked for me for over 20 years, but realised that this was completely delusional,” Rapley said. “She worked on her terms, with her passion and her standards.” 

Picture credit: Getty
Picture credit: Getty

This “consummate educator” had become so globally legendary for sending her graduated students around the world, that today’s stars  from Victoria Beckham to Kanye West — showed up at St Paul’s, while Donna Karan, with whom Louise worked in New York in the 1990s, flew in to honour her. 

Picture credit: Getty
Picture credit: Getty

“She embodied this building today – I could see her up there,” Donna said, gesturing towards The Bespoke Choir playing gospel music against the so-English choral team from St Paul’s who started the ceremony with ‘Amazing Grace’. 

Behind this exceptional event of former students and the fashion industry coming out of respect and love, there is another, darker story. 

Picture credit: Gary Wallis
Picture credit: Gary Wallis

While Natalie Massenet, in her leading role in the British Fashion Council, credited Wilson with creating the stars of London Fashion Week, Louise herself was possessed with anxiety, anger, and rage against the British government’s change of tuition fees. 

A new policy demanded that students get deeply into debt, which theoretically they would later pay back. The result, Louise told me in one of her massive flare-ups, was that her beloved Saint Martin’s was filling up with “rich kids”, especially Asian families seeing British art and design education as a “finishing school”.

Picture credit: Getty
Picture credit: Getty

Louise knew that she could not take on her country’s entire government single-handed, although she would only have relished the fight.

Let’s hope that among the powerful and the respectful in the cathedral, there is someone left to fight that good fight — for the future of fashion in the UK and across the world. 

For now, a fitting tribute and final flourish to Louise Wilson’s career will be on stage this evening, as the Central St Martins College of Art and Design presents the work of the last class of students who had the privilege to be chosen and mentored by her.

Picture credit: Gary Wallis
Picture credit: Gary Wallis

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