The longtime lecturer on leaving Central Saint Martins and 24 years of teaching fashion’s top future talents
After 24 years teaching at University of the Arts London’s Central Saint Martins and 18 years as course director of the BA Fashion, in June Willie Walters watched her final group of students graduate. She tells Drapers about the highs and lows of her career, discusses what it takes to be a good designer and shares her tips for designers to watch.
Willie walters crop
How does it feel to be leaving Central Saint Martins?
I feel very satisfied to have worked with such a great team of staff in Fashion at Central Saint Martins. They will carry on the work and nurture the next generation of students. I will miss the electric sense of excitement within the college.
What have been some of your stand-out memories?
Highlights in every year’s BA show. Especially the drama of collections such as Gareth Pugh in 2003, Yoshikazu Yamagata in 2005, and, this year, Sergiy Grechyshkin, Adnan Jalal, Aimee Stroud, Harry Xu, Edwin Mohney and Alex Po.
Class of 2016
What have been the biggest challenges?
Working with constant changes in the “framework” surrounding arts education in the UK.
You have a long list of illustrious BA Fashion alumni, including John Galliano, Sarah Burton, Phoebe Philo and Riccardo Tisci – how does it feel to know some of the industry’s best designers have passed through your classroom?
Very satisfying, obviously. It’s not just these special names in the world of fashion – it’s the vast spider’s web of talent within every corner of the industry, which has such an important influence.
How has fashion and arts education changed?
Arts education in the UK has been recognised as excellent for at least 100 years, and fashion education has gained in reputation in the last 25 years. In fashion education at Central Saint Martins, we now welcome students from all over the world in a way that was not possible 25 years ago. Their cross-fertilisation of culture and influence has greatly enhanced the student experience as a whole.
How can students and emerging designers stand out nowadays?
Not just to have talent, but to be prepared to work beyond the normal limits of endurance.
What makes a great designer?
Originality – the most difficult attribute to maintain.
There is often a debate on the balance between education on the business side of fashion and incubating creativity. What’s your opinion?
In the BA Fashion, we are aiming constantly to nurture creativity. Fashion business awareness comes through industry projects and the students’ year out in industry. No student leaves without an understanding of the business they are aiming for, but we are not running a “business course”.
How can the industry better support students, graduates and emerging designers?
The most immediate thing they need is financial support. College fees and the cost of living in London are crippling for students. We need bursaries for students in every year of their course.
You studied at CSM yourself. How was it?
I loved coming to London from Scotland and finding myself in the middle of Soho, surrounded by the intoxicating bohemianism of the area. I was enthralled by the mix of disciplines at Saint Martins and was inspired by engaging tutors and like-minded students. I even married one of them. A student, not a tutor!
How would you critique your graduate collection now as course director?
My final collection was inspired by my love of fairgrounds. It was quite heavy on craft – there was beadwork and quilting – but it also veered into the realms of weird. My critique would be to manage my time better. In fact, in those days we were allowed to hand in our collections on the day of the show. The thought of that chaos fills me with horror now.
After graduating you launched the brand Swanky Modes. Is it true you made clothes from shower curtains?
Originally, we discovered some beautiful printed 1950s shower curtain fabric, which we made into macs and jackets. We imagined that it would be quite a commercial line – after all, it rains a lot in Britain. However, they were seen more as extreme fashion and gained notoriety when [stylist] Caroline Baker featured them in [women’s magazine] Nova, photographed by the legendary Helmut Newton.
You have one of the most sought-after opinions in the industry, so which designers and labels do you follow?
Hussein Chalayan, Dries Van Noten, Alber Elbaz, Gareth Pugh, Roksanda Ilinčić, Peter Jensen and Alexander McQueen.
Dries van noten autumn 16
What emerging designers are ones to watch?
Richard Malone, Craig Green, Minki Cheng, Charles Jeffrey, Grace Wales Bonner.
Tell us something no one knows about you
I have a condition called synaesthesia. It’s very useful, as I see many abstract concepts such as numbers, some letters and months of the year as colours. This helps when remembering students’ names or project titles or annual college fashion shows, as I naturally associate names with colour groups, which in itself becomes a memory trigger.
Favourite clothing brand?
Various, from Dries Van Noten to Peter Jensen
Favourite places to shop?
Liberty – it’s a great retail experience
Last fashion purchase?
Céline white shirt
Biggest fashion splurge?
Lanvin coat dress
St Lucia, to visit my in-laws
Last book you read?
White Mughals by William Dalrymple
Last filmed you watched?
The Holy Mountain, directed by Alejandro Jodorowsky
An usherette at The Roundhouse
I am just now retiring from my dream job as course director of BA Fashion at Central Saint Martins