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Remembering St. Martin’s with the Founder of MA Fashion Bobby Hillson

Bobby Hillson (Founder of MA Fashion) and Jane Rapley (Dean of School of Fashion and and Textiles) at the BA Fashion Show reception, 1995. Image courtesy of Central Saint Martins’ Museum and Study Collection
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Published date
22 March 2018

Earlier this month we were joined by founder and former head of MA Fashion, Bobby Hillson, for an evening of conversation celebrating the foundations of the College’s acclaimed course. Here, current BA Fashion Communication: Fashion Journalism student Kate McCusker recounts the discussion highlights and looks at Hillson’s incredible fashion legacy. 

“Alright, don’t overdo the welcome”, said Bobby Hillson, founder and former head of the illustrious MA Fashion course at Central Saint Martins, as she sat down in conversation with Ike Rust – one of her early MA students – last week to roaring applause. The audience was made up of students past and present – among them Irish couturier Peter O’Brien, who fondly remembers Hillson giving him a stern warning about his love life during a second-year slump and Rifat Ozbek who credits Hillson with “Some of the best years of my life”. Dean of Academic Programmes, and student of Hillson’s in 1976, Anne Smith gave an introduction, followed by BA Fashion Communication: Fashion Journalism pathway leader and talk organiser Judith Watt.

Other designers who studied under Hillson’s tutelage include John Galliano, John Flett, Simon Foxton, Fiona Dealey, John McKitterick, Nick Coleman, Sonja Nuttall and the late Louise Wilson, who succeeded Hillson as the head of MA fashion in 1992. Hillson was also responsible for founding the equally renowned MA in Fashion Journalism, counting among her pupils journalists Sally Brampton, Hamish Bowles, Iain R. Webb and Mark Connolly.

Hillson’s own lifelong affair with St. Martin’s (which merged with the Central School to form Central Saint Martins in 1989) began in 1949, where she studied for her diploma in fashion under Muriel Pemberton. “Even then St. Martins  had a reputation for fashion”, she recalled to an engrossed audience. “Our final year fashion show, for some reason, was held on the fire escape behind Foyles.” It was three years after the end of the war, and London was a very different place. “It was a tremendous time” said Hillson. “It was the beginning of the art school and a very creative period. I remember finding some fabulous mock leopard when I was a student and making this sort of blouson thing to wear over a velvet dress. And I remember going to find lavatory chain to tie around my hips. You had to be creative and you had to be inventive because that was the only way.”

Following graduation, Hillson worked as an illustrator for British VogueThe Observer and The Sunday Times – for which she covered Coco Chanel’s 1954 momentous comeback collection presentation in Paris. Andy Warhol was her American Vogue equivalent, and the two would often exchange illustrations back and forth.

Hillson came back to teach withVogue Talent Contest winner Lydia Kemeny in 1956, appointed by Pemberton, who had taught them both. They were a terrific team, working  in the Fashion diploma; Hillson abetting students with their final collections. Later, when Fashion had become a degree course, ‘I remember one student,’ said Hillson, ‘who is sitting in the audience, doing a fantastic collection and then saying to me, “I don’t like it anymore, could I do another?” and I said, “Perfectly alright,” so he did a second collection that was absolutely stupendous. And that was Rifat Ozbek.’ The audience exploded with applause.

In the late 70s St. Martin’s was asked to submit an MA course in fashion – following the very successful BA – and Hillson was selected to create and direct it. The first St. Martin’s MA postgraduate show was held at the Blitz Club in 1980, round the corner from the school in Soho. The British Fashion Council (BFC) would later approach Hillson as the course established itself and invite St. Martin’s to show as part of the annual London Fashion Week schedule.

“I had very strong views on how an MA should work”, she recounted. “I thought it was important to teach them how to sell themselves. You can’t teach talent, but you can teach them to be professional.” Importantly, Hillson instituted a system of critiques which meant the students learned to evaluate their own work and the work of others – and to do this articulately. It was key to their preparation for the fashion industry.

Nearing the end of her tenure as MA course director in the early 90s, an “unprepossessing lad with masses of clothes” turned up outside Hillson’s office asking for a job teaching cutting. It was Lee Alexander McQueen. Instead, Hillson persuaded him to take up a place on the course. He would become, arguably, MA Fashion’s most venerated graduate. “It’s about the passion” Hillson told the room. “I’ve known all sorts of people who come in with perfect portfolios, but they don’t have passion. And others who come in with this messy whatever and they just have it.” Though far from getting overly sentimental she quickly redacted, “That sounds awfully wet. I did put them through it. I was pretty tough.”

But, argued interviewer Rust, who Hillson admitted to putting through the wringer once or twice, “You always had humour. And you need that to teach.” Hillson’s insistence on students being professional, being able to articulate and defend their work, and to take criticism has carried through. Speaking about the late Louise Wilson, who took on the MA baton in 1992, she recalled, “What Louise did with the course was just amazing, and Fabio [Piras, current MA Fashion Course Leader and a former student of Hillson’s] now continuing it is terrific.”

The time set aside for questions at the end descended into a deluge of thank yous and fondly-remembered anecdotes from Hillson’s alumni: “the most glamorous person I’d ever met – a vision in greige and taupe” according to Peter O’Brien. With typical humour, Hillson recalled once answering a question about her occupation: “I said, ‘I’m running an MA in fashion.’ To which this person responded, ‘Good god, an MA in knickers and frocks?’ and I simply replied that it’s a subject like any other, and one which I happen to know a lot about.” Such knowledge and passion was, and continues to be, the foundation of Central Saint Martins. A legacy indeed.