Shortly before she died, I was lucky enough to meet the esteemed British professor of fashion design, Louise Wilson. I say lucky because everyone I meet in the industry, when asked about a monumental piece of advice that has shaped their life, seems to reference something said to them by Wilson. As course director of the MA in Fashion at Central Saint Martins College of Arts and Design, Wilson uttered many few choice words at a catalogue of students in her time.
“I’m not rude, I’m just honest,” she was quoted as saying to The Telegraph in 2014, and undoubtedly this was true. Obscenities aside, while we don’t necessarily want to always hear the truth, Wilson was there to give it. With her untimely death in 2014, that came to an abrupt halt – and it was for that reason that, although not under her scholarship, I realised the piece of wisdom she had imparted on me had made me lucky. No future students or employees or even lovers of fashion would ever get that opportunity again moving forwards.
“See, the problem is, nowadays students just don’t fucking listen. They sit there thinking they know it all, and they don’t listen,” Wilson barked at me. “They hear things so they can respond, but they don’t actually listen.” She was telling me one of her biggest pieces of advice for those she teaches and, aside from all the technical and business acumen one might have expected her to list off, it didn’t get much simpler than that. Listen.
Indeed, Wilson was in good company with her advice. As Ernest Hemingway once said, “I like to listen. I have learned a great deal from listening carefully. Most people never listen.” When talking to Wilson, I sort of understood. After all, there I was, ears and eyes both wide open, ‘listening’ to one of the world’s greatest fashion minds talk. What she said made sense, even if it sounded simple.
Then one day, at the end of last year, I was at a presentation surrounded by young, engaged, budding fashion students - the future of this industry. It was a talk about Asia – about penetrating the market, growing a successful business within the continent and understanding the key difference between the European and Asian approach to fashion that would hold such gravitas to the longevity of a business, young or old. An expert had flown over to speak and share her years of experience, and there I was, ready with pen in hand – listening.
Except it was quite hard to listen. Throughout her talk, the expert sharing her knowledge with us was continually interrupted by the audience members. While she had invited people to ask questions along the way, this was different. When I say interrupted, I mean repeatedly and routinely stopped mid-sentence by someone in the audience looking to share their story. Nine-and-a-half times out of 10, it was irrelevant to the topic of conversation.
They were hearing what was being said in order to find a way to input their own knowledge or tales. They weren’t learning or absorbing anything – you don’t learn by talking, you learn through listening – and they sure as hell weren’t listening. They were just looking for ways to discuss themselves.
As I sat there, listening to a young twenty-something list off her experiences from an exchange trip to Asia, while the ‘expert’ in the room stood silent, I heard the echo of Wilson’s words bounce around the walls. “They just don’t fucking listen”. In that moment, I understood what she meant. I realised that the youth of today are so busy sharing their own stories and thoughts, perhaps indicative of the social media culture we have grown up in, that no one is prepared to stop and be quiet in order to fully absorb and digest what is being said to them.
Listening really is the key to the development of our human consciousness. It is the silent underpinning of our learning, our growth and our future. Regardless of whether you want to or not, “wisdom is the reward you get for a lifetime of listening when you’d have preferred to talk,” as Doug Larson once said. And essentially, that’s the point. We will never learn, never grow, never flourish, never establish ourselves as key communicators, if we don’t switch on our ears.
“Many words will be written on the wind and the sand, or end up in some obscure digital vault. But the storytelling will go on until the last human being stops listening. Then we can send the great chronicle of humanity out into the endless universe,” said Henning Mankell. It is for this reason that next time you are sat down in a conversation or presentation, I implore you to listen - not just hear, but to listen with intent. There’s a lot riding on it - our universe, for one.
Words: Grace Carter