Disruptors in Fashion Education: Simon Ungless From Academy of Art University

NO MATTER THE LOCATION OR AVENUE TAKEN, A DIVERSIFIED EDUCATION IN DESIGN IS A VITAL ADDITION TO ANY DESIGNER'S CREATIVE QUIVER—AND A DESIGN SCHOOL CAN OFFER A CURATED AND EFFICIENT PATH TOWARD A CAREER IN THE INDUSTRY. Our Disruptors in Fashion Education series taps into that exact realm of education, opening up conversations with the individuals working directly with the future of fashion.

''Photo by: Isabella Bejarano

With decades of industry experience and a career that brought him alongside the likes of the late Alexander McQueen, Simon Ungless brings an exceptional level of artistry and insight to his role as the Executive Director of the School of Fashion at Academy of Art University. We had the opportunity to ask Simon more about his illustrious pedigree, unique approach to fashion education, and so much more.

Your career has taken you from one corner of the world to the next. How has working across cultures impacted your approach to fashion?

My experience of working with people from different cultures started as a student at Central Saint Martins. We came from every corner of the world. What was remarkable was the fact that the faculty and industry were, at that time not as culturally diverse, especially considering the growing Asian community going to study in Europe. The student body was a representation of the world, but the faculty, not so much. Working in Asia and the US and even in different countries in Europe, I started to understand the subtle differences in taste level, attraction to color, appeal to a style. It's regional, not only from country to country; such subtle differences in what people want to wear. It's important, as a designer, to pay attention. When I came to the Academy I knew if we wanted to participate in a global industry, we had to have a global faculty.

How has it enhanced your ethos around creativity? 

Up until around ten years ago, it was "appropriate" to pillage other people's culture. The trend would be "The Silk Road," "The Spice Trail," or "Travel to Mexico." It was never appropriate, but it's now no longer acceptable. Certain western brands have built empires from interpretations of global cultures and I believe are now having a hard time trying to build an ethos. We all know the grief that many design houses have recently gotten into by misappropriating culture for profit.  

It is, however incredibly valuable to have a broad understanding of what different cultures do or have in their historical and geographical attributes when designing product that potentially reaches around the world.

Through the 1980s and early '90s, everyone kept talking about a global market and how our world is becoming smaller. Therefore, what's right for the east coast is good for the west coast. What's good for Sweden is good for Italy. We ended up with homogenized product in stores  throughout the world as a result. Regional buying ended. People are now realizing that this was the wrong thing to do.

You worked alongside the late Alexander McQueen to create truly revolutionary collections. Tell us a bit about this time.

That situation was propagated by Bobby Hillson, who was the founder of the Master of Arts Fashion Design program at Saint Martins. Her vision for building that program was to bring the various significant functions of the fashion industry into a studio environment and build teams. That would be fashion designers, knitwear designers, textile designers, fashion journalists, fashion entrepreneurs, and fashion business people working together collaboratively. A graduate degree was designed to be a professional degree. It was meant to offer students industry-based situations. It also created the opportunity for conflict precisely the same as you find in the industry. Designers and merchants very rarely get on. 

The first spark between Lee McQueen and I was on our first day of school. When you are accepted to attend Saint Martins, you have to produce an entry project. We were given a brief over the summer before we started school, and we were to present the outcome on the first day of school. I presented mine, and Lee was engaged in my work and started asking questions. I equally was drawn to his work because everything about his work was entirely different from the students in the class. We had all been taught in a somewhat formulated way of how to present fashion illustrations, how to render, show flats and describe inspiration. Lee had page after page of pencil sketches that looked like they had been drawn with a chicken's foot dipped in ink. His models were bald, and their noses were pointy. Their shoes taped onto their feet. This was all because he wasn't coming from a 4-year school. He was coming from his own experience at Saville Row and a stint at Romeo Gigli in Italy.

Lee and I collaborated on our first project for the Issey Miyake buyer in London. I created the fabrics. Lee designed the clothes. I found somebody that pushed me and understood what I did in fabric, and we pushed each other to create looks collaboratively feeding off of each other. That experience rolled into us working on the Alexander McQueen collection from our house in South London, not premeditated, not thinking about developing a huge brand. We were making clothes for people and making clothes for ourselves. I learned more from Lee than I have ever learned from anyone in my life.

Photo by: Robert Fairer

What was the creative energy like while working with McQueen?

Electric, spontaneous, and fun. Absolute fun. It was full of rudeness and hilarity, and it was just the best time of my life.  Accidental. It was allowing accidents to happen and wanting to disrupt all of this stuff that we saw as historical. 

I felt exhausted by historical references in fashion, and that is what we were getting a lot at that time. Collections had become very costume. My ethos at that point was much more in the world of Helmut Lang, Margiela, Xuly Bët, Jean Colonna. I thought those designers  were doing something new and spoke to the moment.

What overarching lessons do you still carry with you to this day?

To be armed with as many tangible hand skills as you can have. What am I going to do the day after the apocalypse? I'd be able to survive because I can make things because I can do it with my hands. That's what I think young people need to know today. If you can cut a piece of fabric and sew, you can communicate. If you can draw, you can communicate. If you can create a fabric, you can communicate. You can survive anything. I come from that world, and I believe in that world. Or we can just settle for filters and fuckery. I am very much a traditionalist and I realized very early on that I've only ever been able to affect change through what I can physically do. I can't do it through words alone.

What does disruption in fashion mean to you?

It means change. It means re-steering the ship. It means swimming upstream against the current. It means calling people out on their bullshit. I am very much still part of fashion, but I am also part of this industry called education, so my disruption is equally focused on that and has been ever since I went into teaching. My first foray into disruption in education was based on my experience at Saint Martins and when I came to the Academy in 1996 by way of Elisa Stephens knowing that the American fashion industry in New York was filled with British educated designers.

Her wanting to understand why that was and realizing that the only way she could make any effect in this department was if she hired us to come in and do it. The American fashion education system had driven itself into nothing. That is when she brought in the Saint Martins team of Bobby Hillson, Gladys Perint Palmer, Ike Rust, and myself. She also brought in Linda Remington to build the US business portion of fashion education. We were very clear that to try to recreate Saint Martins was the wrong thing to do. To be completely global was a requirement. A multitiered philosophical education entered into the American unitized system. That was the disruption that would lead us to become the first graduate fashion program in America and the first graduate fashion program to show at New York Fashion Week. We would also become the first program in America to reinvent themselves based on what the global industry needed. In 1998, when I started talking about sustainability and the environment and organics, people thought I was utterly insane. That's disruption, isn't it? I plan to continue to disrupt the education system which should then ultimately disrupt the industry.

What's your most memorable design moment?

It will probably always be the Alexander McQueen Dante Collection. The experience of working on that show and seeing that collection on the runway in that environment, having the opportunity to work with Lee McQueen and work with Katy England and work with Simon Costin. You know, it doesn't get better than that for me. 

Photo by: Robert Fairer

How does the Academy of Art University work to push students outside of their comfort zones in terms of studies and opportunities?

All you can do with students is lay down the series of tools in front of them. I don't only mean that in terms of physically. You can demo, and you can talk to them, and you can show them. The rest is up to them. It's essential to break down the students belief that education is a customer service industry. You don't just pay your money and get the results from it.  You have to participate. That is the first comfort zone you have to break down with people. The most important thing is trying to get them to participate in their own lives. And from there, you can push them and push them and push them until they succeed.

How do you prepare students for the professional world of fashion beyond their specific area of study?

Expose them to many different people coming from many different industries and not just from fashion. That's why we bring in projects within the automotive industry or hospitality, performance and even the medical industry. There are so many things going on in technology that the students have to be aware of. To have people come in other than their teachers and to work with them on a project. I think our sustainable design sophomore program that we did with Old Navy this season is a perfect example. They can't be narrow anymore. They need to be broad.

What do you think San Francisco adds to a design education that other cities do not?

San Francisco is still the Wild West. Here, people feel that they can carry on slightly outside of the law. It's also the pioneer spirit. And the pioneer spirit continues here today in northern California and California, in general, more than anywhere else. If you think about forward, creative, and fluid thinking, it's not necessarily always in fashion. If you think about how people look after themselves, where does it come from? It comes from California. Youth culture development.  Technology. Independent thinking. Writing. Film. Food. Performance. It's as far west as you can get without falling into the ocean. So many things do come out of here. The spark is here. And then it has to go east to be developed.  Here, things come together; they germinate, they incubate, and then they have to go. And fashion has had those moments whether you think of the Kaisik Wong period who has been hugely influential. Alex and Lee Jewelry. Lifestyle design originated here in San Francisco, out of original thinking.  And you have the Zieglar's vision to thank for the creation of Banana Republic. You have the Fisher's for The Gap. You also have Doug Tompkins and Susie Tompkins Buell for North Face and Esprit. These are four of the most successful lifestyle-driven brands to influence the entire world.

'Photo by: Jeffry Raposas

In what ways do you think the city hinders an education?

A solid education should partner with the industry that surrounds it. We haven't had a fashion center in San Francisco for a long time. There are limitations to sourcing raw materials. We don't have production houses that can support our students. Designer or ready to wear studios here in San Francisco are not plenty. The businesses that are here such a Gap Inc., the Levi's, have been an incredible support to us. Although there are no luxury brands based in San Francisco, we do have smaller niche companies such as Frēda Salvador. What mainly hinders what we do is most of our students and designers get incredibly comfortable with the lifestyle that northern California offers them. They end up wanting to stay here and not end up wanting to go to a fashion capital to work.

As an educator of the next generation of designers, what do you think the future of fashion looks like?

It looks like two arms, two legs, and a torso. That's a human body. Until we turn into some hybrid droid kind of thing or we are just an entity that lives in the cloud, fashion is fashion. People are going to need clothes. They are going to want to stay warm. They will need to be able to dance and move. All of those things that clothes do. Clothes are to protect us.  There are clothes to survive. They are to attract a mate. They are to say that we mean business. I think those things are going to remain the same