Simon Says

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British designer Simon Ungless is the Director of the School of Fashion at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. He’s a true fashion insider with highly creative vision and a wicked sense of humor. Ungless began his career after graduating from Central St. Martin’s Masters program in London, where he cemented very close ties with many of his peers, including Stella McCartney, Sarah Burton, Phoebe Philo, Hussein Chalayan and the late Alexander McQueen. This led to Ungless collaborating on many of McQueen’s early collections. After college Ungless worked as the print technician at Central Saint Martin’s, where he was able to use the printing equipment to create some of the most recognizable and unique textiles that adorned McQueen’s designs. These have since become hallmarks of the designer’s aesthetic.

During the heady days of London’s ‘90s fashion explosion Ungless undertook many other design commissions that allowed him to hone his skills and develop a substantial client base. Then in 1996 a major change happened in Ungless’s life—he was recruited by the Academy of Art University and he left London for Northern California, where he has made his permanent home. Since joining the academic faculty, Ungless has produced 17 annual spring graduation fashion shows in San Francisco and 14 Masters graduation shows runway at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week in New York. In 2005 the Academy of Art University was the first school to show at New York Fashion Week, as part of the official fashion calendar.

There have been many noteworthy Academy of Art University presentations in New York and in February 2012 the runway show was disrupted by one of the biggest snowstorms to hit the city in years. Mayor Michael Bloomberg called a State of Emergency and with no option to cancel, Ungless’s team resigned themselves to the possibility that no one would attend. Ungless explains:

“Everyone backstage was terribly upset at the thought that the hard work the designers had put into their collections would not be seen. I went out to the front of house minutes before the show and the venue was literally packed. Everyone had braved the storm to support the designers. It was a moment that brought me to tears. Then getting the designer’s collections back to the studio after the show in several feet of snow actually did make me cry—anything for fashion.”

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In addition to New York and San Francisco, Ungless has produced a large number of traveling fashion shows that have moved from Seattle to San Diego and everywhere in between, including San Francisco’s Farmers Market. Ungless is also Editorial Director of the Academy of Art University’s 180 Magazine, overseeing the art direction, photo shoots and the content of the publication.

Even with this busy schedule Ungless continues to create his own highly innovative signature textile designs. In 2002 Ungless was named Creative Director of Member Holiday, a contemporary  men’s and women’s Korean fashion brand. His current design project customizes iconic ‘found’ fashion pieces including vintage scarves, dresses and other garments using dip-dye and bleach techniques.

The impetus and inspiration behind his re-purposing of garments began when Ungless was a student. Ungless says, “I used to print naughty words onto clothes using varsity lettering to give the illusion that one was wearing a college sweatshirt when in fact the lettering would spell ‘Fucker’ or ‘Cocksucker.’” Those ideas developed into printing complete garments for McQueen that gave a ‘steamrollered’ effect, as if the person wearing the garment had been run over. Ungless used the same technique on his own clothes over the years and he feels there are now way too many products being made that are irrelevant and there is so much product sitting in charity stores and going to land fill that could be re-used. Ungless reworks these pieces with a variety of textile treatments to give a second, third and forth life to those garments. The project is entitled “When Simon Met Ralph” and it is about taking an existing garment, printing, dyeing, boiling or shooting it with a shot gun in order to take the garment to a new place.

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He says, “It’s not just about reworking vintage Ralph Lauren, I’ve also used Diane Von Furstenberg garments, Hermès scarves and even a few chinos. The concept is about not being precious with clothes but also not being ready to throw things away.” Ungless has little respect for vintage. Recently he “boiled and dyed the crap out of a 1940s sequin dress,” and what came out of the process has a relevance so it can be worn again instead of hanging in the back of a closet—or worse, going to land fill. His favorite technique is silkscreen printing and he loves graphic images, words and slogans.

During his collaborations with Alexander McQueen, Ungless created many iconic designs but the what he finds the most memorable, albeit for the controversy they created, are the “knocked off” Don McCullin photographs for the Dante Collection of Fall 1997. Ungless used McCullin’s images from the Vietnam War, famine and war torn Africa. Ungless says, “Those images were printed in black and white on sumptuous fabrics. It was quite shocking to see a beautifully tailored coat with the faces of starving African children on it.” Ungless says that he and McQueen got into trouble with the photographer’s agent and they had to destroy all of the clothes, fabrics, screens and transparencies. However the mischievous Ungless still has one t-shirt hidden away as a memento. It is one of the most rare Alexander McQueen garments from the designer’s career.

After many years of experience as both a designer and an educator the one essential piece of advice Ungless gives to his students is to learn as much as they can whilst in fashion school and to do nothing by half measures. He says that students often do not realize that every single thing they learn will reap benefits ten fold as they move through their careers.

Text by Keanan Duffty
Photography by Isabella Bejarano

THE OBSESSION ISSUE

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