While Simon Collins and I speak via Skype, dramatic sirens sound in the back the second our connection is established. “Unfortunately it’s New York, so there’s pretty much always a siren in the background,” he says. He picks up his laptop and shows me around. It’s like being in MTV CRIBS but then a strange office version with weird webcam angles. There are a lot of books and guardsman tunics in his office.
“I like the guardsman’s tunics. I was a tailor when I first left fashion school, many years ago, so I love fine tailoring. I find them very restful; when I’m doing something that I haven’t enjoyed so much, it’s quite nice to rest my eyes on something which I think is a thing of real beauty.”
Is it also because you’re British?
Well yes, it is. I’m a New Yorker. I identify myself as an English New Yorker. Because, I’m very much an Englishman, but I’ve lived here in New York for 17 years.
Growing up in England, what was fashion like for you?
I grew up in Bournemouth on the South Coast of England and it was very close to London, so we’d spend a lot of time in London at weekends. I was very much influenced by London street culture in the 80s. It was very natural for me to move there as soon as I could. Fashion was very much about the New Romantic movement, and before that, punk and ska and the mod movement. It was all very much teen and young music culture influencing me. And I’ve never really recovered from that.
“In New York, you can’t throw a brick without hitting some 80s revival.”
Who did you look up to?
At the time, it was people like John Galliano, Stephen Linard and Body Map. Funny, I just gave an interview a while ago about my first memory of a runway show and it was in 1985 and it was Body Map. They were this incredible duo. I think they went to Middlesex, with John Galliano and people like that. And they were were a few years ahead of me, so I was interning for them, they were the people I really admired. Paris was very stuffy at the time and then Gaultier became the Enfant Terrible, so he was someone we started paying attention to.
What music did you listen to?
I suppose my first musical awakening was around the Jam and that sort of late 70s mod movement, and then in the 80s, it was the Clash and obviously the Sex Pistols. It was punk and mod and ska; then it became, like everyone else, the New Romantics. Duran Duran, Visage, the Human League, the Cure.
That’s good music, do you listen to that still?
I do, yes. In New York, you can’t throw a brick without hitting some 80s revival. Every restaurant has that on their playlist. On the way to work this morning, I was listening to a remix of Uptown Top Ranking by Althea and Donna which is one of my favourite ever songs, it’s brilliant.
“If you don’t sell what you make, you’re not a fashion designer — you’re an artist.”
It seems like there isn’t much of an 80’s revival in London, which I think is a shame. Why do you think that’s in New York and not here?
We have very different ways of reviving things in New York and London. When I was there, London was very quick to pick up on things and very quick to discard them and had a more extreme version of street culture — in the things that it embraced. There’s a lot more business in New York, so people tend to be a little bit less influenced to the same degree. Yes, there are extreme cultures here, the hip hop movement is far more deeply engrained here than anywhere else in the world. An eighties revival, for instance, probably wouldn’t be as exaggerated here as it would be in London, and I think that’s the beauty in the complimentary nature of the two cities. I never would claim one cities superiority over the other, I think they are the two most interesting cities in the world. They are different, and that’s what makes them both so special.
London always seems to be perceived as the leader of street style and creativity, whereas New York is more commercial. A while back, Fashionista wrote “are London designers getting more commercial?” What is your response to a headline like this? I know you do think it’s great if you can be successful and make money.
I would substitute the word commercial for successful. That’s the only thing I would do, and that answers your question, because one of the lively and exciting arguments that I’m always having with my friends in Europe, is the use of the word “commercial”. If you don’t sell what you make, you’re not a fashion designer: you’re an artist. Ultimately, artists have to make a living, and so, everyone wants to sell their clothing. I fully respect the fact that some designers want to sell one piece only, and they want to create the incredible vision in their minds, selling one piece from that. I think that’s magnificent and I support it unequivocally. If you can make a living, brilliant, but how is selling that not commercial? It’s commerce. I’m sure they would love to be successful.
I gave a speech in London recently with the BFC and I made the point that there are different views of what success means. For my peers that left school when I did, success in London meant being written about by the right magazines and being able to pay the rent; and if you could manage that for three years, you were largely successful. You were respected in your field, and that was good. Here, being successful might be making $10 million in sales. You still have all those other things, you’re still being written about in the media, but if you’re not making the rent, that’s not necessarily considered successful. There’s a difference. I kind of shy away from this argument sometimes, because I know i’m going to get misquoted, but I think there’s an acceptance of large scale success here which in some ways is not quite as accepted in the UK.
“You have to make mistakes; make them with someone else’s money first.”
To young people wanting to start their own brands, you would give the advise “don’t do it”. Here in London, it seems more like the teachers encourage to ‘just do it’. What would you say to Central Saint Martins students?
I’d say the same thing I’d say to anyone, which is “make a load of mistakes”. You have to make mistakes, make them with someone else’s money first. If you think that when you finish school you’ve learnt what you need, you’re crazy. When you finish school, that’s when you begin to learn. I gave a speech the other day and I talked at length about how at Parsons, we teach you how to learn. We certainly give you a lot of the tools you need, but how can we possibly give someone all the tools they need to start a business in 4 years? You can’t, that’s impossible. So, we teach you how to ask smart questions and go out in the world and continue your education.
I’m still learning, and I hope I will always be learning. So, if I still have a lot to learn, then how much can a 22 year old really know? And at the same time, Jason Wu and Alexander Wang and Jack and Lazaro from Proenza Schouler; they all left Parsons and started up their businesses and each of them are turning over many many millions of dollars, every year. While we tell everyone to get a job first and keep learning and spend someones else’s money on all your mistakes, we’re confident that many will disobey us and go and do their own thing and be very successful at it.
“When you finish school, that’s when you begin to learn.”
You once said that you failed as an emerging designer coming from university. How much support was there at that time for young designers to start their own labels? Now, there are initiatives such as NewGen, but in your time, was there was a supporting system?
I left school in ’86 and I don’t know that there was any support. There was massive camaraderie, and it’s funny, I remember there was this thing called the Fashion100 and it was basically 100 of us that got into nightclubs for free, and that was what it was. It was like the whole fashion business, Stevie and David from Body Map and John Galliano and John Flett and Stephen Linard and everybody else going to the nightclub. Every night there would be an opening somewhere, of a gallery or a club or a bar; so we’d always go there and we’d always eat and drink for free, and we’d always help each other. You know, you share studio space, and you’d share fabric and machinists and all those things that were the infrastructure of what you needed to keep your head afloat. I’m confident there was no support for designers; frankly, the reason I left the UK in ’97 was there was no respect for designers.
So when people are massively complaining now about there not being any money and support, how do you think that they should be dealing with it?
I think they should shut up and get on with it. I find it hilarious that people complain to someone else for their own lack of success. That’s what it comes down to, and that’s what I love about this city. If you want it to happen, go out and do it! Make it happen, make friends, find someone. My work, these days, is finding people who want the same thing and putting them together and enabling that to happen.
“Shut up and get on with it. If you want it to happen, go out and do it!”
What is the most provocative thing you’ve done as the Dean of Parsons?
To be honest, one of the most provocative things I’ve experienced has been being in this role. I walked into this job as the Dean, with zero experience of academia, none. Not even one day, not even one class. I have friends at other institutions, like Harvard, and they said, if that happened to them, they would walk out on mass, the entire faculty would walk out. They would never accept someone with no academic experience. Parsons, along with St Martins and the Royal [College of Art], are one of the most prestigious design schools in the world. So, to hire someone to be the face of that school, with no experience at all was a somewhat provocative statement. I think it’s been very successful, but there have been many that have not liked it along the way.
And why are you leaving now? Not a year ago, not next year?
I think that it’s important for me to leave when we’re in the best possible state we can be, which is right now. We’ve never been stronger, we’ve never been a higher quality, we’ve never been bigger, we’ve never been more successful by any measure you care to name. I could have stayed another year, I could have left last year, but I feel like we’re at a stage now where we’re operating at full capacity. I’m not somebody that’s very comfortable in a levelling out situation, I’m very much “do more, build more, make more things happen.” If I stayed another year, I’d want to do more, and I don’t know that that would be a good thing, I think we’re at full capacity right now, and I knowledge that. I think it’s time for Parsons to have a new vision, a new perspective.
You have the quote “you never leave Parsons”…
And I never will, I never want to. I’ve learnt so much. For me, it’s wrapped up in the New York experience. New York allowed me to do things that I could never be in England. I arrived in New York and I was the Creative Director of Fila – which meant I quadrupled my salary and I was able to fly around the world having a vision for this brand in a way that, at the time, in the UK, no designer was given that amount of freedom unless you owned the company. This was a great experience for me, and I’m very grateful to New York for allowing me that.
After many years of doing that, Parsons gave me this new experience of being able to do whatever I felt was right for the school. The school had to bite its tongue a lot with me, because I say what I think. I try to be sensitive to the situation I’m in and I try not to upset anyone, but I also don’t compromise, I just don’t. That’s what we’ve been doing, and this school has been around for 118 years – it’s going to be around for many hundreds more I’m sure. So, it doesn’t need me. We’ve done very well, and I’m sure we will continue to do well, and perhaps in a different way.
“The school had to bite its tongue a lot with me, because I say what I think. I try to be sensitive to the situation I’m in and I try not to upset anyone, but I also don’t compromise, I just don’t.”
You seem genuinely nice, looking at the talks you’ve done and the interviews you have given. You stress being nice as well. Why do you think it’s such a normal thing to be a bitch in the fashion industry once you’ve made it to the top?
There’s lot of answers to that. Firstly, thank you. But, my mum brought me up to be nice. I don’t really have the “be mean” gene. Most of the people that I interact with at the top of the industry — I’m lucky that it tends to be the CEOs and the Presidents — they’re quite nice as well. This reputation for fashion being bitchy comes from people who often aren’t very successful.
I make the point the students emphatically: if somebody asks you for coffee, make good coffee, and smile, because it’s no harder to do that, but you’ll be remembered as the smiling one who made good coffee. Not the surly one who resented it and didn’t do very well. I honestly don’t see how that can be better; I go back to the bloody parable of the sun and the wind have a competition to see who can get the guy’s jacket off. The wind is like, “I’ll get it off, watch this” and blows and blows and blows and all the guy does is wrap himself up more. Then the sun goes “alright, my turn”, the sun smiles at him and the guy takes his jacket off. To me, it’s not complicated, be nice, why wouldn’t we? I honestly don’t understand it, going back to what I was saying earlier; I still want what I want, I don’t compromise. But, I realised a long time ago, you can’t make people do it, because they’ll just resent it and then never come back; but if you’re smart, you can make them want to do it. And if you’re smart, that’s what you can do. I get them to want to do the thing I want them to do.
That seems like the smartest strategy.
Some people call me a manipulative bastard for it [laughs]. If I was, I would be a brilliant actor, because this is just me, I don’t think I’m that clever, I think it’s really obvious.
“New York allowed me to do things that I could never be in England.”
You mentioned earning a lot of money, quadrupling salary, working for big businesses; you’ve worked as the creative director of Nike, which was $900 million in the area of your work?
In Asia, yes.
How much pressure does it give to work with these numbers? Does it give more freedom, anxiety, or nothing at all?
It doesn’t make the slightest difference in any way. Because I’ve got no time for people who tell me “oh well, mines $100 billion company, yours is only $100 million”, like, shut up! Everyone’s got to eat, everyone’s got to pay for their rent, everyone’s got families to look after. A guy working in a factory has to support his family, I’ve got to support my family. The most stressed people in the world are probably junior Doctors who work 24 hour shifts and make about — I don’t know what the hell they make, minimal amounts of money. I’ve got nothing but respect for what they do, so I don’t have time for people that think that bigger numbers makes more stress, because they don’t. It’s still just a job, your job is a job, we all have stress in our jobs.
It’s like saying “rich people needn’t be stressed”, we know that’s not true, they don’t have the same stresses as us, they don’t have to worry about paying the rent, but that’s just one of the strands in life. At Nike, I had a team of 65 designers and we produced 11 collections every 3 months. So, we produced a lot of work, but I had a lot of people.
“I’m not somebody that’s very comfortable in a levelling out situation, I’m very much “do more, build more, make more things happen.”
Ah yes, and they launched the Nike fuel band, which pretty much failed. Now, the much anticipated iWatch has been released. Do you think it is good design? Do you think wearables will ever be wearable?
I think that I don’t need another gadget, my phone already does a million things I can think of (and a million more things that I can’t even think of). So, there’s nothing more that I need, but I do love beautiful design. I imagine at some point I will slavishly get an Apple watch, because they are something so beautiful. In fact, I will get one, and I’ll tell you why I’ll get one as well. I just read a review in a magazine, and they were describing a function on the watch where you can basically tap somebody on the shoulder using their watch. It’s a completely useless function that no one needs, but at the same time, the review said it was also quite lovely. Which I think is a wonderful way of describing it — you can basically send a message to someone with the tiniest little nudge. So I will probably get an Apple watch because of that function, because I love little things like that, little moments of beauty.
“The most significant design of the decade is going to be the one that starts to reverse global warming.”
What do you think is the best design of the decade?
As I talk to you, I’m staring at my widescreen Macbook Air, my wireless keyboard, my track pad — if it’s not an Apple product, I’m not sure what it would be. There are more useful things. The Prius is pretty smart, my cab driver was telling me yesterday that his fuel consumption has gone down from $96 a day to $17 a day. So, if he’s using that much less fuel, then that’s probably a more significant enhancement than the iPhone.
I feel like we haven’t got it yet, the most significant design of the decade is going to be the one that starts to reverse global warming — I haven’t seen it yet, and we need it. I gave a speech a little while ago — I like making speeches up, I don’t like to write them down — and I said that we as the human race are quite good at almost destroying the planet and then right at the last minute, we remember not to. We did this with the nuclear proliferation, the Cuban missile crisis etc etc. We almost blew the place up, and then we remembered not to, and then we had the whole Cold War and we went through the same thing. Now, we’re at the point where we’re trying to cook the earth and I’m optimistic that, right at the last minute, we as the human race will figure out what that design of the decade is and it will save us from the obis.
Thats an interesting point you’re making, because fashion massively contributes to the downfall of the earth.
Yes, it does, and I’m very aware of that. I’m often finding myself commenting on it. On the one hand, it is, you’re right, it’s the number two polluter: it’s catastrophic. But it enables hundreds of millions of people to eat, so you could argue: we’ve all got enough clothes already, let’s just stop for a year; but then, of course, hundreds of millions of people would die because they wouldn’t have their income from making all these clothes that we consume. So, let’s not just think of fashion as consumption, fashion is also providing work.
I think we have to buy much more smartly, I’m tired of crap. I just think that there is no excuse for garbage clothes, and that’s not a reflection on price either. I truly believe in inexpensive fashion for people of limited income, of course, it’s fantastic, why the hell shouldn’t they get a nice dress for a saturday night? Why is there a price of entry at a certain level? But, I don’t believe in that dress being something which hurts the earth, or the people that are making it.
“We as the human race are quite good at almost destroying the planet and then right at the last minute, we remember not to.”
Where do you get your own clothes?
I have a tailor in Beijing that makes all of my suits and all of my shirts. Everything I wear is from my tailor, because I can design it then, and I have a very particular taste. So everything is made by my tailor, and my jeans come from Denham in Amsterdam, and my shoes generally come from Churches. So, English shoes, Dutch jeans, and Beijing tailoring.
The Dutch do make good jeans, it’s true.
They do! Yes, if you’ve not seen it, take a look at the youtube video “Denham Psycho“, it’s a thing of absolute brilliance.
Do you still design a lot yourself? Apart from being a Dean, and consulting for different companies, do you design yourself?
I have OCD: Obsessive Compulsion to Design. Everywhere I am and with everything I do, I am always designing, all the time. I have this cognitive dissonance going on; I look out the window, I walk down the street, I speak to a bank, I speak to a hotel, everything I do, I’m redesigning, all the time. The reason companies want me as a consultant on their board, is because I show up and I fire off. I walk in the room and I’m like “change that, fix that, don’t do that, stop doing this, make more of that, do more of this”, because I suppose I’ve been around long enough, and I’ve been in enough varied situations where I’ve picked up a language, a way of communicating which is both informed, but also understandable to the corporate world. Because, they’re not interested in my opinion, they don’t care about that, they care about a quantifiable benefit to them for doing whatever it is I tell them they should be doing. That’s the language they understand. Because I’ve been with Nike and Polo and other people like that, I know how these things go. I’m no genius, all I do is ask smart questions and I get them to ask themselves smart questions and it usually involves “if you did this, you would therefore be able to do this”, which is something that they want.
“Let’s not just think of fashion as consumption, fashion is also providing work.”
What do you think is the worst design you have seen so far this week?
I had an answer until you said “this week”.
Okay, this month? This year? Ever?
Alright, so, just before Christmas, I went to the Apple landing page, and there was a picture of Nelson Mandela, because he’d just passed away and his dates were written next to it. The whole page was blank apart from that picture and those dates. Which was a thing of absolute beauty — the Apple landing page. I went to the Microsoft one and it was a riot of red and green Christmas “buy more! Get this one! Get a discount on this! 12 days to Christmas, buy more stuff!”, to me, that was brilliantly indicative of the difference between Microsoft and Apple.
What is a quote you use most?
Of late, I keep quoting Marcus Aurielius, which is “Ask of each thing what it is in itself”, although, I suppose the one that I keep coming back to is Churchill: “Never never never never never give in”, except for reasons of good. Mine is generally ‘never give in to bad design.’
“I have OCD: Obsessive Compulsion to Design. Everywhere I am and with everything I do, I am always designing, all the time.”
What is the most energetic album you’ve been listening to?
One Direction, my kid and I do the Disco Wii, so we dance to “What makes you beautiful”. It’s brilliant.
You’re in the top 100 of the most creative people in the business, who would be your top 5 in this?
Blimey. Does it have to be people? Can I do brands?
You can do both.
So, Milk Studios in New York is amazing; Apple, of course, is amazing; my school, Parsons… Rick Owens, the show he just did, his collection is great, it was mesmerising. Culturally, more than the collection. And the Denham thing I just told you about! That, of late, I thought was really inspiring. It was so sharp, so provocative.
Can you remember the most provocative thing that we were talking about earlier?
[Talking to assistant] Steph says I do it everyday —
Steph: The school is so black and white sometimes and he does it everyday, he’s always provoking thoughts and going against what people are saying. Like yesterday’s show…
“I’m no genius, all I do is ask smart questions.”
Simon: Yes, we did a show with Ford Mustang and I had a certain view of how things should go. I’ll tell you what I did once actually; my saying “you never leave Parsons.”I did it at the fashion benefit, 1000 people, black tie dinner, huge fundraiser, and I learned in Chinese, Japanese, Korean and of course, English, how to say “you never leave Parsons.” The way I delivered it was “you……never……leave……Parsons”, it was quite provocative because it was in that Mafia undertone. There was obviously a very clearly implied threat under there, and people got a bit pissed off about it, but in the end, it has caught on. The students rally around that, and indeed they actually chant it whenever we do big events. That was probably a little provocative.
I’m just thinking about the various farewell speeches I’m about to make and one of the things I’m determined to say is to make a special point to thank the people that have hated me, insulted me, started campaigns to get rid of me, sent poisonous emails to the entire school against me, and generally made my life difficult. I want to specifically thank them, because without them, I would not have toughened up and learnt to do things a whole lot better than I never would have.
Interview by Jorinde Croese
Photography by Casey Brooks