“We are setting them up for an industry that doesn’t exist.” Simon Ungless, director of the school of fashion at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, pauses. This may seem off-kilter to admit, especially for a CSM grad taught by the likes of Louise Wilson and Bobby Hillson, but he’s got a point. The fashion education system is at risk of going off topic and Ungless is determined to regroup, or stop it altogether.
Of course, this sudden switch may seem compromising to those unfamiliar with Ungless’ restless ambition. Ungless is far from haphazard ‒ from his track record, risk has fallen into his favour: enrolling into the MA Textiles at CSM led to a close friendship with coursemate Alexander McQueen, with whom he’d later share a flat, struggling to buy milk whilst Naomi Campbell wore their design on the front page of the Sunday Times.
In ’96, he arrived San Fran at Bobby’s suggestion, tempted by the Pamela Anderson appeal. However, it was “less Baywatch” and more Northern California. He had to bring a jacket. Leaving behind Dante, his last collection with McQueen, he began to teach in a fashion department he was initially told didn’t exist, as it was so alarmingly out of touch.
The fashion education system is outdated. In an industry where fame and celebrity are valued more than raw skill, it is apparent that PR cannot provide the longevity young graduates require to sustain a brand. In this ego-centric habitat, we must question whether what fashion institutions provide is more self-serving to the university as a business than to their students’ skill sets. Press show runways provide an unhelpful conclusion to a degree. Early coverage is dubious: premature, immediate exposure can damage graduates’ prospects. Fashion education needs to be more introspective than promotion-centered.
Luckily, Ungless is asking those questions and he even has a few answers ‒ early collaborations are one step in shifting the focus away from individual fame. “Do you have a sex tape? Otherwise, I suggest you start designing.”
Words Amelia Claringbull
Interview Aya Noël
How did you get into fashion?
I was studying architecture, but I quickly realized that I wasn’t interested at all. I always saw these really cool people in the halls of residence in the East End, where I lived, so I followed them, and turned out they went to fashion school. They looked like me, the architects didn’t look like me. So, I transferred to the fashion programme. I really wanted to go to CSM, but I was so scared of it, I knew the history, and I thought I would never be good enough.
Before I enrolled at CSM, I was already working and doing textiles for different companies, so I asked whether I could defer for a year to gain more experience first. It was the best decision I ever made because the first person I met was this very young, East End boy named Lee McQueen. We hit it off straight away, and I mean really hit it off. I would do prints and fabrics that he would design with and we would do projects together. We loved the same clubs, we loved the same music, we loved the same boys. We laughed constantly. Of course, I had amazing teachers, but the most amazing thing about CSM were all the people that would come in and the people that you were surrounded with.
“Of course, I had amazing teachers, but the most amazing thing about CSM wERE the people that you were surrounded with.”
After graduation, I went back into freelance forecasting, Lee moved into my house in South London in Tooting and we started McQueen. It was not really conscious. Isabella Blow would want something, so we would dye some fabric and make a dress. Richard Burbridge, the photographer, was getting married so we made his fiancé a dress.
We did that first collection, Taxi Driver, in our kitchen. I took the kitchen door off its hinges and made a print table. We borrowed material from CSM. We always thought Louise didn’t know, but a few years later she said to me, “It’s time you bring that back.”
It was never a goal of mine to become a teacher, but when I was invited as a technician at CSM, I really needed the facilities. In 1996, Bobby Hillson was consulting and recruiting for San Francisco, and she asked me about it, so I thought, “Yeah, I’ll go for three months.”
We started to work with the students and I saw the response really quickly. They were exactly the same as the students at CSM but they just needed the right guidance. By the time September came around, I couldn’t leave these young people. It just carried on like that to the point where I completely fell in love with Northern California. There’s such a depth to San Francisco, the history of it, the music, the singing, the forward-thinking on environmental issues.
I really wanted to learn what that term “lifestyle” was. Designing for a lifestyle ‒ Gap, Banana Republic, Levi’s, North Face ‒ all these people really knew how to, they created it. Merchandising is an American invention.
It’s funny that you never intended to teach when teaching seems such a natural part of your DNA. Is there a teacher who really changed you?
I always think of these four women in education: Doreen Dyall, Bobby Hillson, Natalie Gibson and Louise Wilson. All really incredible women and each very different. Those women changed my life.
In what sense?
By making me see things differently. Doreen really believed in my work. When I was in high school I was reprimanded for the fact that I couldn’t draw. Doreen made me realize that I could really draw. Bobby taught me to look at fashion, to understand fashion. Natalie taught me more with her eyebrow going up and down than anything that ever came out of her mouth. Louise, for directness and honesty.
“Natalie taught me more with her eyebrow going up and down than anything that ever came out of her mouth.”
I know Louise was a great teacher, but she could also be incredibly harsh. To me, it’s a very old-school mentality, to push students through fear. There’s this glamourized ideal of the fashion persona that walks in and everybody just runs for their lives. Do you believe you need to hurt someone to push their work? Do you ever think, “Damn, I’ve been way too gentle and now the work is bad.”?
If my emotion is changing too deeply when I’m working with a student, if they haven’t done what I told them to do, I know that my ego has suddenly come into play and I know that I’m not going to be coming from the best spot in that situation. That’s when I have to walk away. With my teaching, you can take what you want out of it. I have no investment in that. I have my career, I have my education and I would like to give you some tools and directions too. I would love for you to do something different and bring something new to me, but until you can do that, then maybe do it my way. I have gotten angry with students, but I do it less and less, it doesn’t serve me and it doesn’t do them any good.
We’re in a really different time. The population coming into this school has dramatically shifted in a very short period of time. It’s really whatever has happened in high school and how parents have treated their children. They haven’t set them up to succeed, they’ve been coddled. Everything is handed to them on a plate. They’ve all grown up with Pinterest, they’ve grown up with people’s curation of art ready on a page. They go to Pinterest and they feel that they have done research. This is standard everywhere, so when I want them to do something self-generated in terms of research they can’t do it because they don’t come here with this tangible skill set, we have to go back and teach that.
They want validation, they want to do the minimum to get maximum validation for it. I’ve had students come to me and say “I put it on Instagram and I got 300 likes on that.” Do I look like I care how many likes you got on Instagram? I asked them to learn how to put in an invisible zipper, but they’ll say to me, “Kanye’s never put in an invisible zipper, Virgil’s never done an invisible zipper ‒ why do I have to?’ I just ask if they’re a pop star, a celebrity, if they have a sex tape. No? Then how the fuck are you going to get a line unless you actually work?
That’s really interesting.
I’ve been in education quite a long time now and I see the desperate need for change. We all teach the same thing. The outcome for design is still a fashion show and I’m not convinced that that process is serving the student. It’s preparing them for an industry that doesn’t exist. I’ve spoken about that to some of my peers, people in other schools, they are horrified. They believe you have to have a show. A show for us is exactly the same as a show for a designer. It’s PR.
I try to make it as much for the students as possible by flying in recruiters. Hopefully, they’re going to follow up and people will get hired from that. A tangible skill set which is what is going to get them hired, not a show. A lot of schools are really rapidly becoming dinosaurs. Do we need to exist anymore? But people don’t want to hear that, it’s terrifying for them.
“I’ve been in education quite a long time now and I see the desperate need for change.”
I think students are so hung up on the show because it’s a traditional signifier that you’ve made it. It’s a status symbol.
I don’t know that the way that we do it is really healthy for these young designers. When we try to get them scholarships and prizes and awards to start their own label but they haven’t got a hope in hell of doing that. They might do so for a season or two, and then it’s done for them, they can’t sustain it.
As a media platform ourselves, we realize how media play a significant role in keeping this absurd fantasy alive.
I’ve done it, I’ve lived it. I remember having Naomi Campbell in one of my jackets for Lee, on the cover of Sunday Times and we didn’t even have any milk in the fridge. Lee was claiming unemployment benefit and I was working at CSM, we had no money. I always say it’s like a one night stand. People put a lot of effort into this one night stand for young designers and then they never wanna fuck them again. It feels like that, to me.
Are you talking about consumers or the media?
I’m talking about some of these organizations that want to do these big fundings for young designers. There are great organizations, like the CFDA, that offer solid scholarship development to students. However, these huge prizes, with heavy press coverage, it feels like the day afterward you don’t necessarily hear about those things again. You’ll see a new name come up and you’ll see a collaboration, you’ll go look at it in the store and it looks like shit, nobody buys it. What happens to that, what happens to that designer?
“It’s like a one night stand. People put a lot of effort into young designers and then they never wanna fuck them again.”
I never try to make the new McQueen. When journalists come to me, they will be like, “Do you have the new McQueen?” They’re just ridiculous, so fucking ridiculous. I will say, “No, but I’ve got about six really solid designers who are probably going to work at Banana Republic and make a gazillion dollars for some people’s companies. I’ve got those, are you interested in those?”
When I first came to the academy, our then-director said, “I want this to be the CSM of the west.” My colleague and I just looked at each other like, “It’s not going work because the cohort is so different.” People that are in San Francisco want a whole different thing, and we have to respond to the geography and the psychology of the person coming here and that’s when we’ll get results.
What would you like your students to know before they start their fashion education?
You know what, I’m not here to break expectations, I’m here to find out what they want to do, and then support them in that. Within our curriculum, American education is unitized. There’s a lot of flexibility in the classes that you can take. In the school of fashion, we have somewhere close to four hundred classes. If you were to pull the transcripts for a hundred students randomly, you wouldn’t find two transcripts which were the same. It’s based off an individualized education.
More practically, the students seem to have a lot of hours in class.
It’s unbelievable. It is mind-blowing because there are many more contact hours with instructors in class than what I had as a student, undergraduate, graduate. I think that the volume of work that they have to achieve is quite high.
You were talking about pressure. There seems to be less space for students to experiment and make mistakes because so often their work is already out there, or their work is being picked up.
That doesn’t happen as much here as it does in London. But there is a lot of pressure financially. I’ve known students graduate from this programme with $70 ‒ 80,000 of student loan. I have friends who are in their late 40’s who haven’t paid off their student loans. That is pressure.
You mentioned that the community of other students is what you remember most from your time in college. Do you try to build that for your own students as well?
There is a truly collaborative spirit. Through collection time I’ll see, when one undergraduate finishes, they’ll pick up tools for somebody else and work with them. They will share contacts and they will share resources. They may be a little reserved in giving critical feedback to each other as they’re not used to that as much, but we do do that in class.
“When one undergraduate finishes, they’ll pick up tools for somebody else and work with them.”
You also opened the graduate show with a collaborative project?
That’s not new for us, we’ve done that forever. It’s usually with an industry company in some way. It depends on how we feel and what the students like. We’ve now started doing collaborations in the first semester because we noticed students lacked accountability for their work. We thought, let’s start with mini-collaborative projects in the first semester so we can make them feel a little bit accountable for their partner.
That group collaborative project is something that our students do find challenging, they feel really uncomfortable, they scream, they cry and they kick the whole way through and at the end of it, they’re really grateful.
How do you feel about the controversy surrounding the fashion school rankings?
We’re all set up to compete. Therefore, the students are automatically set up to compete. Can’t we just do something without being judged? Especially since the person judging doesn’t really care about the student, you just want to be able to say, “We won.” Kingston won, Newcastle won, Savannah won.
I feel that it creates an element of customer service in what we do, because people are paying for their education, which creates this confusion. I always say to students, “If you buy groceries and spend $80 on ingredients for a soup, you can’t just put those ingredients on the table. You can sit there forever, it’s not going to be a soup, is it? You have to participate. Same goes for education. You put your money down and I’m giving you these things, but you have to participate in the way you put that together to build your education otherwise it’s not going be anything.”
“Why can’t I take my students down the tenderloin and take some photographs or draw on the street? Why does it have to be something that you can put in a box?”
We have this thing here called accreditation, in which a school has to be accredited in order for our students to be able to receive funding. The people who do that are people that have no background in the fashion industry, at all. They inundate us with paperwork, so that we can get the students the money to come to school. I remember talking to Louise Wilson about it all the time, when she had to do these programme learning outcomes. How do you even put a box to that, you can’t! How would you put Alexander McQueen on a spreadsheet or John Galliano?
Why do they always have to see something? Why can’t I take my students down the tenderloin and take some photographs or draw on the street, why does it have to be something that you can understand and put in a box?
I wanted to talk a little bit about sustainability as well because I know that it’s important for the school. It’s a tricky topic because the truth is that the most sustainable thing you can do is not design anything. It’s really exciting to see initiatives like “Oh, I learned how to make leather out of mushrooms” but I haven’t really seen that impact our industry in any way.
I’ve always tried to think about sustainability in terms of the careers that we are developing here. I’m thinking about the designer who’ll get a really high position in a big company ‒ they’re directing people, they’re having products made, they’re buying and sourcing from all over the world, they’re presenting this huge line of samples and their buyers say, “No, we don’t want it, it’s not right.”
I want to put people out there that really know what they’re doing and get it right. That’s my contribution for getting some of these things in the right place. Designers should understand sourcing perfectly and understand textile production perfectly, so that they can make the correct decision for the brand that they are working with. Those are the kind of things I want my students to be aware of. It’s not just about recycling. I want them to be able to sustain a career with their skill set and I want them to use that skill set to be able to impact the business of that company in a positive way.
“I want to put people out there that really know what they’re doing and get it right.”
This was really great.
Don’t throw me under the bus too much.