Honorary Doctorate Recipient: Simon Ungless
Photo courtesy of AAU Publications.
Before Gladys Perint Palmer met Simon Ungless in the mid-’90s, she was caught between deciding to scrap or rebuild the School of Fashion’s textile program at Academy of Art University.
As the school’s then-department director, she paid a visit to her alma mater, Central St. Martin’s, an art school in London where she was introduced to Ungless. At the time, he was working at St. Martin’s textile print shop, and the meeting of the two minds shifted the School of Fashion’s narrative entirely.
What was then the Academy’s smallest school would eventually become its largest under Ungless’ tutelage, transforming the department into one of the most sought after programs in the world in his 20–plus year tenure.
“I had a plan to be here for three months and be back [in Paris] in time for Fashion Week,” he said in his acceptance speech at the Academy’s Spring 2017 Commencement ceremony on May 11. “Twenty-one years later, I’m still planning on being back for Fashion Week.”
Sift through Ungless’ Rolodex and you’ll find names such as Wakako Kishimoto, Elisa Palomino, Christian Lacroix, Perry Ellis, Donna Karan, Stella McCartney, Phoebe Philo, Hussein Chalayan and more among his high fashion network. His career was founded on his collaborations with late designer Alexander McQueen and Ungless’ own penchant for challenging and avant-garde fashion.
Growing up in a time when the world around him desperately needed to be shaken up, Ungless was drawn to the 1970s punk rock movement and its anti-establishment motifs—to call it a do-it-yourself” culture would be an understatement. He began tailoring his own outfits, inspired by the scene’s music, fashion and impact on popular culture.
“I lived for looks, I lived for dressing up,” he explained. “I lived for the reaction. I lived for the fact that if we went into the local town shop my parents would make me walk 50 feet in front of them because they didn’t want people to think that I belonged to them.”
His relationship and collections with McQueen— the brand and the designer—would lay the groundwork for Ungless’ own portfolio but also for the philosophies he would eventually pass onto his students. He pens the brand’s early collections—The Birds, Hunger and Dante—as their most crucial, ones that continued to uproot traditional fashion and oftentimes caused controversy. In a time where there weren’t jobs for individuals like himself and his peers, they opted to build their futures right from their own living rooms.
Honorary doctorate recipient Simon Ungless and Dr. Elisa Stephens. Photo by Bob Toy.
“We built Alexander McQueen from a sewing machine, a stolen dress form and a kitchen table,” he said to the graduates at Bill Graham Auditorium. “We disrupted the system, we destroyed the past and we disoriented the establishment.”
But disorienting the establishment, in some ways, also meant fostering it. As an arts educator, Ungless instills in his students the same fiery passion to create, collaborate and above all, challenge.
“I love to see people develop, I love to see people create,” he said. “It’s this young generation that is going to make changes. That’s always how it’s been through history, whether it’s fashion, music, art, popular culture—it’s the youth.”
Since Ungless arrived at the Academy in 1996, the School of Fashion has grown exponentially. The school has added knitwear, textile and silkscreening labs in addition to other cutting-edge facilities needed for creating collections. He retooled the spring student fashion shows to have professional-quality production values, including two student showings per year at the Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week in New York City.
He calls working with students a “two-way street,” creating a vibrant energy and environment that contributes to his current endeavors: When Simon Met Ralph (an apparel collection) and Blackened (a home and accessories brand). His focus today is about sustainable design and giving objects “a second and third life.”
Speaking on these collections, he said, “I feel very passionate about the environment, very passionate about our industry and where we sit in the world.”
When he opened his speech, he mentioned how much he hates speaking—“publicly, or otherwise”—and that he prefers doing, not talking. But as he goes on, he has just as much to say—if not more—about his time as an educator as his time as a globally-recognized fashion designer.
As he spoke to the audience of graduates and their families, it was clear that sheer will and a staunch vision were the driving forces in his career. But where he drew true value from was whom stood beside him throughout those times, peer and pupil alike.
“In preparing for this speech, I’ve revisited unbelievable opportunities and projects that have shaped my path,” he said to the crowd before him. “And I can now safely say working in a creative industry is about a journey—the people, the places and the things you meet along the way, and it’s never about the destination.”