Fashion Legend Simon Ungless Never Wants to See a Runway Show Again

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This past weekend, designers from the Academy of Art University San Francisco held their annual graduate collection fashion show at the city’s historic California Hall. Once home to rallies for the Hells Angels and concerts for the likes of Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead, and Siouxsie and the Banshees, the landmark building now plays host the the school’s prestigious fashion program. Walking into the grand entrance, you can feel the gust of history at your back. Touring the labyrinthine classrooms and state-of-the-art facilities (everything from digital knitwear to 3D draping and massive screen printing presses failed to cramp the cavernous spaces of the campus), it feels as like the ideal setting for a gorgeous 1980s horror movie.

Though the school may not hold the name-recognition prestige of fashion programs like Royal Antwerp and Central Saint Martin’s, it’s one of the leading programs in the U.S. and also plays host to a runway show at September New York Fashion Week. „I don’t think I need to see another runway ever again,“ program director Simon Ungless tells CR. Ever looking forward, Ungless, who helped Alexander McQueen launch his first collections from their shared London flat in the late ’90s, laments the fast cycle of copycats and the waning relevance of what he perceives as an outdated runway model. On the eve of this season’s graduate collections, Ungless explains how fashion students can carve their way into a changing business.

What is the best way to help fashion students not just make a mark but move into the industry?
“To be honest with you, this kind of thing that’s going on at the moment with these emerging designers coming out of school and having these shows, it’s really necessary for the schools. It’s really necessary to create stars. It’s necessary to have alumni that show in New York or Paris, or that does something in one of these big [industry] competitions. It’s marketing material for the school because education has turned into such a huge business. We’re all running after the same new talent to come here to the school. So if we can say, ‘look at our alumni published in this publication’ it helps drive people to the schools. But I’ll tell you something, about 10 or 15 years ago, we got this incredible placement into the industry. We’ve got all our students embracing the LVMH and CFDA competitions, but we don’t have a Marc Jacobs, we don’t have a ‘this’ and we don’t have a ‘that’ and that’s really important to get new students into the program. In hindsight, I think that’s really such a wrong way of going about it because our students aren’t even those kind of designers. The press are always looking for new things and because everything goes immediately to some social media online—once you’ve seen the image you want the next image because everyone is increasingly hungry to see more and more stuff. I think it’s turned into this THING! Kind of like a monster! A new designer shows up and everyone thinks it’s great but by the second or third season you look at these clothes and it’s like fuck-all is happening in these collections. It’s just a show. It’s more about the stylist.”

It’s a spectacle—A spectacle always does well on social media.
“Like this one designer bought this vintage corduroy jacket and remade it and tied some beads around the waist—the stylist did that—and they sent it down the runway and everyone’s jumping up and down acting like it’s the second coming of Christ, but it’s just a corduroy jacket. And nobody’s going to want it anyway because they already have that corduroy jacket from the ’80s. We’re kind of building this monster. And really, as an educator, what I need to be doing is helping these young people move into the industry that I’m part of—and maybe that’s not fucking fashion shows or creating your own collections. In our main show last year we had a journalist come from Europe and she was very honest and she picked the five or six things from the show that she thought were good, which were the same things I thought were good, and she said, ‘You know, you really need to push them more. They need to be pushed.’ And then I thought, ‘Well then it’s just about me, right?’ It’s just that we’ve become another school with a signature because the leadership at the school is very strong. And I do see that at schools. And then they have the show, it’s all about the instructors, it’s all about the direction of the school, and then what do those students do the season afterwards if you’re not there to do it for them?”

Exactly. It’s always really great when a new designer has a big spotlight, but there is an obsession with novelty. It’s almost impossible for a designer to replicate that attention with the next season. Designers have to go bigger and more extreme with their shows every single season to stay relevant. That’s why so many young designers have trouble starting companies and actually staying in business. You can’t be new forever because, then what?
“They don’t last two seasons! More and more, recently, somebody graduates from school, they have a really lovely project, then they apply for one of these Louis Vuitton prizes, they place high, they get some money, they do that and they make another collection to show in New York, they do a collaboration that everybody looks at in the store, nobody buys it, and the next season they’re gone.Two years later, that person is kind of unemployable in the industry because they’ve had this ‘moment’ in their eyes and become a celebrity. In my experience—doing this nearly 30 years, back with McQueen—we were allowed to just develop. We were allowed to just do a collection of 13 pieces out of our kitchen and we showed it to one or two people, got a little press, and the next season was a little bit more, and then the next season we showed in the hotel, but there was no push to build it into a big collection or to get it into stores. I don’t think that exists anymore.”

Your designers are doing a good job of displaying really visible technique, the way the looks make an impression is that they lead you to wonder about the craft. I think that’s important when going out into the industry.
„Well even last season, one of the designers, whose clothes I didn’t even really love and I’d felt like I’d seen them before—the clothes kind of twisted and contorted off the body—he did very well. We did that showroom for two days in New York and somebody came by and they were raving and saying, you have to go and see so-and-so at a brand. That got set up and he interviewed with a New York brand for an internship which didn’t pan out. They called him back to interview for an assistant design position that came up and they said ‚We need a complete digital version of your portfolio.‘ He left it with them. And now we’re looking at that designer’s collection in Paris, a menswear designer showing in Paris, and there are two of our students‘ projects from his portfolio that have been morphed together and are now going down the runway in Paris. I mean it’s like, how do we stop that from happening? And then I see a certain fabric in a big Parisian fashion show and go, well how did they figure that out, and I go back to my student’s page and he’s given a step-by-step demonstration of how he created that fabric from his collection. I’m like, well you’ve given it away! But the important subject is, do the jobs really exist for these people? Maybe not. And if they go off and do their own collection, how are they going to compete with that in Paris?“

Having pitches stolen or copied is something that’s rife in all creative industries. There’s no recourse when that happens, it’s just part of the process. And once you give someone an idea for free they’re not going to pay for it.
“It’s almost at a fever pitch, I think, especially in the ad business. I never look at clothes anymore. I’m really only looking at castings because I’m obsessed with models. And I’m waiting to see who’s going to break the news of who certain designers will be ripping off this season. That’s what fashion has become for me. You know, I looked at that Diet Prada, which is not even of interest anymore because you can see clearly who’s paying them not to write about them. It’s started to feel like playground taunts. But at the same time, I do want to see designers called out. In fact I want to see them more than called out. That Jason Wu dress which is really a copy of a Balenciaga dress. You think, ‘You can’t keep doing this and getting away with it,’ but of course he’s going to, because none of us have the attention span to care for more than a swipe. So it doesn’t matter.

And the woman who’s buying that gown loves that it looks like a Balenciaga gown. That’s why she’s buying it.
“For me as an educator, every year is almost like giving birth to a new group of graduates to go out into this industry and I’m really questioning everything about it. You know, I shouldn’t say it because it’s my job and I should say, ‘Yes! Come to the Academy for school!’ But really, you have to really think about what you want to get out of it. And as a team running curriculum let’s think about what kind of curriculum we need to put together to get people helped into the industry because the industry needs help, because it’s really fucked anyway. What can we do to help that industry? The one thing I can really stand up and say, and take ownership of is that the students coming out of the Academy can really do the job. They can really design, they know how to source, they know how to make clothes, they know how to cut, and they are a really strong resource for the industry that needs that. I can stand up and get behind that: they’re great textile designers and great knitwear designers, they really can do the whole thing. But, you know, I’m in a really weird transition. I really want to go in a direction where we do things differently. But you do come up against a lot of resistance. It’s not about 30 seconds on a runway. I mean, if I see one more voguing person on a runway I think I’m going to rip my eyes from their sockets. I was there! Back in the day! I don’t need to see it again! Or Lil Kim! I don’t need to see her on a runway! Actually I don’t ever need to see another runway again and I think that’s my problem.”

Sometimes it’s not until the showroom appointments that you can see how incredible the clothes actually are.
“In New York, the first time we did any kind of showroom exhibition, it was not overly busy but we did get people to come by, and for me to watch the interaction between those people and the designers, there was so much more engaging with the clothes and with the ideas and the work. I think so much more good came out of that than from people being at a runway show. There is some video on Instagram of a show from New York, and I remember looking at it and there wasn’t one person looking at the clothes, they’re all looking at their phones. I don’t think they were even looking at the collection through their phones, they were Instagramming, or Tindering, or Grindring, or what have you. Why do you spend money on these shows?”

There’s also a difference in behavior one on one. At a show, you have a spectacle and it’s meant for filming, but in a showroom you tend to at least ask first if you can take a picture.
Well, none of us go to grocery stores anymore, we all go to the farmer’s market. We want to actually know who’s selling us those mushrooms. Who grew the mushrooms? Where did they come from? I’m starting to see that happening in fashion. You kind of want to interact with the designer and feel their emotional connection to it. That’s what that showroom meant to me. People came for three or four hours and spent time talking to the designers. The recruiters from Ralph Lauren came and had been to the show, and came the next day and started talking to one of the designers, who had all this work in digital draping, clothes in 3-D. That’s never going to be evident just on the runway. The whole industry is going to move into this way of working. They came and saw the video and got straight away that she knew it and the next thing you know, she got hired. So, mission accomplished. People come to the Academy, they spend two and a half years here, they’ve got really skilled in this area, which I don’t even necessarily understand but that doesn’t matter, as long as they get hired they’re pretty happy. That’s all there is to me really. That’s what it’s all about.“

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