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Simon Ungless's career as an educator is well-documented. Currently executive director of Academy of Art University's School of Fashion, Simon has been at the university since 1996. He is credited with putting the fashion program on the map, bringing notable designers from around the globe to Academy's student fashion shows, and launching AAU's New York Fashion Week runway show. His life outside of the school, however, is typically reduced to a sentence about his friends and former students. We sat down with Ungless to talk about his life —now— in San Francisco, and discovered that this self-aware, soft-spoken Brit will chat just as readily about textile design (his area of expertise) as clay pigeon shooting (one of his hobbies).
Simon caught the fashion bug while following Vivienne Westwood's and Malcolm McLaren's work at London's Seditionaries in 1977. "They were dressing the Sex Pistols and I became fascinated with customizing my own clothes into a punk look around age 11. A few years after I read an interview with Zandra Rhodes, who had taken the punk look to inspire her collection, and I realized that fashion could commerce and that you could go to school to study it. That's when I decided art school was for me," he tells Racked.
Inside Ungless's office at Academy of Art University
Ungless graduated from Central St. Martins in London, and eventually became an instructor there. He was plotting his departure from the school when AAU's current Executive Vice President of Artistic Development, Gladys Perint Palmer, approached him to work for Academy. He thought he would travel to California for a summer to help create a curriculum at AAU; he didn't expect to move. "I honestly thought the whole of California was like Baywatch; I didn't realize that Northern California was the way that it is, and it's so beautiful. I thought everything was Los Angeles and Pamela Anderson. Then I got here, and it was foggy, and the summer wasn't quite how I imagined," he recalls. After a friend took him for a drive along the coast on Highway 1, he decided to stay.
But it wasn't just the Bay Area scenery that lured him away from London. "The students made a really big impression on me very quickly," Simon recalls. "There had been a fashion program here for years, kind of based in home dress making. A lot of people were coming here to get educated in fashion, and I thought, 'They're not getting what they need.' So we put the program together, and I saw these young people respond really quickly. It doesn't matter where you are, really. You don't need to be in London or New York to teach fashion, as long as you've got the right facilities. And the University was really supportive in building the right facilities."
Simon made San Francisco his home, finding a loft in SoMa on Third Street —"I lived there for about five years...next to the meth clinic"— before moving to Mill Valley. Two years ago, he bought a place in Larkspur, where his yard boasts redwoods, deer, and squirrels. Inside, his home is filled with animal parts —the collection is another hobby— and Ungless jokes that friends compare the house to a natural history museum.
Inside the sewing lab at Academy
Though his role at Academy demands a substantial time commitment, Ungless continues to work on design projects. "I have a few projects on the go. It's more a question of creating things I want to create with no end point in mind." One such project involves taking existing items, like shirts, and changing the textiles through dying or printing. While wearing one of those designs at Bergdorf's, a buyer asked him about creating shirts for the famed department store. Simon declined. "I'm not even interested in production. I do things for people if I like them." But he admits that he would consider traditional design work if the circumstances were right.
"I would definitely do something if there was an integrity within the creative direction and management of that brand or company. I look at what [Nicolas] Ghesquière is going right now at Louis Vuitton, and it sort of makes me happy that there's actually somebody there producing something of value... If it was something at that level, where I didn't think it was going to be so driven about churning out collections and filling retail stores with piles and piles of shit, then I would do it," he explains.
Perhaps with a little arm-twisting, Simon will be convinced to bring some of his Bergdorf's-coveted shirts to Academy's Shop 657. The store opens December 5th. Let the campaign begin.