Simon Ungless has some strong words for fashion students and young designers. In an industry that is in the midst of widespread change, the Executive Director at Academy of Art University School of Fashion in San Francisco, who first made his name when he collaborated with Alexander McQueen on the late designer’s first 10 collections, says that budding young talents need a reality check. Speaking to the CFDA last year, Ungless set the stage, saying, “Social media, reality television, and celebrity fashion often given the impression that anyone can do this, but the truth is that this takes a lot of work and a lot of being challenged.”
More recently, Ungless sat down with 1 Granary – the collaborative publication that joins students from Central Saint Martins, The Royal College of Art, Parsons, and Antwerp's Royal Academy – to shed some light on the state of young design talent (“We are setting them up for an industry that doesn’t exist.”), the influence of celebrity designers like Kanye West and Virgil Abloh, and what, exactly, needs to change. You can find the full interview on 1 Granary and a few key excerpts below …
On modern-day fashion students: We’re in a really different time. The population coming into this school has dramatically shifted in a very short period of time … They haven’t [been] set 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?
On the state of fashion education: 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.
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.
On fashion industry prizes: 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?