Koos van den Akker Sets Up Shop at the Academy of Art University


San Francisco may not be the city that most designers call home, but it’s definitely a go-to getaway for fashion-y types of all kinds during their summer globetrotting. Some breeze through town long enough to make the obligatory department store personal appearance and a round or two of high society party hopping. Others, such as New York sportswear designer Koos van den Akker, hole up for three months for 12 hours a day in a classroom at the Academy of Art University sewing clothes for his Madison Avenue boutique while imparting decades of industry wisdom to collegiate designers in the making. Known for his signature collage aesthetic that saw its hey day in the ‘70s and ‘80s, the Dutch-born Koos has taken up residence in his digs on the 7th floor of the Academy’s fashion school, decorated to look like a recreation of his Manhattan studio, through early August. I caught up with the 70-year-old craftsman recently, where he was busy digging through bins of fabric to create one-of-a-kind coats, dresses and skirts for his fall/winter collection.

Photography by Bob Toy.

You’ve made a career out of your signature collage style. Did it catch on right away when you first started?

I was the first person to do all this stuff. So it wasn’t easy. The fashion press didn’t really know what the fuck it was. Was it home sewing? Was it fashion? They had no idea. So it was difficult. Now I consider myself the mother of it all. I always think I do things originally. It’s not, of course! But my style is totally recognizable.

Who is the most interesting celebrity you’ve dressed?

The Cosbys, Bill and his wife, are definitely the most creative people I worked with and had a nice relationship with. But I’m not much with customers. I am in my workroom and I work. I’m not a party person. I don’t socialize with my customers, I don’t live that life. ... I don’t get off on celebrity at all. I know a few people as friends but nothing like wanting to meet so and so. I don’t have that. In the past I’ve done things for Madonna to Elizabeth Taylor. Those weren’t friendships. Hardly people I met. I was a designer who was in demand and they wanted my clothes and that was the only reason.

Are trends important to you?

No. For my stuff, it’s really the fabric that makes the season. Heavier and lighter, but really my stuff you can wear it all the time. I’ve never watched out for those types of things. I think you need that more when you do mass production. People want to see different things. Magazine needs that. But I just like to make things that people are happy with and don’t want to part with. We do alterations on suits that are 30 to 35 years old.

Where have you been shopping in San Francisco?

Britex, of course. And a wonderful discount store where I’ve been finding great stuff: Discount Fabrics. And I brought a lot from New York. There’s far more there. But Britex is good—it’s a little expensive—but they have everything. Any notion, any zipper, and they have it.

Why did you decide to take up teaching?

I feel like new beginnings. I’ve never worked with a school before. I’ve never been to school. I have worked since I was 11. I wanted to finish my career as a man who could teach kids the things I’ve been happy with my whole life. I think that’s dignified. … and I can take this show on the road. Once I have a reputation [for teaching], I can go to Tokyo for a few months. Or London. It’s like a Vaudeville act. Everyone can speak English, they can see the product and I can show the kids!

What have you learned from your students?

Their need to work and create. I’m on display so I better do it right. They have eyes. They can see things and they can criticize you. It’s being on your toes, and I like that. In my own work room, everyone is used to what I do. So you don’t hear anything. You do it, I sell it and that’s it. But here you get all kinds of reactions.

What still keeps you excited and in the biz?

It’s all I do. I hope I drop dead behind a sewing machine! It’s really my wish. Because I have no desire for retirement or anything. But don’t forget. I don’t do the fashion industry. I’m my own boss. I’m inspired by things and I make them. No one can tell me we can’t sell it or why are you doing it? We just do it.  … At my age people in Holland or New York sit around and collect furniture. It’s boring as hell. But me? I’m always discovering things.

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