With McQueen and AAU in the rearview, Simon Ungless relishes his printmaking revival
Simon Ungless, pictured among his screen-printed creations, on the back-deck studio at his home in Larkspur. (Photos by Adahlia Cole)

With McQueen and AAU in the rearview, Simon Ungless relishes his printmaking revival


Giving old clothes new life with his undeniably cool stamp is designer Simon Ungless’ happy place. How fitting, given the fact that he’s in the midst of his own second act of sorts.

In June 2022, the beloved fashion leader, long known for his printmaking, waved goodbye to three decades in academia as the director of San Francisco’s Academy of Art University School of Fashion. Ever since, the Larkspur-living Brit with a design aesthetic best described as playful-London-punk-glam has been busier than ever.

Simon Ungless on leaving Academy of Art: "I woke up one day and was like ‘F me’—I’ve been doing this for 29 years and I haven’t time to do my own work."(Adahlia Cole)

Along with focusing on his sustainable clothing label When Simon Met Ralph, a constant stream of collaborations and projects—including working with Angelina Jolie and her New York atelier—continue to fuel his creativity and keep his calendar booked.

On a recent Friday, I sat down with the ever humble, utterly engaging Ungless and his equally charming partner in life and business, Jody Niederkohr. The assignment was simple: Find out what he’s been up to lately and, generally, shoot the shite.

Dressed casually in a loose tee, camo cargo pants, and sneakers—what Ungless describes as his daily uniform—the former academic and rebel at heart is chatty and relaxed. This, notwithstanding the fact that he clearly has a lot to do for a fast-approaching three-week road trip. Final destination: New York City and The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Sleeping Beauty exhibit featuring iconic Alexander McQueen dresses and jackets starring Ungless’ prints.

In case you missed it, Ungless was a longtime friend and collaborator of the late "Lee” McQueen. They famously met while design students at the prestigious Central Saint Martins in London. He also mentored and later collaborated with McQueen’s successor Sarah Burton, who has said that Ungless’ contributions are part of the brand’s DNA.

Even though it has been two years since the bespectacled Ungless left the institution he helped to found, he exudes the air of a kid out of school for summer. His sense of freedom is palpable—no longer constrained by the business-first ethos and politics of higher (fashion) education.

Was there one thing in particular that made him pack his things and go?

“My viewpoint on education changed over time," he says. "I think it really started in 2008 with the economic crash, when things changed drastically and for good. Schools and education had already become a business all about money, money, money, numbers, numbers, numbers. When the industry you’re providing a service for at the bottom level has gone, or changed, but you’re still churning out more and more designers for no jobs, it’s a problem. This is where my understanding of de-growth started, which is kind of like the complete antitheses of what’s going on. I knew that if we didn’t change, we would not survive.”

After years of coming into significant conflict with the Academy establishment and the larger fashion-education industry, Ungless had had enough. “Thing is, what I always loved about the Academy was the founding principle of ‘artists for artists,’ which always meant practicing artists and designers in the classroom teaching students, so we all had encouragement to do our own work. But then I woke up one day and was like ‘F me’—I’ve been doing this for 29 years and I haven’t time to do my own work.

“If I can get somebody to stop going to the store, even just once, and have them look at what they have and change it and have them fall in love with it again and wear it? That’s a win,” he says.(Adahlia Cole)

“And I think through the pandemic, working remotely, working my ass off to make everything good for the students in some way but also getting lots of offers of work for me to do stuff, I got a bite of the cherry again. This feels really good…there’s life in the old dog yet,” he smiles.

A lot of life, indeed.

His first year post-AAU was a whirlwind: He spent time as a visiting professor at Arizona State and did a little teaching at West Valley College in Saratoga. But the better part of 2023 was spent in the UK, which was a double homecoming: a return to his native England and a return to McQueen.

“McQueen hired me to put together the Rebel: 30 Years of London Fashion[at London’s Design Museum] with Sarah Mower, Vogue.com’s chief fashion critic and guest curator. I had also been working with McQueen during this time on the men’s collection. In fact, I thought I’d be doing more with McQueen, and Jody and I were thinking of moving to London,” Ungless says.

But just as his work on the installation was ending, his onetime mentee, friend, and collaborator Sarah Burton announced her departure from McQueen after 13 years as creative director.

“We came back to California, and I thought ‘wow, that’s all over, what’s next?’”

Turns out, Angelina Jolie was next.

Not long after settling back into his lovely house in Larkspur last October, one of Jolie’s people reached out. The actress and founder of Atelier Jolie, a startup eco-conscious fashion venture and creative collective with a storefront in NYC, was very familiar with—and a big fan of—Ungless’ work.

In short order, the two met, got on very well, and have been working together in various ways since. “We have a similar philosophy in terms of ethical everything…design, fabric, the way people are treated, and the way people are educated globally,” Ungless says.

Along with doing consultancy work on Atelier Jolie’s house brand, pieces from When Simon Met Ralph are also sold at the boutique.

Ungless in his happy place: print-making with Jody Niederkohr, his partner in life and business.(Adahlia Cole)

WSMR is about eight years old, but Ungless finally has the bandwidth to truly nurture it. Every jacket, skirt, hoodie, dress, tuxedo short, and boot is one of a kind. That’s because the label’s philosophy is all about using vintage, deadstock, and discarded garments as the foundation for its creations. Hence, keeping them out of landfills.

“If I can get somebody to stop going to the store, even just once, and have them look at what they have and change it and have them fall in love with it again and wear it? That’s a win,” he says.

By employing his signature graphic printing techniques, as well as other interesting treatments like rusting fabrics, Ungless creates “new” heirloom-quality pieces that ooze modernity with an edge. The clothes themselves tend to be classic, unfussy silhouettes that people want to wear on repeat; in other words, they’re timeless.

Ungless, of course, has been screen printing on clothes since he was a fashion student and during early days at McQueen. His 1995 roadkill motifs featured in McQueen’s spring 1995 The Birds collection captured the fashion world’s attention at the time, and they’re legendary now.

Happily back at it, Ungless is as passionate as ever about his craft: “I really feel like I am a printmaker now rather than a fashion person, and I want the work to have meaning. It’s all about honoring the process.”

While enjoying screen-printing in his yard, Ungless is excited to be moving into a new Sausalito studio starting in August. He plans to take private appointments and maybe get involved with open studios, hold private workshops, and lots of other things.

“It sure will be nice to have our house back,” he jokes.

Jonesing for your own Ungless print? You’re in luck: He’ll be participating in a residency at 7x7 Social Club on Wednesday and Thursday, July 10th and 11th at our Vacant to Vibrant pop-up in Jackson Square. Watch 7x7's Instagram for news on how to sign up. Then, just bring in a garment and let the master work his magic.

// whensimonmetralph.com

When Simon Ralph gives pre-loved garments new life with modern, edgy prints.(Adahlia Cole)

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