Marin fashion designer on his new chapter with Angelina Jolie

Simon Ungless, former chair of the Academy of Art University fashion department, silk-screens a jacket at his home studio in Larkspur on Dec. 12.

Photo: Lea Suzuki/The Chronicle

On the deck of his tree-shaded home in Larkspur, Simon Ungless scraped black ink through a silk printing screen onto a white coat. The designer, clad in a splatter-pattern hoodie and camouflage pants, made for a striking juxtaposition as he executed his punk-tinged art form amid the tranquility of Marin.

“The whole point of this print is that it looks run over,” said Ungless, the former director of the School of Fashion at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. His English accent lilted as the description became more pointed. “I call it ‘roadkill.’ ”

Lifting the screen, he revealed dark tire tracks. The coat was the kind of classically tailored outerwear typical in many Northern Californians’ wardrobes, but with the added print, Ungless gave it a sense of humor. 

The printing technique is one Ungless, 57, has been employing since his design-student days at Central Saint Martins college in London in the early 1990s. He most famously used the tire tread motif for his friend and former roommate Alexander McQueen’s spring 1995 collection “The Birds,” inspired by Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963, Bodega Bay-set film of the same name. The collection was a breakthrough for McQueen, who reigned as an international fashion star until his death in 2010. The collaboration forever etched Ungless’ name into fashion history. 

The ethos of Ungless’ now 8-year-old clothing brand, When Simon Met Ralph, is a combination of those two worlds: the brutal beauty of London’s underground culture of the 1990s and the eco-conscious, easy-dressing style of Marin. By sourcing dead stock and vintage garments as materials for his collections, he’s keeping fashion waste out of landfills, while his screen printing gives the garments Ungless’ signature ironic glamour.

Simon Ungless, former chair of the Academy of Art University fashion department, returned to fashion house Alexander McQueen to continue making prints with Sarah Burton, the creative director. 

Photo: Lea Suzuki/The Chronicle

“I think Simon’s very instinctive and driven by his creative urge more than anything else,” said New York fashion designer Keanan Duffty, a longtime friend and former senior director of the School of Fashion Merchandising at Academy of Art University. “I do see the massive influence of Northern California in him as a human being now, but his motivation is still very much coming out of that London ‘f— you’ attitude. You can have those edges really brushed off you in the fashion business or in academia in order to be successful, but I think it’s in Simon’s DNA.”

On a rack of finished designs in his home studio, Ungless showed off an overprinted white dinner jacket, cream cable knit sweater and black velvet cocktail dress. 

“The narrative in my head for the collection I’m working on is about classic shapes, tailoring, things that aren’t too complicated,” said Ungless. “I’m having a reaction to clothes that are difficult to wear and performative. I want to create things people not only want to wear, but want to keep.”

That commitment to both wearability and sustainability — with an edge — has been key to the latest turn in Ungless’ career: his involvement with another fashion rebel, actor and activist Angelina Jolie. 

In June 2022, Ungless left Academy of Art after 27 years, hoping to slow down. Instead, he was thrust back into the thick of the fashion industry. That year, he not only returned to the Alexander McQueen brand to design new prints for former creative director Sarah Burton, he also helped create the visual concept for the Alexander McQueen section of the exhibition “Rebel: 30 Years of London Fashion,” at the city’s Design Museum in October. The show has received critical praise for how it sheds new light on the trailblazing fashion years Ungless was part of.

Simon Ungless, the former chair of the Academy of Art University fashion department, holds an Alexander McQueen jacket he designed. 

Photo: Lea Suzuki/The Chronicle

Burton first met Ungless in 1995 when she was a student at Central Saint Martins and he was her tutor in textiles. From the beginning of her relationship with him, she said, “It was very apparent that Simon was a fearless creative.” 

“In many ways he was very like Lee (Alexander McQueen),” Burton continued. He was “always challenging the conventional way of doing things, making you believe that nothing was impossible, always in the pursuit of something new and exciting.” 

Burton said that both Ungless’ work and his friendship with McQueen “are embedded in the foundations” of the Alexander McQueen brand.

Following Burton’s departure from Alexander McQueen in September, Ungless began discussions with Jolie about her new eco-conscious fashion startup, Atelier Jolie. In December, it was announced that his When Simon Met Ralph line would be sold at Atelier Jolie and Ungless would be a consultant to the boutique, located in a lower Manhattan building once home to artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. His work for the highly anticipated project has so far focused on line development for Atelier Jolie’s private house label. 

In an email to the Chronicle, Jolie said that she had long been an admirer of Ungless’ work.

Simon Ungless returned to fashion house Alexander McQueen to continue making prints with creative director Sarah Burton. He is also assisting on the design of a major museum show about his old roommate Alexander McQueen.

Photo: Lea Suzuki/The Chronicle

“He comes from a time when the fashion world was exploding with creativity, and he continues to experiment, create and teach for the love of the work,” wrote Jolie. “Simon brings craft, experience, and a career spent exploring and mastering design — in a way that’s rebellious and playful. It’s a reflection of our own ethos and creative direction.”

For Ungless, there was an immediate connection in his Zoom conversations with Jolie this October. While he was familiar with Jolie’s films and humanitarian efforts, he wasn’t aware of the under-wraps Atelier Jolie project, a kind of design studio meets retailer with an emphasis on environmental responsibility. 

“Even though she’s about 10 years younger, it was clear we had the same kind of experience with punk,” said Ungless of Jolie, whose red-carpet style has evolved from goth drama in the 1990s to a more polished look in the 2000s. “But more than just that shared aesthetic, she was interested in talking about the planet and my being an educator.” 

Although Ungless is no longer a full-time design school administrator, he hasn’t left education. Since 2022, he has been consulting for the fashion program at West Valley College in Saratoga, and is a visiting professor for the fashion design school at Arizona State University. (In August, ASU acquired the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising, which has a campus in downtown San Francisco.)

Jamie Banks, founder of the swimwear line Change of Scenery and an MFA graduate under Ungless’ at Academy of Art, is not surprised that he has stayed involved in education.

A silk-screened design by Simon Ungless dries in his yard. Ungless is taking on new a role with Atelier Jolie — the eco-conscious brand founded by actor Angelina Jolie. 

Photo: Lea Suzuki/The Chronicle

“It was never lost on me when I was a student that Simon had this incredible history as a designer and collaborator,” said Banks. “Simon’s gift to us was that he pushed the limits of our creativity to help us bring out our personality in a design.” 

Along with his new role with Atelier Jolie in 2024, Ungless will be busy closer to home, too. In March, he will present a new When Simon Met Ralph collection at Fashion Week El Paseo in Palm Desert (Riverside County), his first solo show as a designer. And before that, a suit from McQueen’s 1996 “Dante” collection featuring a floral print by Ungless will be presented at the de Young Museum as part of the exhibition “Fashioning San Francisco: A Century of Style,” opening Jan. 20. The ensemble was a gift to the de Young by author and fashion collector Christine Suppes, a friend of Ungless for two decades. 

“This isn’t the first or last print of Simon’s to be in a museum,” said Suppes. “When I bought the piece in 1996, I knew I was probably buying one of the most important pieces in my life, and then it was such a joy getting to know Simon. I’m not surprised someone like Angelina Jolie would see his genius.”

More Information

“Fashioning San Francisco: A Century of Style”: Fashion. 9:30 a.m.-5:15 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday. Jan. 20-Aug. 11. $15-$30. De Young Museum, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, S.F. 415-750-3600. www.famsf.org


Reach Tony Bravo: [email protected]

  • Tony Bravo

    Tony Bravo is The San Francisco Chronicle’s Arts and Culture writer. Bravo joined The Chronicle staff in 2015 as a reporter for the former Style section, where he covered New York Fashion Week for the Hearst newspapers and served as the section’s editorial stylist, in addition to writing the relationship column “Connectivity.” He primarily covers visual arts and the LGBTQ community as well as specializing in stories about the intersections between arts, culture and lifestyle. His column appears in print every Monday in Datebook. Bravo is also an adjunct instructor at the City College of San Francisco Fashion Department and is the fourth generation of his family born in San Francisco, where he lives with his husband.

    He can be reached at [email protected].

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