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Original McQueen collaborator presents brand at Atelier Jolie

By Jackie Mallon


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People |Interview

Simon Ungless, founder of When Simon Met Ralph, at work Credits:Tyler Graves

Freshly returned to his San Francisco home after completing a residency in Atelier Jolie, the new NYC-headquartered fashion enterprise promoting artisanal craft founded by Angelina Jolie, Simon Ungless is hard at work creating garments for his upcoming show during El Paseo Fashion Week.

In 2020 he founded his passion project, When Simon Met Ralph, while still working full-time in education. The origin of the name is indicative of Ungless’s artistic process of happy accidents: Early on someone enquired about the name of his burgeoning brand, he looked down, saw he was wearing a Ralph Lauren polo shirt, and replied “When Simon Met Ralph.”

This informality reflects the the essence of punk and the DIY aesthetic that has been present in Ungless’s work since his early days, penniless and brimming with creativity, when he worked alongside his pal, the late Alexander McQueen, to create the designer’s runway collections from a South London backyard.

In a full-circle moment Ungless was invited back into the McQueen fold last year to collaborate with Sarah Burton on her final collection for the house. FashionUnited managed to snatch some time with Ungless to discuss his return to industry after 25 years building and running the fashion program at Academy of Art University and to delve into his exciting new projects.

What is the motivation behind When Simon Met Ralph?

I think really it was when I moved to California in the late 90s and I started to be educated on sustainability and conscious design but in a grass roots way. I was thinking about how I could make my clothes last longer and I was aware of the amount of stuff that I would shop for. I changed overnight and began to think, well, that polo shirt that I've worn a few times and people have already seen, why not fold it out and drip resin or pour latex on it, or put it outside for six months and see what the sun can do to the color. That was the start, really.

How did your artistic process evolve from there?

It became about how to stop people from shopping and more about shopping our closets and "rehabilitating" items, seeing how we can get more life out of garments. I'm in a lucky position as I've got this kind of history with my work and of course the McQueen thing really helps. I did something for a client recently rehabbing two of her husband shirts, and now he's in love with the shirts again but it's also like they have a piece of my art.

Rehabbing techniques from When Simon Met Ralph Credits: Tyler Graves

Where do you source garments?

For nearly 40 years I have collected a huge archive that I've integrated into what I do. I try to be really conscious, sourcing maybe two days a week. I do estate sales and have a couple of charity stores that I go to and people give me stuff all the time, plus a few resources in the industry. If I take a road trip somewhere then I plan my route where I can source because I don't even want to add to my carbon footprint. Locally there's an incredible little store along the Russian River and the staff message me when they have something they know will be of interest. I don't do multiples, they're all one-off pieces so I'm not online trying to find 10 ball gowns, for example. I don't want to get into production.

How did you get involved with Atelier Jolie?

I think Angelina found me on Instagram and I guess she liked my work. I think we have a similar aesthetic, and I think she really enjoyed the fact that I had been in education but also knew I was a bit of a troublemaker. We had our first meeting via Zoom and I felt I had just had an hour long chat with an old high school friend. But Atelier Jolie is totally her, it’s her plan, it’s her project. It's not a license and it's not about production. It's not about profits. It's about a different way of being and hopefully, at the end of the day, we can help people through education. It’s not about making the next big brand, it's anti- that, if anything. That’s why I said yes.

In your Atelier Jolie residency you were rehabbing pieces from the closets of New Yorkers who brought items into the store. How was that?

I felt like it went full circle back to the art. It all ties into why I got into education but also why I left education, connecting my creativity with what Atelier Jolie is hoping to achieve. It’s about layering the art back into fashion, maybe something that was more common a few decades ago and what drew me to fashion in the first place, but it has been kind of been eliminated from the industry. I might be very naive thinking that I can I can help bring some of this back, but it seems to be hitting a nerve. My work was dealing with that before the Atelier opportunity but events aligned perfectly. Years ago, I heard Lee say, I'm here to destroy the industry from the inside out. And it has always stuck with me. I can get behind that. Something needs to be changed if not destroyed.

Have your sources of inspiration changed since you were working in McQueen's back garden?

No, not at all. The things that I have been obsessed with since I was a child, I’m still obsessed with. For example, when I first saw pictures of the Tollund Man, I was completely obsessed, and I have a dress on my print table right now that I think could have been worn by the Tollund Man’s wife if she were taking acid in the 1970s. I always have to have a narrative when I'm working, a person or a story. And that's why I love working with used clothing because I can build a narrative really quickly.

Printmaking from When Simon Met Ralph Credits: Tyler Graves

Are you looking for a retail space, or would you like to get into more stores?

I was always really set against going into stores with what I do and so I was selling online and direct to consumer, but that's so hard. I spend more time dealing with complete nutters than with people who want to buy something and I've had to block people. I’m not super expensive, but I can't sell items for 25 dollars and I don't do buy one, get one free, or whatever. I said no to a few really great retail opportunities in the past because I didn't want to go that route. But Atelier works for me because while the clothes are for sale they're also examples of what anyone can do with the resources available on the ground floor. People can come in to get a little inspired, then they can take off their coat, put it on the print table and print it there on the spot. It’s this free exchange of ideas. There’s nothing better than when somebody who doesn’t have a fashion background comes in and experiences this. It's great to be generous and share that information. That's what I want. So that's why I think Atelier works for me, and maybe a few other stores, other locations. If I get the opportunity to continue to participate with Atelier I would love to see where that goes.

You mentioned prices, can you give a range for your pieces?

It really is a range. Some items that I've sourced are super special, and they took me a lot of time. For example, in Atelier there’s a really amazing Romeo Gigli suit from the late 80s that I then had a go at. It's 2,000 dollars which I think is reasonable for that particular piece, but then I have sweatshirts at 250 - 300 dollars, and then there are prices in between based on each piece and the work that has gone into it. I might have a coat on my print table working on it for a week. I don't want to sound really arrogant but people are prepared to spend hundreds of dollars on a night out, but when you buy something that I've worked on you're buying a piece of art and history. A moment in history.

How does it feel after so many years in education, to be back in the industry on your own terms?

Since I left the academy, I've had project after project, all really diverse, whether it's an exhibition, helping write a chapter for a book, and I still have a couple of consistent gigs at schools. But the break was so completely necessary. Those last few years of being at the academy I traveled more to international schools and I started to really see everything that I hate about education, or more to the point, people working in education without having a solid industry background or experience. The executive suite sucks you dry and I felt completely burnt out. Post-pandemic, I needed to live by my own policy and to get back to working on what I do, with a few little visiting professor jobs on the side, a little consultancy with a local community college, so that I still get to experience working with students. I realized maybe I've got something left in me, but not full time. I have something to give again and my own work fills me up and then I can be generous in how I give back. Honestly I've had the best year and a half. Working with Sarah on that exhibition (REBEL 30 Years of London Fashion at the Design Museum, which closed in February and was curated by Sarah Mower), was a gift. I was there at the beginning and there at the end because it is the end of our tenure with McQueen. It's now a whole different thing.

Academy of Art University
Alexander McQueen
Angelina Jolie
Fashion Education
Sarah Burton
Simon Ungless