Recently, Sarah Burton asked Alexander McQueens’s longtime collaborator and friend, Simon Ungless, to create a print project from home and video it for their YouTube page. We were impressed with the project and wanted to know more so we sent Ungless a few questions to find out how it all came together. The artist, who is also the executive director of the school of fashion at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, fills us in!
Check out the video of the project.
What did Sarah and the McQueen team task you with for the YouTube video? Could you create whatever you wanted or did they come up with the idea?
Sarah and I talked about how this moment in time, sheltering in place and working from home feels very much like the old days when we did not have access to all the resources. It was a time of working with what we had and of being resourceful. We looked at a few of my pieces for my brand @whensimonmetralph and decided on a technique I have been doing since I was a student and had done for McQueen for The Birds but ultimately I could do whatever I wanted.
You created this while sheltering in place. What was your concept and what were the challenges?
My roadkill prints are I think my signature. I started doing them for my own clothes when still in undergrad school. I was obsessed with Dada and Marcel Duchamp’s ‘ready-made’ pieces, taking every-day objects and modifying them and I started printing directly onto ready-made garments. I enjoy how the print looks, the graphic nature, the just run over on my way to the party vibe and I also love that it pushes peoples buttons. I get so many comments about how dare I print on vintage and designer pieces. It’s a total eye roll moment for me. The only challenge was having to go to Home Depot during social distancing to buy a bigger table to print on. I used my yoga mat to pad the surface. It all worked out.
You mentioned in the piece that Mrs. Higgenbottom’s skirt “fell into your lap” recently. Can you tell us more and who is Mrs. Higgenbottom?
I was given the skirt about a year ago. It still had a small manila label attached that said Mrs. Higgenbottom’s skirt, 1860. I have no idea who she was but having an owner in my head helped build that narrative of who she was and what print I should do. I think a designer should always have a customer in mind even if she’s been dead for a century.
What will you do with the pieces you created?
Those two pieces are very old and delicate, maybe too delicate to wear. They are still hanging in the garden right now. I have a really hard time letting go of some pieces and those two are quite special to me considering it felt like a home coming done in the time of Covid 19.
You introduced Sarah and Alexander. How did you first meet her and what’s your relationship like?
I met Sarah when she was a student in the first year on the BA Fashion Print course at CSM in 1994 I think and I was the print and dye technician. We worked quite closely together for her first 2 years at the school and then I moved to California in the late summer of 1996. Sarah would help me with prints for McQueen. We have one of those relationships that time or distance does not change. Bonds of textiles, fashion and of course Lee cannot be described.
You worked on the Alexander McQueen brand at the beginning of the brand and this is a return for you many years later. Could this be the beginning of more collaborations with the brand? Would you be interested?
I never say never. Those early days for me were very special and I completely feel an affinity to what Sarah does at McQueen. Of course I would be interested but who knows? Someone recently asked me to recreate that early ’90s moment, we don’t need to recreate anything, we need to create new.
What does it feel like to come back to your roots?
I’m very traditional in what I do with my work and how I teach. Learn the rules then break them is running through my veins. Working with McQueen on their Creators project and doing what I do felt extraordinary and incredibly emotional and brought back all the rule breaking. It brought a connection to Lee that is hard to describe. We would work in our backyard, making textiles, making clothes with passion, no premeditation, no sales, no orders, no nothing and it was just us, in the garden, making things. Fashion is missing that emotional connection for me and this project slapped it right back at me.
This is obviously a scary time for fashion with so much uncertainty. What instances can you think of from the past that the fashion community can learn from to feel some inspiration that things are going to be OK. How do you think we will overcome this and readjust?
I’m hopeful that a move forward will be more transparent and considered. I hope consumers start to feel more of connection to clothing as they do with food. What goes on the body is just as important as what goes in it. I hope we will have the courage to buy less and in the end force companies to produce less and produce better. I am sad that many companies will not survive this time and it is devastating that many people are losing jobs and going through such impossible hardship. We will always need to cover our bodies, we will always need different clothes for different situations but it is way too soon and way too in the thick of the situation to think about a way forward.
Why is art important during times like this?
Art is the movies we are watching, the books we are readying, the homes we are living in, the clothes we are wearing. Artists and Designers touch everything in our lives, I think most people just forget that.
How are you staying creative during this experience of quarantine?
I’m lucky. I teach design. The two classes I teach are filled with bright, young, talented, challenging, creative and skilled designers. The classes are senior collection classes. This situation has not stopped the students. Not having an end of year show is not stopping the students. They are finding ways to overcome this moment in time and I find that deeply inspiring. We are in this together and that feeds my creativity. I’ve never stopped designing and making. The shelter in place has taken away all the noise that would distract me from getting on with my craft.