San Francisco's Academy of Art University School of Fashion Mixes Innovation, Sustainability and Style

Pati Navalta Poblete | February 24, 2020 | Style & Beauty

Designers at Academy of Art say seasonal trends are out, sustainability is in.


If San Francisco has its finger on the pulse of fashion trends, the Academy of Art University School of Fashion provides the heartbeat. Graduates here have gone on to work for an impressive list of iconic brands, including Alexander McQueen, Louis Vuitton, St. John and Diane von Furstenberg. For almost 25 years, the school’s executive director, Simon Ungless, has seen fashion trends come and go, and come again, but lately he’s seen a shift in designers’ philosophies that transcend the cyclical nature of fashion.

The trend now, he says, is that there is no trend—at least not in the traditional sense. Conversations about the new “it” look usually hone in on hemlines, colors and silhouettes, but more and more, the school’s designers are focused on processes and material choices that minimize waste and maximize wear. In short: classic over seasonal; quality over quantity.

“Very often the designers drive the conversation because they’re very much part of a generation that wants to instigate change,” says Ungless. “They don’t buy into trends. They’re aware of the negativity surrounding the industry with the environment, energy, waste. There are clothes that have never been worn, or clothes worn for 35 days, then disregarded.”


Academy of Art University School of Fashion executive director Simon Ungless

Not that Ungless has turned his back on fashion houses—in fact, after graduating from Central Saint Martins School of Art and Design in 1992, he went on to collaborate with Alexander McQueen on his first 10 collections shown in London and New York. But he knows that in order for the industry to evolve, it must come to terms with a generation of consumers that care about how their clothes are made and what impact they have on the environment. The closings of Barneys and Forever 21 in Union Square are clear indicators of an industry at a crossroads.

“We need the industry to stop telling people that the green shirt you bought last week is no longer good, and that you need to buy a brown one instead,” says Ungless. “We need to move away from mass-produced apparel. This starts with having designers, merchants, buyers, product developers who really know what they’re doing. If they do the job right, people have better choices for color; there will be the right quantity in the right sizes. But when you go to these stores, you see a whole rack with a particular color and they never get sold. That should have never been made.”

To address these challenges, Ungless points to designers at the school who are exploring ways to integrate sustainability with design. This is the type of work that Ungless says will help the industry navigate the market’s new landscape. “Different restaurants or businesses have gone bust because Generation Z didn’t believe in it or buy into it, and you see those companies go under,” he says. “I think we’re going to see that in this industry. But if they hire young designers who are savvy in how to produce sustainable clothing, it would save them.”

Here’s a look at three collaborations at the School of Fashion that Ungless points to as models of innovation:

Designer Collaboration 1:

Milijana Delic, MFA Fashion Design and Milos Delic, BFA Industrial Design (siblings); New York Fashion Week Show in September


Above: Designers and siblings Milijana and Milos Delic. Below: The designers say their clothes are focused on utility and simplicity.20200120FSHSanFranciscoMagazineDesignerCoverageMilijanaMilos1.jpg

Design philosophy:

Milijana: I believe designers are problem-solvers. Especially in a world that is slowly becoming more awakened to our relationship with the environment we live in. Design has been a part of the problem our planet faces today, but I believe that design is also the solution.

Milos: I try to find a happy medium between function, form and keeping it as simple as possible (no fat). My intent is to create a pleasing artifact that is also intuitive to the user.


Milijana: I am very much a geometrically inclined thinker. I like order and straight lines, so my design aesthetic usually falls in line with a more structural school of thought. I also look at clothing as utility and something that should be useful in the wearer’s everyday life.

Milos: I am sort of a minimalist. However, my goal is to distill the elements at hand and curate them into a cohesive language for the viewer to digest. As for color theory, I enjoy a tonal palette with pops of color.

Sustainability element:

Milijana: When designing a collection, I always try to integrate some element of sustainability into my work. In this collection, I have been using CLO3D software to fit my looks. This is a digital software that allows you to sew your garments virtually. It allows me to quickly see my looks, adjust silhouettes, change fabrics and colors and make design choices without being wasteful. Another sustainable act that I incorporated in this collection is being a scavenger of materials. I often go to the shop at school and pick through students’ garbage. Here I have found interesting forms or molds that students get rid of and find a way to incorporate these shapes into my clothes.

Milos: As a studying industrial designer and human (who wears clothes), I’m always looking to problem-solve and optimize my wardrobe as a utility. I think this thought process along with how we think of the materials and manufacture processes is where opportunities are at in fashion.

This spring, I see people wearing:

Milijana: More conscious clothing.

Milos: Fat-tongued skate shoes inspired by the early 2000s.

Designer Collaboration 2:

Aishwarya Gajare, BFA Fashion Knitwear Design and Li Ming, MFA Fashion Design (not pictured); New York Fashion Week Show in September


Above: Designer Aishwarya Gajare. Below: Gajare puts a modern and sustainable twist on classic knitwear.


Design philosophy:

Gajare: As a designer I feel responsible to address issues that I deal with on a daily basis in my country, India. Religious riots, sexual and domestic abuse, scarcity of clean water and sanitation are just a few of the basic problems I have experienced firsthand. I believe through my design concepts and sustainable approaches, I will one day be able to bring a larger shift in fashion and how it could play an important role in politics.


Gajare: My goal with my design approaches is always to understand women and empower them in every possible step. I like to extensively research middle-class/rural women and understand their daily requirements in clothing and how their culture influences their fashion. I combine functionality and ethnicity using natural and affordable materials like linen, wool, cotton and also novelty materials like palm leaves, raffia yarn, bamboo yarns, etc.

Sustainability element:

Gajare: My process and ideologies deal with how fashion can contribute toward a transformed future, breaking away from the wasteful effects of fast fashion. I wish to work on a local scale if I were to start my own brand, working closely with my suppliers and growing most of my materials in-house, bringing to slow fashion a fresher meaning and spreading inclusivity.

This spring, I see people wearing:

Gajare: I do see politics affecting a lot of street fashion. Lots of military-inspired wear. Even the preppy kids are finding ways to incorporate grunge looks in their pastel outfits. We need a statement in everything we wear. Because it is the kind of time we are living in.

Designer Collaboration 3: Tanya Kaushik, BFA Fashion Textile Design and Xiangyi LeiBFA Fashion Design (not pictured); May Graduation Show in San Francisco


Above: Designer Tanya Kaushik. Below: Kaushik explores sustainability practices through prints and fabric choices.


Design philosophy:

Kaushik: My philosophy of design is in the quality of how visual elements work together in a composition. Whenever I work on designs, I see a rhythm with itself and harmony with its surroundings.


Kaushik: My design is based on lineal and structural shapes. For me, textile design goes beyond fabric; it’s more about which surfaces will modify the feelings or emotions that an individual will encounter with the geometry I experiment with.

Sustainability element:

Kaushik: The main focus of sustainability that we find in textile design is toward printing on sustainable materials or fabrics. It’s not as easy to print with nonchemical pigments as they fade faster. This is why we approach sustainability through the fabric choices, which are natural ones such as wool, silk and cotton.

This spring, I see people wearing:

Kaushik: I would like to see people wearing more prints. Even though modern consumers have been overusing minimalism as the main core of design choices, we are facing a new interest for individuality, which happens to be given by our choices of prints. We are seeking something beyond a uniform.

Photography by: Danielle Rueda (Simon Ungless photo by Isabelle Bejarano). Designer Process and Collaboration: @academyufashion
Art Direction/Stylist: Flore Morton @academyustyling @floremorton Styling Assistant: Genevieve Plageman @mediocretamagotchi