Q&A: Simon Collins

On nurturing creativity, obnoxiously bad design and that Rick Owens show

Simon Collins
By Claire Carruthers
Oct 31, 2013

As Dean of Fashion at the prestigious Parsons The New School for Design in New York, Simon Collins is, in a nutshell, responsible for making and breaking careers – but, and he’d be the first one to tell you, the only person to blame if you don’t make it, is you. His tough love approach is applied to the school’s BFA degree program in fashion design, which sees students from all over the world take on a strict curriculum in the hope that they too, will join the likes of Parsons alumni Marc Jacobs, Donna Karan and Tom Ford, on the international design stage.

Are you familiar with the fashion scene in the Middle East?
No, I’m not aware of it, beyond the fact that we have some very, very good students at Parsons from this region. I’ve always been impressed by some of the perspectives of our Middle Eastern students so I’m intrigued.

As a collective, do you see similar qualities in them?
I’m delighted to say no. I mean, we’re hyper aware of not seeing anyone’s nationality but I can tell you that the successful students, and that would include our Middle Eastern students, have the ability to ask smart questions. I think that really is the essence of a great designer – you have to be forever curious.

Care to name any names?
Yes, Niloufar Mozafari – she was our Designer of the Year two or three years ago. I think the best designers are informed by where they’re from and use it as their inspiration but it isn’t necessarily apparent in their work. Francisco Costa happens to be Brazilian but you wouldn’t look at the Calvin Klein collection and say ‘that looks Brazilian’, you know?

So can you spot if someone has career longevity early on, or do you have to watch them progress?
When you look at someone’s portfolio you’re not looking just at the finished work, you’re looking at the raw sketches – you can see whether they had a genuine vision and point of view or whether it was a one-off. You know, a great album does not make a lifetime’s career; it’s just a great album.

For the organizers of events like Fashion Forward (FFWD), your knowledge of the global fashion industry is obviously very beneficial. But why did you feel it was important to get involved?
Well, I have a personal mission to spread the word about great design. I just find bad design so obnoxious and unnecessary, you know, and personally I’m challenged by it on a daily basis. I walk past things and it hurts my eyes coz the effort that goes into bad design is the same as the effort that goes into good design. [Laughs]

Lack of support seems to be a common complaint for young burgeoning regional designers – what advice can you give them?
The advice I’d give is quite tough: If you wanna make it you can and if you can’t it’s your fault, so don’t look for anyone else to blame. In addition to that, be a designer every single day, so sketch anything that interests you – a car, a building, an outfit – and write down why it interests you. Now, if you come to my school and you’ve been doing that for two years, we are very interested.

On an international scale, which designers are you excited about at the moment?
If there’s one thing that I encourage people to do, it would be to go on YouTube and look at Rick Owens show from Paris [Spring/Summer 2014].

It was pretty special, wasn’t it?
You know, I have a specific hand gesture to anyone who doesn’t think that it’s mind-blowing. It’s one of those moments in fashion when you think, ‘Oh my god this is why I do what I do,’ and I think the fact [the collection] looked beautiful on women who were not sticks was mesmerizing.

Yeah it certainly made a nice change to see ‘real people’ up there on the catwalk.
I know that [Owens] had been planning it for five months and he flew all of those women over from New York and, from what I hear, the atmosphere backstage afterwards was something that moved people to tears. I mean these women were from super low-income families living on the outskirts of New York. I think, quite frankly, it shows the best of what fashion can do. It was like a punch in the face to fashion, and I loved it for that.

Miuccia Prada’s collection for Spring/Summer 2014 is another show everyone seems to be talking about.
I actually find myself less interested in whoever it is and their latest collection just because it could be brilliant – but in the end, it’s just another brilliant collection from X designer. I think now that we’ve lost Lee McQueen, and now that John Galliano is not designing – and for me they were at the very pinnacle of design – I look to other things. Of course I’m biased but I have to say that our own [graduate] runway show is full of radical ideas. You may not like them and some are certainly better than others but at least they’re there, at least they exist, at least they’re challenging.