Atelier Jolie Taps Simon Ungless for Residency

Customizing, repurposing, tailoring and mending to give clothing another life are at the heart of Atelier Jolie, Angelina Jolie’s sustainable fashion business.

This week, her New York store welcomes its first artist-in-residence, Simon Ungless, a printmaker who came up in the ’90s London fashion scene, collaborated with the late Alexander McQueen, and with Sarah Burton for the spring 2024 McQueen men’s collection.

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At the shop at 57 Great Jones Street (the former Jean-Michel Basquiat studio, fittingly enough), customers can bring in their own pieces, or buy something from Atelier Jolie’s in-house deadstock and vintage-made label for Ungless to reimagine. Set up in the ground floor studio, he is silk-screen printing for shoppers one-on-one, and will lead monoprinting on clothing classes Wednesday and Thursday. The $25 tickets sold out within minutes of being posted.

“Being here has given me the opportunity to work directly with customers on communicating that what they already own is everything they need. They don’t need to keep buying more. One woman took off her shirt and I printed it with her,” said the designer. “What can be done to make you fall in love with a piece again, and want to wear it, and maybe keep it forever? That’s what I’ve been asking them.”

Based in Larkspur, Calif., Ungless recently left fashion academia after 27 years to focus on When Simon Met Ralph, his hand-dyed and printed vintage and deadstock clothing line, which sells at Atelier Jolie and online.

His one-of-one pieces carry on the punk tradition of ’90s London, but with a California environmentalist anti-establishment stance now directed at fashion industry waste.

Ungless, 57, works out of his apartment nestled among the redwoods, where he uses the backyard as a studio to print lace effects on a sweater, “roadkill” tire treads on a ladylike faux shearling coat, and trompe l’oeil folds on a Claude Montana jacket.

Some pieces are designer vintage, others don’t even have a label.

“It could come from any decade, it’s whether it feels right in terms of fabrics and silhouette and what can I do to change it in some way,” he said during a recent interview on a rainy Marin County morning, explaining that he sources through local charity shops and sometimes Goodwill when he can find something among what’s increasingly become “a whole store of Shein.”

A model wearing white canvas dance boots that Ungless hand-painted poses in a multicolor cotton plaid shirt dress lovingly screen-printed, hand-dyed and bleached; a drop-dead gorgeous sheer black lace gown with dripped black latex at the bodice; and a red puffed sleeve party dress with bow at the waist, monoprinted with black folds.

Jolie found Ungless through Instagram, the two met over a video call last year, and she started stocking his pieces when she opened the store last year.

“It’s meaningful to have Simon as our first artist-in-residence. That he’s willing to share his skills and background, and make his craft accessible to all, is notable,” Jolie said in an email. “Those in the industry know Simon and his talent, but to collaborate with absolutely anyone who has a garment to upcycle — and offer an affordable class — is generous, and breaks from gatekeeping. That’s what we really want to do with Atelier Jolie and our home at 57. Everyone should have the opportunity to create, learn and share ideas with the best artisans from around the world.”

“I think she did a little research to find out what I’ve done in the past and she loved the fact that I’ve been a teacher,” he said of Jolie’s hunt for creatives who can rework garments, whether it’s through cutting and sewing, dyeing or some other technique. “It all goes back to being 10 years old and punk rock and not being able to afford to go to Sex and Seditionaries,” he said of his DIY aesthetic.

He has been using the same techniques since 1992, when his prints of the Robert De Niro character Travis Bickle appeared on McQueen’s “Taxi Driver” collection, which he helped make alongside his friend and Central Saint Martins roommate. (Ungless recently recreated that collection, which famously introduced the bumster pants and then was stolen from a London bar, for the “Rebel Fashion: 30 Years of London Fashion” exhibition at the Design Museum in London.)

Rubberized drip effects on dresses and sweatshirts also link back to that time, which marked the start of several years of print collaborations with McQueen, whom he awarded an honorary doctorate at The Academy of Art in 2006.

“That all came from working for Lee in our back garden. We stole a dress form from Saint Martens, wrapped it in Saran Wrap, to protect it from paint we were using on the clothing, and then when we got done, we looked at it and said ‘that’s amazing’,” Ungless remembers of the painted-on plastic. “Lee cut it up the back, put in binding and a zipper and it went down the runway in ’94 for ‘Nihilism’ and became a signature. Everything he did from that…for years — the molded breast[plate] and corset came from that time. And I still do that on bits and pieces. I’ve been doing these lace dresses I wrap and cover in latex…I guess I’m kind of a one trick pony with my techniques,” he said.

Ungless also introduced McQueen to Sarah Burton, who would become creative director of the brand following the designer’s death in 2010. Their longtime friendship led to a print collaboration on the McQueen spring 2024 men’s collection in stores now, one of her last before leaving the house.

While the British designer remained closely linked to the London scene, in 1996, he moved to San Francisco to help establish The Academy of Art University School of Fashion, and eventually was named executive director in 2014. Almost immediately after arriving in California, Ungless saw the need for sustainability to be part of fashion education.

“It started in 1997, when I went to the Central Valley for a farm tour and I was completely fashioned out, bouncing back and forth to Paris and London with Lee. I learned about the impact of cotton farming with all its pesticides on the environment,” Ungless said, remembering a pond filled with polluted water that was under the flight line of where migratory birds nest. “They showed us all these pictures of deformed chicks, and I connected to that, the environment and its effect on wildlife…Then I started integrating it into the curriculum, including having sustainable fabric and fiber makers sponsor students.”

Even then, before the dominance of fast fashion, he knew sustainability would be a hard sell in the broader industry.

“But I thought if I could arm the students with information, they are not going to be hired as sustainable designers, but they can go into Ralph Lauren or wherever and spread the word. That’s how it happens, it’s a quiet revolution.”

Ungless left the university last year disillusioned with the fashion education system.

“I think education globally has turned into just another level of toxic business. Fill seats, pass people through classes, nobody fails. You know, resources cut, cut, cut, cut, cut. I’ve lost so many of my team — 17 in one day. And then just the expectation that I could keep going,” he said.

Today, he questions the viability of the system with so many more fashion programs graduating students each year to fewer opportunities and more debt.

“The fashion education business is in the same state as the fashion business. And I no longer felt comfortable perpetuating the dream that there is something at the end of it.”

Toxic business practices are also ailing the fashion industry, with pre-collections and monthly drops flooding the market with product that feels less designed and considered, harming the environment at the same time.

“It’s all about dollars and the bottom line,” he said. “What I really love about Angelina is she is talking about the people during the process, right from the farmer who grew the fiber. It’s this ethical way of thinking, not being purely about profits, and also keeping the art and craft of it.”

It’s certainly a different way of using a celebrity platform in fashion, not necessarily to burnish one’s own reputation, but to elevate others with a wide range of perspectives, deep experience and skills.

“I don’t think it’s all about her,” said Ungless, characterizing her as a mentor.

Atelier Jolie plans to announce additional classes, such as cooking classes with Eat Offbeat, salons, and experiences with artisans and painters. People can also book tailoring and upcycling services on the website.

The premise of the pieces that are designed under the Atelier Jolie label, such as a jacket that has three collars that button on and off, is that they can be customized. Prices range from $50 for a necktie, to $440 for a deadstock silk trenchcoat, to $750 for a suit.

Ungless’ When Simon Met Ralph pieces start at $300 for a sweatshirt. In addition to selling at Atelier Jolie, he’s also been posting and selling through his Instagram, where sometimes people copy his techniques and send him photos.

Part of achieving less waste is encouraging people to use their own things, and maybe try their own DIY. “But it’s a bit of a fine line because I also want people to buy my things,” he said, adding that he’s just started working with a new commercial manager and would love to sell at Dover Street Market.

Ungless will be showing his pieces on the runway March 17 at Fashion Week El Paseo, a consumer-focused event in Palm Desert, Calif.

“It’s not about ambition or more money. I want to be comfortable and continue living in Marin, which is not cheap, but it’s really about finding people to work with whose product or whose aesthetic I believe in. I worked for Lee for seven collections and got a total of 500 pounds. I even paid for my own fabric. It wasn’t about that. There’s more benefits to doing something than financial.”

Launch Gallery: Angelina Jolie's Atelier Jolie Welcomes Simon Ungless

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