From Nike to Parsons, fashion thinker, SIMON COLLINS has lent his eye for detail along with his nose for success to shepherd students and brands alike. We spoke with the provocateur, executor, and raconteur about his forward thinking perspective and being the ‘Go-To’ for those looking to capture what is next.
BY KENNETH RICHARD
Simon, can you share a bit about your background?
My career has been very much a zig zag from leaving fashion school to being an international tailor in Camden Town around the time of Galliano etc.; then moving to New York and being a creative director, then moving to Hong Kong and being the Creative Director of Nike. And then deciding to change the whole thing, having a cup of coffee in Le Pain Quotidien, overhearing a professor talking to a student and that giving rise to me going to Parsons and ultimately becoming Dean of the School of Fashion, taking a fairly quiet, understated design school and turning it into a global megabrand. Then after 7 years of that, bringing it all together and now ultimately advising different companies and brands etc. on how to think like a designer.
You left Parsons after growing it to international stardom, as much as you can with regards to a university, and you’re now leveraging all of this experience to counsel brands. What is it that you think brands are lacking?
I’m constantly amazed by the stupid things that brands do that they don’t realize. I certainly don’t confine myself to fashion, it’s everything. I find, in particular, the US based airlines like United give the impression of a company that despises its customers. If they could screw you a bit more, just a little bit, they would because they hate you. And I feel that. They’re so stupid that they have an announcement when you get on the plane that they’d like to extend a special welcome to the frequent flyers or whatever it is, and the clear implication is, if you’re not one of those, then we don’t extend that welcome to you. I always think, do you not realize what happens here?
Where do you see the biggest shortcomings in fashion? Because fashion folks are fairly bright,
…it’s not an unsavvy group. So where do you see opportunities?
I think the two biggest areas for the future of fashion are technology and responsibility. I think companies that are paying no attention to that will not be successful in the end. If you look at fast fashion, you’ve got the companies like H&M and Zara which are demonstrably dedicated to responsibility and, as much as they can, doing the right thing and continuing to expand on doing the right thing. Then you’ve got other companies like Forever 21 that are doing precisely nothing to be responsible, they are dedicated to making money for themselves with apparently no regard for responsibility. That, to me, is a very small-minded and unprogressive approach and it’s not going to be successful.
Because the world is moving away from that. If you look at a more progressive part of the world, i.e. Europe or Asia, both of which are more progressive than the US, they are deeply aware of the importance of responsibility, by which I mean sustainability. The US has been somewhat slow to catch up, but we are. We are realizing that when you look at the global brands and what they do, I mean, H&M and Zara are two of the biggest fashion retailers in the world and they are both dedicated to sustainability. So it’s the inevitable future – thank goodness – and they’re embracing technology to achieve that. So when you look at other companies that are not, that are in it just for a quick buck or to send out more stuff just as quickly as they can, I can’t see that as being smart or successful.
With regard to technology, where do you see opportunities?
The thing about technology is that it’s got to enhance things we want to do, not give us opportunities to do things we don’t really want to do or we’re already doing. I was just hearing about the latest technology fair which took place just last week, and the ultimate review was there’s not much going on. There were more watches and more phones, but we’ve already got the best watches and the best phones. And, ultimately, you don’t really need the watch. To me, the excitement around technology is in responsive clothing, clothing that can vary the temperature of the wearer according to the outside temperature, or clothing that will enable you to track your kid, or that can charge your phone, or is responsive in a way that we really need and is not just another gizmo that we don’t really need. That, to me, is the excitement.
I read a fantastic article recently on Zara, they apparently have this control center in Spain which monitors every aspect of every single store in their group – and they have 3500 stores around the world – so they know if the light’s been left on in a store in Australia, they can monitor that and turn it off. So they can operate at a much more controlled way and not waste energy. That, to me, is a good use of technology.
Tell us about you new Fashion Garage project.
When Julie Gilhart and I decided on the Fashion Garage, we had several different altruistic desires. We wanted to give free advice to young designers – that was the driving force. That’s easy, we just get them all together, we sit at the front and we answer any questions they’ve got. Done.
I also wanted to enable them to meet each other because they don’t do that. Unless they go to some fashion social, and they probably don’t get invites to other people’s runway shows. In my day, getting invited to all the magazine parties was the only way you get onto the radar. But when they’re launching and in the first few years, they might not get those opportunities. So we managed to create opportunities for them to actually meet each other and share stories, experiences and ideas.
For me, it’s also about learning. I’m interested in what the challenges are for these new brands so that I can keep current.
In addition, we generated some publicity around it, which meant that we could attract some of our friends who are big names to come down and offer their advice. So it worked for everybody and everybody benefited from it.
We are really excited for our second conversation Part Deux: Responsible Design, happening October 29th.
We look forward to being there!
What were some of the challenges the young designers were having?
There’s the perennial question regarding how much one should focus on generating editorial buzz versus marketable commercial pieces when one only has a limited number of styles and collections. Which gave rise to an interesting conversation around Europe vs. the US. If you look at a US runway show, chances are you’ll see almost all of that available to buy whereas if you look at a European runway show, there is quite a large part that’s essentially just created for the runway.
What do you think some of the rookie mistakes are that a lot of fashion designers make in their first, say, 10 years?
I think a lot of designers let their ego get in the way. They think, ‘This is my vision, I love this, this is what I want to do,’ as though that’s enough. And you do need those things, there has to be your vision, but you’ve also got to understand that if you’re designing a dress and you can’t wear it, it’s not a dress. As much as that may be your passion and your vision, if nobody wants it, go and do it in your bedroom, because nobody wants it. You’ve got to listen to your customers, listen to advice from everyone. Don’t necessarily slavishly follow it, but be constantly curious about a better way of doing what you’re doing.
As a person who gives out so much advice – what’s the best advice somebody’s given you?
Funnily enough, it’s got nothing to do with fashion, but it’s sort of life advice along the lines of: ‘Don’t worry about what you haven’t got, enjoy what you have got in terms of time and family and life and everything else.’ So many people are fixated on things they haven’t got that they want, and I’ve learned – maybe it’s age as much as anything else – to aspire to do whatever it is that I want to do, but to not lose sight of the things I do have and enjoy them.
And I think that’s a very healthy way for people to approach business. Of course you want to expand business, but if your only drive is expansion, then that’s like avarice and there’s no pleasure in that. You know, it’s about the journey, not the destination.
What are you looking forward to this year?
Well, we continue the Fashion Garage, I’m very excited about that.
I’ve been working with IMG, so it is wonderfully exciting to see the realization of the reinvented Fashion Week. It’s every bit as good as we all hoped it would be. We learned a lot by speaking to everybody we could, listening to criticism – as hard as that can sometimes be – then asking smart people around the industry what they wanted from this experience, what we needed to deliver for Fashion Week. We wanted to find a way to give value to all the constituencies, whether it’s the buyers, the media or the designers.
I’m also excited by the work I increasingly do now for governments and institutions. The design thinking philosophy applies to everything, so the UK government has come to me because they do a campaign around the world. They see the success of what we’ve done and the drive that we have and the success in communications, so they’re intrigued as to what we’re doing and how we can use that to help them. So I’ve been working with them.
Also, although I can’t give specifics yet, the Fashion Garage is leading up to an event, a project which I’m doing in May of next year. It’s going to create a very large stir, I think, and it’s going to be very provocative. It’s something that I’ll certainly be happy to share a little later on, when we get more details, but that’s something that is on my personal agenda.
Where do you feel America is at on the global stage?
Well, I don’t think it’s getting more influential. I think it’s, in some ways, I’m not going to say stagnant, but I think it’s slowing down. And you’ve only got to look to the right at the BRIC countries, and really in particular China, to see that people are increasingly looking at what’s going on there. It’s a long way off from being as influential as America, of course, but like I said, I think the tide has turned and the US is not increasing its influence. I think the influence that China has is growing enormously.
What would the US need to do to increase its influence?
The fact is that the big corporations are crushing creativity. The minute you have an interesting neighborhood, then the big groups come in and they put their generic blah in it, and it crushes the opportunity. Thankfully, in New York, and I’m sure in other parts of the US, we carry on and do exciting things anyway. But it’s not because of the help of the government or the big corporations. They just want their 5 year decent money payback or whatever their exit strategy is and that’s how corporate America is not helping creativity.