An interview with Dean Simon Collins

by Sarah Lee

School of Fashion Dean Simon Collins launches his new book entitled The School of Fashion: 30 Parsons Designers at Milk Studios this weekend, featuring stunning portraits by photographer Siljia Magg. In his book, Collins documents the stories and thought processes of some of the world’s most renowned designers, all of whom got their humble start at Parsons The New School for Design.

The exhibition runs from 10th April to 19th April 2014 and is open from 8am to 8pm everyday.


The thirty designers featured in the book include the likes of Alexander Wang, Chris Benz and Donna Karan, their personalities and characters captured in short entertaining questionnaires like “What is your greatest fear?” and “Who are your heroes in life?” A rare insight into the qualities that shape their identities, Collins manages to provide aspiring designers and artists alike with a close up portrait of their heroes. Along with these interesting questionnaires were several collective images of the designers’ bodies of work, including iconic fashion sketches by Donna Karan and drawings of the Rocco bag by Alexander Wang himself.

Several original pieces were shown in the exhibition at Milk Studios. In the book, readers get a glimpse into the huge variety of styles of the designers that emerge from Parsons, exhibiting the diversity of The New School as a university. His book also includes a range of life stories, struggles and successes, sure to inspire any would-be designer looking to be a part of the fashion industry. The exhibition also includes black and white portraits of the designers in their intimate settings shot by photographer Siljia Magg.

Sarah Lee: Parsons has always been known for its ability to churn out creative heavyweights in the fashion industry, why do you think a book like this has never been done before, and why do you think that now is the best time to launch such a book celebrating these great designers?

Simon Collins: This one of those books that must have been done before. At least that’s what I thought when someone suggested it to me. So I can’t claim it was an original idea, just a book waiting to be written. I think our faculty and students were all concentrating on being great designers rather than writing about them. I’m privileged to be the very first Dean of the School of Fashion and so perhaps my position has allowed me a new perspective. I would’ve published it mush sooner but there is too much to do to simply keep up with the great work that’s going on across Parsons.

SL: In your book you mentioned that some designers inspired other designers who inspired other designers and so on (“Behnaz admired Narciso, Narciso admired Donna, Donna admired Claire”). Do you think this is an important aspect of the reputation of Parsons as a popular design school, and what advice would you give to a fashion student who is inspired by one of these designers?

SC: When a young person has an idea to become a fashion designer it’s natural that they look to their design heroes and wonder how they got to where they are. With so many in fashion it was a question of studying at Parsons. And so it makes sense that if you want to be like Marc Jacobs you consider studying where he went to school. People sometimes ask if there is something magic about what goes on at Parsons, how else can we explain the extraordinary number of successful alumni. There isn’t any magic. Just hard work and passion.

SL: Some of the answers by the designers to the questionnaires in the book are very humorous whilst others are very personal, but they manage to create a snapshot of them as individual people. Do you think an intimate portrait of the designers helps us understand them better, and how was the process of getting those filled out like?

SC: Fashion isn’t a 9-5 job. It is a very serious business. It’s also a lot of fun. A successful designer needs to understand both aspects to really get the most out of life and fashion. The designers actually liked the diversion of the questionnaires. Some thought very hard and some dashed off their first thoughts. Both are equally relevant.

SL: The exhibition contained stunning portraits and close-ups of the designers in action and it is strange to think that all of them had humble beginnings as students at The New School. As in the saying “You. Never. Leave. Parsons.” in what ways do these designers remain a part of the university, and what advice would you give to a senior at Parsons about to graduate from the school? 

SC: We continue to support our grads through their careers. First when they graduate we connect them with potential employers or business partners. Once they’ve been out for a while we offer them chances to take part in external projects for established brands. Later we find interns and designers for their teams. Finally we look to them to be honored at our Fashion Benefit. Along the way we invite them in to speak to classes or to review our Thesis presentations. Parsons is two way relationship.

SL: Lastly, it is great to be reminded of the many inspiring alumni that come out of Parsons. Do you, too, consider yourself to be forever a part of Parsons, and how has the experience of leading one of the most prestigious fashion schools in the world changed your perspective on creativity and life in general?

SC: fter a 20 year career in fashion with many career highs like working with Junya Watanabe or being creative director or Nike in Asia I found the perfect job at Parsons. The role of dean brings together everything I’ve learned through my career and requires me to be constantly learning and evolving. I am surrounded by brilliance and I’m in awe of what our students and faculty constantly create. It is an honour and privilege to perform this role and I will forever be grateful for the chance. I Never want to Leave Parsons though I won’t be dean forever as we’ll find someone smarter soon enough. Until then I’ll do all I can to leave the bring value to the school and create beautiful solutions.