Why ‘Unconference’ Is A Ping Pong Match Of The Minds
We spoke with Fashion Culture Design Founder and CEO Simon Collins about the provocative conversations that will take place at this year's Unconference
You know the age-old question: “If you could invite the most brilliant minds to a dinner party, who you would you choose?” Well, Fashion Culture Design’s Unconference is that scenario played out in reality.
Before you roll your eyes and think, “oh no, not another snorefest of a conference!” and dread being compelled to watch scripted PR pitches on stage, prepare to pulled from your Instagram scrolling slumber and thrown into an intense ping pong match of the minds. Why the ‘un’ in Unconference? Because the event truly is the antithesis of your everyday conference because it brings the world’s most creative leaders together for a full day of intense debate, innovation and inspiration. In fact, as per the company website, it’s a ‘cliche-free zone with no boring pitches or PR blurbs’.
Cohosted by Fashion Culture Design Founder Simon Collins and
H Squared Research Chief Research Officer Hitha Herzog, this year’s event will take place on June 16 in NYC with speakers such as Jeff Staple (Staple Design), Leandra Medine (Man Repeller), Vanessa Friedman (New York Times) and Zac Posen (Fashion designer and Girls’ writer). The Unconference’s ten essential conversations cover a range of themes—from what Gen Z will want next, the fashion system and how it uses data. These unique conversations with results you can take away and do something with.
We caught up with Simon to talk about what will play out at this year’s brain picking ping pong match.
Emily: For those people out there who are not so familiar with the Fashion Culture Design Unconference, could you possibly provide a rundown of what’s in store at this year’s conference and how the actual concept came about?
Simon: I’ve worked as a creative director for brands like Nike, Polo and Zegna in Europe, the US and Asia and served 7 years as Dean of the School of Fashion at New York’s Parsons School of Design. In 2015, I joined the Board of Parsons and founded The House of Collins advisory group to advise brands, companies, young designers, fashion weeks and governments. The Fashion Culture Design company was a way to build a network of people all around the world who wanted to continue collaborative conversations, and so I was urged by lots of different people in quite large positions to find a way of getting everyone together again. So that’s when the Unconference was born. As far as the name ‘Unconference’ is concerned, we all know that with the exception of PSFK, conferences are pretty boring. They tend to be a time to spend time on your phone, and if one of the conversations through the day was all right, then you feel like you’ve done well. It’s just they’re generally product pitches and PR people, and I just can’t do that.
It was very clear to me that I had to do something which had no speeches, pitches or products. Instead, it’s all about conversation. We have smart moderators on stage—anything from two to four people—and we just pose questions to them which everyone might discuss over wine in the evening, but no one really discusses in a public forum.
That was our premise, and at the end of the day, I feel like we’re only successful when we send people away with ideas they can do something with. It’s a very quantifiable return.
On that note, how do you get the speakers to stray from this PR script and use their actual brain power to address certain questions?
What we do is we say to them, “It’s more of a brain trust or a think tank than an exploration into any given product.” I conceived of the question in the first place, and then I circulate it amongst a trusted group of advisors who expand upon it. We then pose the question in the very beginning and ask very provocative questions around it, and then we hand that over to the moderator and the moderator gets new ideas from the panel.
To be perfectly honest, I’ve got a reputation for being quite provocative, and people like that. They actually want a conversation where they’ve got to think. That’s why they want to be on stage.
What are some of the conferences that will be discussed at the conference this year?
“What will Generation Z want next?” Everybody wants to know this, and if all you do is talk to some research companies, then you’re just going to get a bunch of mid-career, mid-managers giving their spiel. We’re going to ask Jeff Sable who’s old friend of mine. He’s one of the most influential people in design and a lot of people have never even heard of him, which is amazing. When Generation Z sees him, they jump up and down because he’s a rock star.
But then we also have Leandra Medine from “Man Repeller.” She is incredibly prevalent, and then also Kate Lewi who is in charge of digital for Hearst. She lives and dies by what Generation Z wants next. She can’t function unless she’s got a handle on that. Then you’ve got something a little provocative, like, “Advertising in the US is dead” where we’ll be discussing some of the brilliance of advertising versus the garbage we get fed, with Andrew Essex, the CEO of Droga5.
Then we’ll discuss creativity in the time of Trump. How in the 70s, we had the rebellion against Reagan and Thatcher, in the ’60s, we had rebellion against the Vietnam War and these subcultures created an amazing volume of arts, fashion, music, and whole new ways for us to live. Now that we’re all rebelling against Trump, what’s going to happen, and what’s that going to create? We’ve already taken to the streets, so it’s definitely a movement, but is something more than that going to evolve?
We have New York Times Fashion Director Vanessa Friedman who is incredibly in demand, along with Jeremy Varon, who’s an academic who studies protests through the years. I think that’s going to be a really interesting conversation. Then you throw in Zac Posen, a very well-known fashion designer with a huge following.
One of the things that’s important to me is talking outside of the bubble. We lost the election because all we did was talk to ourselves, and I can’t have that. I’m interested in all the things that unite us, as people that believe in this country we live in and the world as a whole.
Why do you think it’s important to initiate these thought-provoking conversations about the current state of these interconnected industries?
Well, going further afield, one of our conversations is, “Is China designing the future?” If you look at WeChat, it’s bigger than Hollywood. In just one day, WeChat does more business than all of Hollywood in the whole year. And most Americans have never heard of it! We’d better get our heads around that quickly, because how long is it going to be before a Chinese brand—whether it’s WeChat or whatever else—suddenly is on every single High Street, and we didn’t see it coming?
We have Microsoft and Google talking about that on stage, which is going to be amazing, along with young Chinese entrepreneur Lea Wu, who started an online shopping brand called Shop Shots, which within minutes, got 100,000 followers.
The panelists come from such incredibly varying backgrounds, which shows that the industry is made up of several moving parts. It shows that they each have their separate goals and sometimes they’re kind of at odds with each other.
Our premise is that fashion, culture and design affect every single thing we touch—even nature. We plant nature in particular areas because of culture, because “it’s in fashion”. Certain plants are in fashion. Everything we’re touching right now—our phone, table, chair, floor, building, along with the city and neighborhood that we’re in—is designed by fashion, culture, and design.
Companies that understand the importance of design become Apple. The companies that don’t become Microsoft. You can’t say, “Well, that’s not really for us.” It’s for everyone, whether they like it or not.
Obviously, designers and creatives enter the industry because they want to express themselves creatively. But at the end of the day, they’re running a business, and they need to make a profit. What are your tips on how brands can be outlandishly creative with design, but still have that mass-market retail success?
Every single tiny little detail of everything we do has to be considered and designed, because brands that want to be mass market, often they’ll say, “Well, we’ll put some design into this bit, but the rest of it, we’ve just got to get it out there.” One of my points is often, “You’re every bit as good as the worst thing you did.” Say, you produce nice products, but you give it out in really crappy paper bags—well, then you’re the guy that produces crappy paper bags. If you have a great product, but your website sucks, you have a company where the website sucks. I mean, what’s the first thing you think of when you think of United? (Laughs)
Make sure that everything you do lives up to the brand promise. Whatever it is, you’ve got to provide value, not profit. A $30 dress can provide immense value if it’s got the aspects of the dress that people want. Equally, a $3,000 dress can be devoid of any value, because it misses the things that you want.
You can buy a street vendor sandwich and really enjoy it, and it could’ve cost you three bucks, but it’s the best sandwich you ever had. Or you can go to a three-star Michelin restaurant and spend $500, and it’s miserable, because their waiter didn’t do a good job. Value has got nothing to do with price.
How have you seen the discussions from 2016’s conference shift over the past year, given the current political climate?
That’s an excellent question. I think we had a sense of optimism last year, because we felt we were heading towards a political shift. Politics has infected everything that we do, and so now, we’re fighting a rear guard action, and desperately trying to prove that science is real. Frankly, we can no longer take for granted certain truths, frankly. We have to accept that and we have to say, “We were just speaking to ourselves. We have to speak much more widely now.” As I mentioned a little while ago, my co-host at the conference is a financial reporter from Fox News. That said, she and I are not going to disagree on “Advertising in the US is dead,” or on, “Long live fashion week.”
For me, I have conversations now where I’m anxious to make points which will resonate no matter what side of the political spectrum somebody’s on. I didn’t worry about it before, because I figured on that, “It’s OK. Everyone knows that x is x,” and now, you can no longer make that assumption.
I know you’ve said in the past, “I’m not proposing to offer answers to any of the questions that are raised. That would be naive. It’s more about shedding light on the difficulties of the industry.” If there is one thing you really want people to take away from the Unconference, what is it?
I would like them to go away with the intention of doing something which they’ve never done before and will make them step outside of their comfort zone.
With the speaker line-up you have, it reminds me of that scenario when you ask someone, “If you could have a dinner party with the most brilliant minds, who would you choose?”
Barack Obama, Donald Trump and Prince Charles.
What’s on the horizon for FCD? How will it continue to evolve?
FCD has become an ecosystem. We have FCD China coming up in Beijing in October. We also have a series of podcasts that we’ve already launched, which is going fantastically. There’s also a series of salons which are taking place all around the world. We just did one in Copenhagen a couple of weeks ago. They’re in any city, wherever we go. We’re also thinking about exhibitions and education, so FCD exhibitions and FCD education.
What we’re doing is not happening anywhere else. The idea of being committed to only conversations. That’s why I launched my little Instagram tirade of slightly mocking ads. If you want to go and see PowerPoints , I can give you 10 different places to go, and maybe you’ll have fun there. But we’re not that.
We’re buried in the very heart of New York City. We’re thrilled with how it’s really caught fire, and we’re going to take it around the world.
Thanks for the golden nuggets of insight, Simon!
You know the age-old question: “If you could invite the most brilliant minds to a dinner party, who you would you choose?” Well, Fashion Culture Design’s Unconference is that scenario played out in reality. Before you roll your eyes and think, “oh no, not another snorefest of a conference!” and dread being compelled to watch scripted PR pitches on stage, prepare to pulled from your Instagram scrolling slumber and thrown into an intense ping pong match of the minds. Why the ‘un’ in Unconference? Because the event truly is the antithesis of your everyday conference because it brings the world’s most creative leaders together for a full day of intense debate, innovation and inspiration. In fact, as per the company website, it’s a ‘cliche-free zone with no boring pitches or PR blurbs’.