SAN FRANCISCO — For Sarah Burton, in San Francisco to be awarded an honorary doctorate from the Academy of Art University, the whirlwind visit was an opportunity to catch up with fashion teacher who changed her life.

Seated next to her at a lunch Wednesday was her longtime friend Simon Ungless, the former instructor at Central Saint Martins who in 1996 introduced her to Alexander McQueen.

“Lee was looking for an intern, and Sarah was the most hard-working and talented student,’ explained Ungless, now the director of the school of fashion at Academy of Art University. “Sarah stood out because she was so focused and selfless. She had no ego.”

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According to Ungless, fashion students were so desperate for an internship with McQueen that they’d even stalk him at nightclubs, causing altercations.

“I knew everyone wanted to work with Lee, so I was always so surprised that Simon chose me because I was quite shy, I still am. I wasn’t the coolest,” said Burton.

The designer is still hardworking, it seems. When a guest, who was heading to London, asked for Burton’s tips for the hot things to do there now, she demurred.

“I’d be the last to know because I work all day, and then head from the studio in Clerkenwell to my home in St. John’s Wood,” she said. “But I did attend the preview of the Lucien Freud exhibit, so I’d highly recommend that.”

Also nibbling on crab salad at the luncheon were Suzy Menkes, Princess Reema Bandar Al-Saud, Tatiana Sorokko, Suzy Kellems Dominik, Deepa Pakianathan, Cameron Silver, Angelique Griepp and Arianna Sullivan.

On Thursday evening, at the school’s graduate fashion show of the work of 100 students at The Cannery, Burton and milliner Philip Treacy, along with Princess Reema were named honorary doctors, while two students were awarded internships at the Alexander McQueen design studio in London.

One internship went to Maria Azucena Romero, who impressed fashion professionals in the audience with an animated film of extravagantly costumed dolls. Zhangchi Wang, whose fashion inspirations include Chinese stone carvings, won the second internship. Treacy selected Jacqueline Michie, whose witty hat designs had impressed him, for an internship at his studio.

Also crammed into the bleachers to watch the student show were Cathy Horyn and Suzy Menkes, who had earlier in the day participated in an animated Q&A on fashion journalism.

“One student asked why there were no whistle-blower fashion reporters in major publications,” asked Horyn. “I told them that this was a great opportunity for a good fashion reporter entering the field, and told them to go for it.”

Also cheering on the graduates were Craig Olman and James Edwards of Abercrombie & Fitch (which awarded student internships).

Friday, Ungless took his Brit pals on a tour of hidden beaches and dive cafes in wild West Marin, on the dramatic coast just north of San Francisco.

“I want them to see the real California before they head back to London,” said Ungless.

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