On a rare West Coast trip, designer Alexander McQueen not only showed up to receive an honorary doctorate degree, but caught up with an old friend, Simon Ungless, the director of graduate fashion at the Academy of Art University. They became close when they met in 1990 as graduate students at Central Saint Martins, but they hadn’t seen each other for nine years. The two reminisced in the lounge of the Four Seasons Hotel in San Francisco, easily lapsing into a fun exchange. Asked what was the biggest change since the last time they worked together, McQueen said, “I’m a bit thinner.”

McQueen last used Ungless’ textile designs in 1996, for his Dante collection, which featured graphic black-and-white prints. McQueen recently dug out an old Ungless project from St. Martins — prints of exotic eggs and butterflies — as a starting point for his forthcoming spring line.

“I want to use Simon as an inspiration for prints, like we used to do at Saint Martins. We haven’t discussed it yet,” McQueen said, and then ribbed his friend for his stunned silence at the idea, adding, “I think he’s looking at our budgets.”

“I’m no more expensive, Lee, than I was back then,” Ungless said, calling McQueen by his first name (Alexander is his middle name). While he may have been at a loss for words about the idea of collaborating again, Ungless hasn’t forgotten what it’s like to work with McQueen. “It was that perfect, once-in-a-lifetime symbiotic relationship,” he said. “It’s the creative energy I remember.”

“We also had similar backgrounds,” added McQueen, 37, the son of cab driver from the East London projects. Ungless, 39, also came from a blue collar family; his father was a game keeper in a village near Hungerford. During their tenure at Saint Martins, the duo roomed together in a house on a sketchy block in South London that Ungless called a “fashion incubator.”

Talk then turned to how the fashion industry currently grooms budding designers. McQueen was bearish on the recent trend in the U.S. to market celebrity designers like the Olsen twins. “Something isn’t quite right there, because fashion just becomes a commodity,” McQueen said. “It doesn’t come down to the concept of good design. It comes down to the concept of bad taste and how good-looking the designer is. That is a very Americanized ideal.”

This story first appeared in the May 31, 2006 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

After McQueen received his honorary degree, he headed to Napa Valley for a mud bath and to the Sonoma coast to see the surfers. But he was disappointed that he missed the shark-viewing.

“Apparently, this isn’t the season for it,” McQueen said, eager to see the predator up close, but inside the safety of a cage. “It’s a different world under there.”