New York designer Koos van den Akker has found his ideal vacation spot, allowing him to keep a daily schedule sewing his signature collage sportswear for sale in his namesake Madison Avenue boutique. His summer getaway is in San Francisco in a seventh-floor fashion school classroom at the Academy of Art University, where he's a designer in residence for two months. It's a post of his own making, where he's essentially created a West Coast atelier.
"I don't really want to be a teacher. I just want the students to come in if they want and look at what I'm doing, or do what I'm doing," said the designer, who goes by Koos. He sought the unpaid job as a way to unite his desire to teach with the artistic boost he gets from the scenic City by the Bay.
"Kids today get very little exposure to people like me who design like this," said the Dutch-born Koos, who has kept a loyal following since his time in the fashion spotlight during the Seventies and Eighties.
In a corner of the classroom, Koos, 70, has covered the walls, floor-to-ceiling, in a photograph of his crowded New York atelier's bookshelves and worktable. On a recent visit he was in the midst of completing three unstructured coats in lightweight mohair that are accented by fabric collages unique to each garment. He produces a half-dozen pieces each week. A coat costs around $3,000; a jacket, $1,800, and skirt, $800.
Koos had just explained to a student about the textured effect created when fraying fabric into strips and some of the principles of using collage in apparel. He then turned his attention to a coat he's sewing for his boutique — a design inspired by cacti he's seen in dry East Bay gardens. "The bright light in the Bay Area also reflects in my work," said Koos, who calls sewing "the love of my life."
He hasn't been without a sewing machine since he was a child during World War II. At 18, when he was called up by the Dutch Army, Koos brought his sewing machine into service, explaining that he was in the middle of making dresses for a wedding. The Army took advantage of his talent and created a workshop where he made clothes for officers' wives and daughters. Koos later studied at the L'Ecole Guerre Lavigne in Paris and apprenticed at Dior, then moved to New York, where his collage designs took root in Bloomingdale's, Saks Fifth Avenue and Bonwit Teller, among others, along with his own stores.
Koos keeps to a daily 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. schedule. In the evenings he enjoys home-cooked meals with friends. "In New York, you meet in restaurants. Here, you're invited to someone's house," he said. On weekends, you might find Koos browsing used bookstores on Valencia Street or perusing Japan Town shops. "There is time here for these things," he said. "It's less hard-core than New York, which is still my city. I'm just having a love affair with San Francisco."