Marin's Fashion Icon

For more than two decades, illustrator and writer Gladys Perint Palmer has been gently (and sometimes not so gently) skewering the loopy denizens of the international fashion world with her expressive and revealing caricatures. Exaggerating a muscle-bound John Galliano in a white wifebeater, for instance, or sketching a fashion editor dozing in the front row of a runway show with her legs apart and wearing no underwear, Palmer has often brought a much-needed irreverent eye to the rarefied demimonde in which her subjects dwell.

While her pricking of fashion’s hot-air balloon is often winsome and mostly amusing, not everyone has been happy. Surely not that knickerless editor whose sketch garnered this Palmer caption: “Hazards of the front row. Cross your legs, editors, and wake up!” Certainly not movie producer Harvey Weinstein, who hated Palmer’s rendering of him as a rumpled, overweight man in an ill-fitting suit.

Mostly, though, fashion’s glitterati have been able to live with Palmer’s spontaneous renderings, which have appeared in publications from the New Yorker to Vogue. Her sketches, signed with a large GPP, were included in last year's 100 Years of Fashion Illustration, and The Fashion Book, published in 1998, included her as one of 500 people of influence in fashion since 1860. Palmer’s work is also compiled in the 2003 Assouline book Fashion People.

“Gladys really captures the magic and mystery of fashion,” says Robin Givhan, Pulitzer Prize–winning fashion editor of the Washington Post. “You look at those illustrations and you’re not seeing a fashion reality; you’re seeing her fanciful interpretation of it.”

Dame Vivienne Westwood, the English designer credited with starting the punk movement, has known Palmer for many years. “A fashion sketch can say more than a hundred photos and as much as one great photo,” she says.

For the past 13 years, Palmer, who lives in San Rafael and travels to Paris four times a year for the ready-to-wear and couture shows, has also been establishing a fashion design program at San Francisco’s Academy of Art University (AAU). As executive director of the School of Fashion, she reigns over a passel of instructors, most of them working professionals.

Bringing both her academic training and her fashion industry connections to the table—she studied at the prestigious Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design in London and at Parsons the New School for Design in New York—Palmer has instituted a rigorous design program and attracted big names. Paris designer Azzedine Alaïa was guest of honor at the 2005 graduation fashion show and selected an intern from the school. Westwood received an honorary doctorate in 2007. Oscar de la Renta, Givhan, Suzy Menkes (acclaimed fashion editor of the International Herald Tribune) and the Yves Saint-Laurent muse Loulou de la Falaise have all visited. In May 2006, Palmer and the British textile designer Simon Ungless—a fellow Saint Martins grad and the school’s director of graduate fashion—persuaded fashion king Alexander McQueen to fly in from Europe to receive an honorary doctorate and award internships to three overjoyed students. This coup landed AAU on the pages of industry bible Women’s Wear Daily.

British designer Zandra Rhodes, known for zany clothes in clashing colors and prints, took two AAU students as interns at her American headquarters near San Diego. “I knew that of all the colleges you can get someone from who is right for you, it would be AAU, because Gladys and I have both been trained in the old school,” Rhodes says. “At AAU, it’s not about the quick computer garbage. If you go to some basic colleges around the country, they lift some kind of hokey drawing of a figure and have the students draw on top of it, and basically they learn to copy. Under Gladys they learn to draw.”

Though none of Palmer’s students have become breakout successes—no latter-day Marc Jacobs or Tom Ford has emerged as of yet—she’s proud of AAU’s worldwide success placing students in jobs and internships at companies ranging from Banana Republic to Louis Vuitton to Martin Margiela. Graduates hold design positions at Ralph Lauren, Burberry Prosum, Calvin Klein, Donna Karan and Zac Posen.

It’s no small achievement to entice the potential style-makers of tomorrow to study in a city not exactly considered a fashion mecca. Furthermore, AAU is the only school to have its graduate collections premiere on the runways during the Mercedes-Benz–sponsored spring and fall fashion weeks in New York City’s Bryant Park—the brass ring for any young designer. Not even Saint Martins or Parsons can claim that particular feat.

After showing her collection in New York in the spring of 2007, AAU alum Lene Andersen landed a job at Donna Karan, where she works as a sweater designer. “I have always admired Donna Karan, and being able to work in the Collection (division) is a great opportunity,” she says.

Karan says AAU prepares its students for the world of real fashion. “AAU makes sure its students have the talent as well as the required skills as designers,” she says. “But it also teaches them about how clothes have to function and ultimately fit into a woman’s lifestyle.”

To build up AAU’s enrollment from 250 students to the current 1,500, Palmer took a cue from her Saint Martins mentor, Muriel Pemberton. “She always said to hire the best teachers and let them get on with it,” Palmer says in her razor-sharp English accent.

There has been some criticism from those who say a university with no entrance requirements other than a high school diploma can’t be worth attending—an idea Palmer energetically pooh-poohs. Some 12 percent of AAU students are international, many of them not at all proficient in English.

“Maybe it’s easy to get in, but it’s not so easy to get out,” Palmer says, with more than a hint of irony. “The people who graduate and get into the final fashion show are so good they get jobs all over the world. While it is open enrollment at the beginning, it’s very competitive at the end.”


Palmer raided the top British art and design schools for teachers. Ungless, her most important hire, has been instrumental in setting up a four-year program that includes pattern cutting, design, drawing and art history and thereby aims to give students something other schools do not. “Most schools have standardized classes, so all students take those same subjects,” Ungless says. “AAU has allowed us to create a unique curriculum that takes elements from the best of what we all learned in school combined with the best from what we have learned in [the] industry.”

As one example, he cites the symbiosis of two- and three-dimensional design instruction. “In many other programs these areas are separate,” says Ungless. “We take a two-dimensional sketch through to a three-dimensional garment using flat pattern, draping and construction techniques. We believe that design has to be partnered with 3-D design so that the designers can learn to make what they design.”

British-born Sara Shepherd, an AAU grad who worked at Jeremy Scott and Pamela Dennis before starting her own women’s clothing business in San Francisco a year ago, says the school gave her “a wide range of skills. Instead of, ‘Can I draw this on paper?’ it’s, ‘I know how to do patterns, create garments, produce line sheets,’” says Shepherd, whose clothes are sold at MAC in Hayes Valley and Eco Citizen on Vallejo Street. “From the schools I looked at in the U.S., the technical teaching—like construction and pattern making—was much better at AAU. My senior collection, I was picked to be at AAU’s first show in Bryant Park in New York. Who gets to do that? It’s like, ‘Whoa!’ ”

The success of the fashion school surprises many. “Before you visit universities and meet students, you often have a vision of fashion students—that they have great enthusiasm and creativity, but in the back of your mind you’re always wondering, what’s the quality really like?” says the Washington Post’s Givhan. “And there’s no question there’s a geographical bias. One assumes all serious fashion comes from Parsons in New York, or from Saint Martins in London. And then you get to AAU and your jaw practically drops as you see that the students are extraordinarily talented and incredibly creative and there’s this sense of being plugged into what the fashion industry is about.”

Palmer’s own route to the Bay Area was circuitous. Born in Budapest and raised in England, she studied fashion design at Saint Martins and fashion illustration at Parsons in New York. She returned to England and in 1972, after marrying her second husband, Simon, moved with him to Hong Kong. In 1980, when Simon got a job in San Francisco, the Palmers moved to the United States with their young son, Barnaby, who today is artistic director of San Francisco Lyric Opera.

“When we moved here I had just read Cyra McFadden’s book The Serial and I said, ‘I don’t mind where we live as long as it’s not in Marin County,’” says Palmer, making what the French call a moue. “But we got here just when the prices were so high. When we realized San Francisco was going through the biggest housing boom yet, I started looking in the newspaper and I saw an ad for a house in Marin.”

Within one week they had bought and moved into a California ranch-style home with a pool in the hills of San Rafael. “At that time, San Rafael was the back of beyond and we could afford it,” Palmer says. “Now, we wouldn’t be able to. San Rafael was nothing then—especially the west side of the freeway where we are—because Dominican was everything then. We weren’t even connected to the main drain. The boys were using the loo and suddenly the washing machine overflowed.”

The house, a chaotic space filled with comfy old furniture and piles of books and drawings, turned out to be more of an asset than the Palmers imagined. “When we bought it we had no view, because the Armenian cobbler across the street had these great big trees that he was trying to train into an arch like at Versailles,” says Palmer, laughing as she draws arches in the air. “When he cut them down, all of a sudden we had a view of Mount Diablo and the water and the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge. If the house had had that view when we bought it we wouldn’t have been able to afford it.”

The Palmers built a second story to provide an office for Simon and a studio with northern light for Gladys. Here, amid a dizzying array of filing cabinets, plan chests, drawing tables, storage containers and buckets of crayons, pencils and erasers, Palmer sketches up her vivid and whimsical illustrations, many of which festoon the walls of her home. As you ascend the stairs you have the strange feeling Giorgio Armani or Jean Paul Gaultier might notice you’re not wearing your best underwear. Her week is divided into three days at AAU and four days at home working on her illustrations.

Palmer’s association with AAU started in 1995. “I went to (the school’s) fashion show at the Giftcenter and because I have a high-pitched voice I was overhead saying how awful it was,” she says. “Elisa (Stephens, AAU’s president/owner) took me to lunch and offered me a job.”

For a while, Palmer wondered if she had bitten off more than she could chew. “It was a bit like trying to turn the Queen Mary around,” she says. “I didn’t tell anyone until 1998 that I was working there because there was nothing I was very proud of until then. I thought, people will come and see the school once, but if they don’t like it they won’t come back.”

She had to create the most basic underpinnings of the fashion program. “When I started I was all alone there. And you know in London they do flat patterns and in Paris they drape, and I remember saying to Karl Lagerfeld one day, ‘Should I go with Paris or London?’ and he said, ‘Why not do both?’”

Palmer professes herself unconcerned that no major name has yet emerged from the program. “It’ll happen,” she says abruptly. “Parsons has been going since God knows when.”

The Post’s Givhan says a huge éclat might not even be necessary. “One of the wonderful things about the school is that the students learn you don’t have to be Marc Jacobs to have a successful and supremely satisfying career. In some way it’s plugged into the head of kids who go to Central Saint Martins that they have to be edgy and experimental and incredibly progressive, and that when they graduate someone will buy their entire graduation collection right then and there and they will go on to fame and fortune. That’s really not reality for 99 percent of people who go into the fashion industry.”

While some of Palmer’s success at AAU can be attributed to her connections, the rest might be said to be due to her assertive, hyperparticular personality. Palmer’s clipped tones register annoyance at anything that is not to her liking.

“She can be very insistent when she wants something,” says Menkes, who wrote about AAU’s fashion program in the International Herald Tribune. “Her drawings might have this insouciant tone, but Gladys herself is pretty tough.”

Givhan agrees. “She takes photos to work off for her sketches, and it’s much easier [to do that] when she’s seated on the end of the runway. [But] she’s not always assigned a seat at the end. Somehow, someone can give Gladys that end seat or she will take it, but either way she’ll get it.”

In Marin, Palmer’s softer side emerges. Here, she and Simon spend most of their time at home, eating out occasionally at restaurants like Lanna Thai in San Anselmo. And despite her travels to the fashion capitals of the world, she sticks close to home for her wardrobe needs, buying from local boutiques such as Shunzi on Fourth Street in San Rafael.

Juggling two demanding professional lives is no easy task, and Palmer’s explanation that she’s “good at focusing” doesn’t do justice to her success in both worlds.

“I am impressed with her achievements,” says Menkes. “Of course her books and body of sketch work are impressive. But to have another whole career running parallel—that’s truly impressive.”