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New York Designer Koos van den Akker’s New Beginning at Academy of Art University

At 70, Koos van den Akker is ready for a new beginning – and the tattoo on his arm proves it. The Dutch-born designer packed up his sewing machine and jetted to San Francisco to be the summer artist-in-residence at Academy of Art University’s School of Fashion. Since his arrival, he’s been sharing his wisdom with students and soaking in the spectacular inspiration unique to San Francisco.

Koos taught himself to sew when he was a child. His family recognized his talent and enrolled him in the Royal Art School in Holland. He left  college with his sewing machine and went to fulfill his military obligation. He set up shop at the base and designed clothes for an officer’s wife and daughters.

In 1968, Koos left Holland for New York to take his skills to new heights. The turning point in his career came when he opened his store on Madison Avenue. Fans of his designs included celebrities such as Julie and Harry Belafonte, Cher, Elizabeth Taylor, Bill Cosby and Barbara Walters.

“When I did all that stuff in the 70s, they didn’t know what the hell it was!” he reminisced. “I had a wonderful time doing it and I still enjoy it and hope one day I’ll drop dead behind the sewing machine.”

Koos has brought his namesake Madison Avenue shop to life  with a floor-to-ceiling re-creation at the Academy.  Life-sized photographs of his books and his assistant greet students who enter, and his creations spring from every corner. Koos envisioned the new space after winning an Honorary Doctorate from the school.

“I made a plan that I wanted to be among people and I really wanted to be among students,” he recalled.

He has established an untypical classroom environment: a place where students could come in at anytime and ask him about his work and his illustrious history. Students get an exclusive glimpse of the work that goes into creating a shop-ready product.  Koos believes that his life experiences inspire students to pursue their own career goals.

“I had something to say and I had a product that was different from anyone else. I put them on the rack, put little price tags on them, opened the door and sold them,” Koos said. “I think the kids like to hear that it is possible.”

The carefree and easy-going spirit in the Bay Area has been a boundless source of creativity for Koos. In his Academy of Art University workroom, he has designed dresses reminiscent of cacti – a plant you don’t ever see in New York. 

“The colors, the sun, the sky – I am inspired by everything,” he said. “San Francisco gives you freedom in thinking and doing.”

The freedom Koos has felt here has not only radiated throughout his designs, but in his personal life. The tattoo, which he proudly displays on his forearm, reads “New Beginning” in Chinese. Tired of the sitting alone in his workroom, Koos craves interacting with students and hopes to continue to do so in the future.

“I love being with them. I never get tired, I can do this seven days a week! Its really something that I hoped would be good and its even better than I thought.”


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