Interview by Randy Shulman
January 26, 2012
This may come as a shock to some of you, but Simon Doonan is no longer the Creative Director at Barney’s.
He’s now officially the Creative Ambassador.
“I’ve basically handed the staple gun to somebody else,” purrs the British-born designer who made Barney’s windows the stuff of legend. “And it feels kind of fabulous, actually. I’m 60 and it’s time to sort of let go of that part of it.”
Now Doonan, whose fifth book, Gay Men Don’t Get Fat ($24.95, Blue Rider Press), was released earlier this month, spends his time doing “a lot of press and hosting events.” It’s more of a “front of the house role,” he says, “with a sash.”
Doonan, who will be in town on Wednesday, Feb. 1, for a book signing at the W Hotel, speaks in a musical, intoxicating British lilt. He claims to be “completely unoffendable” and is “completely unconventional and non-conformist.” He’s been out for his entire career and his wry, witty collections of observations and essays are replete with his unique — and very gay — perspective.
“Being gay,” he says, “gives you this quirky outsider perspective on life. From an early age your perceptions are heightened because you have to be vigilant as a gay person to understand this sort of alien world around you. It gives you this creative worldview. And even if you’re not a creative person, you still have this outsider perspective that makes life very interesting and intriguing and gives you a deeper understanding of things.”
METRO WEEKLY: What was it that drew you to the world of style?
SIMON DOONAN: I was drawn to style from an early age — it seemed like an antidote to all the sort of grim, post-War English depressive stuff that was going on around me. I was born in a two-room flat, with no kitchen and bathroom. We lived in sort of a rooming house arrangement with various crazy relatives, so I sort of saw fashion as being something that was transformative and was a ticket out of this milieu. And the fact that it had so many gay connotations was obviously a draw.
MW: Do you think that had you not been gay you would have been still drawn to style?
DOONAN: If I hadn’t been gay, I’d probably be working at the biscuit factory down the street from where I grew up. I think gay people are very lucky — it is easier to cross cultural and socio-economic boundaries if you’re gay.
MW: You know, I’m a gay man who absolutely has no sense of style. I acknowledge that about myself. I just don’t have it. In fact, I have a friend who said to me just last week that he wanted to take me clothes shopping, if only to get me out of my pleated khaki pants. He says they make me look like an old man. Meanwhile, I’m thinking, ”’Yeah, but I like wearing these. I’m comfortable in them.” Should I feel intimated by this? Should I feel that I need to be stylish in order to be fully gay?
DOONAN: Well, I have lots of friends who aren’t particularly interested in style. But if you choose to exercise your prerogative to put more attention on your clothes, there are benefits. For example, Vivienne Westwood — she basically invented punk rock, and is an extraordinary talent — said, ”People who wear impressive clothes have better lives.” And there is some truth to that. But I’m not autocratic about it. If you’re a guy who likes to wear golf shirts and pleated Dockers and a pager on your belt, I have no problem with that.
My whole thing is that people should look like themselves, and if, when you wear those moderate types of clothes you feel comfortable, I have no issue with it. I have no desire to put you in a leather jumpsuit and leopard platform shoes — it would be funny to do, but that’s not my M.O. All my books are about how you shouldn’t allow yourself to be tyrannized by anything. Style and fashion should be about self-expression and if you don’t feel it, then you shouldn’t bother.
But there are benefits. If you made the cognitive decision, ”I’m going to trade up my look,” and sat down in a very academic, non-emotional way and went through GQ and pulled out the pages that you thought could work for you, and then some friend took you shopping, you might think, ”God, this kind of works like an anti-depressant.”
MW: My fear is that I don’t want to dress inappropriately for my age.
DOONAN: I think that’s sort of a ludicrous notion. There’s nothing more fun than dressing inappropriately. As you get older, you should become more provocative and eccentric and not feel that you have to abide by a whole bunch of rules that don’t even exist.
MW: I think I should follow you around for a week.
DOONAN: I could get you all gussied up!
MW: If you could succeed with me, that would become a pinnacle achievement.
DOONAN: It probably would be very easy. There’s this whole heritage movement in clothes now where all these old vintage American brands are re-launching themselves. That kind of look is great for somebody your age who doesn’t want to look trendy or fashiony but just needs to sort of shake things up a little bit. It might be fun to explore and invest in. Take five grand and just splurge it.
MW: Let me just dip into savings. Tell me, what are three things that people can do to improve the style in their lives?
DOONAN: First, take a moment to figure out who you are. Fashion is self-expression, so take a moment to figure out what is the right look for you. Next, develop a memorable signature flourish. It doesn’t matter what it is, it can be like an Ali MacGraw headscarf or Mr. Magoo glasses. Start wearing bowties. A signature flourish can be creative and sort of life-affirming. And the third thing is to remind yourself not to be self-critical. Especially if you’re gay. You get enough negativity funneled in your direction. So don’t be self-critical. Be self-accepting.