Don't believe what you read in The Devil Wears Prada. Fashion really does have a heart.
Take Simon Doonan, the creative director at large at the world famous designer department store Barneys New York. Doonan has stood at the center of the New York fashion hurricane for decades, and boy does he have the tales to prove it.
Doonan’s latest book The Asylum: A Collage of Couture Reminiscences…and Hysteria (Blue Rider Press) far from a take down of world famous designers, is about as perfect a love letter to the rag trade and the truly whacked-out personalities that populate it as you’re ever likely to read.
Originally from England via a Belfast-born mother and a Welsh dad, Doonan, 60, grew up in a very modest two room flat in Reading, the southern English town most famous for being the location of the notorious prison (Doonan’s bedroom overlooked it) where Oscar Wilde was sentenced to two years hard labor. It was, he freely admits, about as far from the fashionable bright lights as it’s possible to get.
“The fact that I ended up making that trajectory from living in a two room flat with no kitchen and bathroom in Reading and ending up in the fancy milieu I’m in now is like a miracle I have to acknowledge on a daily basis. I never take it for granted,” Doonan tells the Irish Voice during a recent interview.
It was his own style that saved him. By learning how to express himself though fashion and art Doonan discovered his own voice.
Then he learned how much he had to say. It took him a little longer to figure out why the world was listening.
“I don’t think it’s an accident that the people who often have the most influence on fashion, like Alexander McQueen, John Galliano and Kate Moss, that they’re from working class backgrounds,” Doonan says.
In his book and in his personal life he realizes how much an outsider perspective can revitalize fashion, how we look at what it is and what it can be. That doesn’t imply that you can’t be rich and relevant.
“Sometimes the great muses of fashion like Daphne Guinness and Isabella Blow, they’re often privileged people who are able to become very meaningful patronesses and sources of inspiration,” Doonan explains.
“But those people tend to be more consumers. If big fashion companies take all their interns from the kids of their customers, the kids of influential people, I wonder how people like myself would have clawed their way into the fashion universe.”
It’s a good question, especially now when we’re living in a moment where people of means, by sheer dint of numbers, are threatening to evict everyone else from the island of Manhattan.
But the best thing about Simon Doonan is that his fabulous career almost never happened. Luck was a part of his fabulous career ascent, but determination and a work ethic was the key. The awareness of where he’s come from has always saved him from ever getting too comfortable or taking anything for granted in his admittedly fabulous life.
Being British and a bit weird has always been a part of the secret of his longevity and his appeal. Doonan is the ultimate insider who’s kept faith with his outsider past.
“Eccentricity is part of our culture,” he tells me, meaning Britain and Ireland.
“America was so chaotic for a couple of centuries there that the mandate here has always been to create order.
“But the British and Irish celebration of eccentricity is insane, everyone from Benjamin Disraeli to Cecil Beaton to Nancy Cunard.”
Making room for the weirdos means making room for creativity.
“In America eccentrics can be seen as disruptive or threatening. America makes a massive contribution to the global fashion landscape but it tends to be more in the realm of sportswear, western clothes like denim and heritage wear.”
Being an outsider, or just taking a different view from the majority, is also part of his being gay. It’s part of what first attracted him to his equally famous husband, interior designer Jonathan Adler.
“I feel a big solidarity with Jewish people. I’m married to a Jewish guy, I had a big Jewish wedding and a significant number of my friends are Jewish,” Doonan says.
But sometimes outsiders can lose the run of themselves when the creative daring that helped make them famous becomes a liability. When fellow British designer Galliano, 53, hit the headlines in 2011 his videotaped anti-Semitic outburst lost him his coveted position at Dior.
But Doonan says he sees a lot of himself in Galliano’s working class background and he refuses to criticize him, instead offering his support.
“I feel a strong solidarity with John because I think he’s a creative, poetic, brilliant person who grew up in a conflicted, hostile environment. I think he internalized a lot of that,” Doonan feels.
Doonan also has nothing snarky to say about Calvin Klein’s boy toy Nick Gruber either, the modern day male courtesan who has obsessed the glossies for a year.