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.
“I try to never to be too judgmental or disdainful. I try to celebrate people’s foibles,” Doonan explains.
“In his case he’s a young lad. When I was his age I was doing all kinds of insane things, my judgment was terrible when I was that age. He’s finding his way and I would be reluctant to throw any shade at him because he’s a young kid figuring it out. We’ve all been there.”
Doonan mentions in passing that he’s had the same shrink for 25 years in California. It’s helped him understand a lot of his own internalized conflicts, he explains. That may separate him from Galliano.
“In England therapy’s not part of the culture. You go to the pub instead and that’s your therapy. Not that there’s anything wrong with that,” Doonan feels.
“But I had access to a different way of looking at things because I’d come to America at a relatively young age. I left the U.K. when I was 25 and I came to live in LA, the land of therapy and introspection.”
If Doonan’s interest in psychotherapy is marked he had good reason for it.
“My grandmother had a lobotomy, my uncle was schizophrenic, we had suicides, alcoholism, and I wanted to try to understand it. And I had my own fear of going crazy,” he says.
“My family in Ireland didn’t have access to that kind of support. They felt adrift with their despair and feelings and didn’t know what to do about it, whereas I’ve had squishy Californian therapy culture for years.”
So The Asylum has been on Doonan’s mind one way and another for years, but far from the intimidating thing it once was, now it’s a metaphor for his career in fashion. It should also be said that the book’s a laugh riot.
“The Asylum was always going to be a love letter that celebrates the foibles of the fashion world rather than skewering them, do you know what I mean?” he asks.
“I wanted it to be a humor book, but I also want it to be a love letter to the industry because I feel tremendously lucky to have come all the way from my first job in Reading, which was demolishing public toilets.”
No one in Doonan’s family had ever been to college. He and his sister were the first.
“My mum left school in Belfast when she was 13. She went to work in this grocery chain called Smith and McClure. She was in the pork-butchering department. Thirteen years old and you’re hacking the trotters off pigs,” he says.
It’s a long way from trotters to Barneys, and no one knows it better. Along the way Doonan has learned what works, both in fashion and in life.
“It’s a fantastic time for fashion now because in the past there was almost a rule about what you must wear. It was dictatorial, and now it’s like you can wear whatever you want, but the key is to know what you are. If you’re a punk rock assassin you can get great things from H&M or Rick Owens and you can go all over the map,” he says.
“If you’re a sexy secretary you can find really great things from Proenza Schouler all the way to Zara. Now you need to self-invent, which is not a bad thing. But it can be a bit bewildering.
“I’m not sure how you rebel now. I see young kids now and their mums are dressed just the same. The idea of my mother and sister dressing alike is so hilarious.”
Doonan’s sister was a counter culture groovy chick in the Joni Mitchell mode and his mother was a Lana Turner glamour puss with a long line girdle. They looked like completely different species when they stood side by side.
“You could have your own look and it was part of your identity. But in this day and age there are no faux pas. Creating your own look now is more fun,” Doonan offers.
But then he remembers one his fashion mentors, the legendary Diana Vreeland. Don’t be a slave to too much good taste, she warned him.
“A little bad taste is like a splash of paprika.” Words to live by.