Swimming in Style

Simon Doonan thinks everyone should add a little flourish and eccentricity to their life

Interview by Randy Shulman
Published on January 26, 2012, 6:54am | Comments

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.

Simon Doonan

Simon Doonan

"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.

MW: The new book is called Gay Men Don't Get Fat. Have you had any criticism from the bear community over that title?

DOONAN: Well, my book is very bear inclusive. The title is a riff on French Women Don't Get Fat and Real Men Don't Eat Quiche -- it's a little satire on both those titles. And in the book, I make fun of everybody, including gay men. In a way the book title is kind of a skewering of the gay obsession with being trim and kind of striving for some kind of Adonis physique. Any idiot can see that gay men do get fat.

MW: Talk about your own personal sense of style. How has that evolved for you?

DOONAN: In my youth, I was very trendy and used to wear really outrageous things and followed a lot of the more extreme youth trends -- from glam rock to punk to new romantic, I was into all that. Now I have my little look that I do and it's sort of a very sort of '60s Carnaby Street -- it's a little bit of Austin Powers and a little bit of mod and I throw it together. It's basically a uniform. I usually wear a flowery shirt as per the cover of my book with a little mod tie. The look I'm going for is kind of Ray Davies from The Kinks, circa 1966.

MW: Who today typifies style the best?

DOONAN: It's all subjective. I can't go on those shows like Fashion Police -- I'm hopeless at that because I'm not really autocratic at all about anything. If I meet some guy and he's got a mullet and is wearing an Ed Hardy T-shirt, I think it's kind of great and funny and I would say, ''Grow your mullet longer." I think people today who typify style the best are the people who are using it as self-expression. They're not slavishly following trends. They're using it like ''This is who I am, and isn't life a banquet?'' kind of thing, and have a sense of flamboyance and exuberance about it. Obviously, I love people like Lady Gaga and Nicki Minaj, people who have a sense of real playful flamboyance that reminds me of Vegas entertainers, like Liberace and Phyllis Diller.

MW: It's interesting that you bring up Lady Gaga and Liberace. While both are flamboyant, I'd argue his was probably more of a studied flamboyance and hers is more unpredictable and creative.

DOONAN: She's explosive, and he had a formula. He was basically embellishing everything with rhinestones and fur and in the style of some kind of Russian tyrant.

MW: You made your name in window display. Is that a dying art form, or is it still important to the urban aesthetic?

DOONAN: I don't think it's ever been an art form and I don't think it's ever been important. And that's why I like it -- because it's profoundly ephemeral and fun. I would never want to be an artist myself. I would find that very sort of burdensome and depressing to be stuck in a studio working in a vacuum. Window display is great because you can do anything. It's unlimited and very democratic -- everybody gets to see it and then if it sucks it doesn't really matter because it's gone in a week or two. That's one of the reasons I stuck with it for so long because it had that sort of completely experimental, ephemeral quality where you didn't have to obsess about anything, you could just sort of fling it in and fling it out. When you write something, it's there forever to haunt you.

There was a guy, actually, named Gene Moore who did the windows at Tiffany's. He somehow elevated window dressing to the level of art. But I never aspired for it to be art. To make something art you really have to want it to be art and go at it from that point of view. Art is supposed to be this pure expression of ideas that comes without a sort of financial mandate or anything like that. I'm more of a designer and street theater lunatic.

MW: You're 60. Are you amazed where we've gotten to in the gay cause? Did you think ever think you'd see such movement on the gay marriage front?

DOONAN: I think it's fantastic. I celebrate all the gay progress. But you know I was fully committed to building a fabulous life with or without the approval of society. And I think many gay people in the last century were doing that, too, living their lives and managing to build a great life without waiting for society to give them a thumbs up.

Now, we have sort of a partial thumbs up and it's great. But when gay marriage is finally legalized ubiquitously, I'm not going to thank anyone except the people who fought for it. I'm not going to say, "Oh thank you for approving of me now, society." I would only thank the people who fought hard to make it happen. Everybody else can go fuck themselves.

Simon Doonan will sign copies of his book on Wednesday, Feb. 1, from 7 to 9 p.m. at the W Washington D.C.'s Altitude Rooftop Ballroom, 515 15th St. NW. His book, Gay Men Don't Get Fat, will be available for purchase at the event. The event is free and open to the public, but RSVPs are recommended. Email .


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