Bridget Foley's Diary: Simon on the Fashion Madness

Catching up with Simon Doonan about his new book, crying, chic and more.

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In the chapter “Manischewitz? J’Adore!,” Doonan runs through a litany of Jews, both fashion-famous and not, who have helped him throughout his career: “a glamorous Jewish couple Shelley and Tony,” proprietors of Sheltone Fashions, where he worked in the Seventies; Maxfield’s Tommy Perse; Barneys’ Gene Pressman; Peter Kaplan, now editorial director here at Fairchild Fashion Media, who in 1998 enlisted Doonan to write a column for the New York Observer. Doonan uses this general affection for Jews including clients (“WASPs don’t shop!”) to discuss John Galliano. He writes that he’d like so see Galliano walk sober into a synagogue, perhaps on Yom Kippur, and explain “in his own words how he fell into the abyss.…John is a poet, an artist, a bloke with a certain vision, and Jews like that.” A too simplistic explanation for a shocking incident? Not to Doonan. “I feel tremendous solidarity with John, who I regard as a true poetic soul,” he says. “I also lived in Battersea, so I understand his early struggles. As a sober gay man, I am rooting wildly for him. But I also feel tremendous solidarity with the Jewish people. These two things do not feel mutually exclusive.”

Discussion of that chapter leads to thoughts of someone unnamed in the book: Donna Karan, whom Doonan cites as an idol who “created something magical” for women. “Just as Chanel released women from the bondage of corsetry, Donna released them from the bondage of Dacron and the corporate, gnarly business attire of the Eighties.”

Such gentleness emerges through the biting wit, one with mass appeal written all over it. There’s a chapter on Anna Wintour that includes a hilarious — and Doonan swears, true — account of being called to read for the role of Nigel in “The Devil Wears Prada.” On the way out of the audition, he bumped into Phillip Bloch, also there to read, and the next day, Robert Verdi, who had also gotten a call.

“I think it was a bit of unpaid research,” Doonan says. “My dad said, ‘They’re scraping the bottom of the barrel if they’re going to hire you.’” Though he “got swept along with the idea, rejection ultimately meant relief. To take someone like me, with no acting experience, and put them in scenes with Meryl Streep — that was always a crappy idea.”

As for the primary subject of the chapter titled “Anna’s Wondering Why We Haven’t Started Yet,” without again mentioning her well-known preference for punctuality Doonan calls Wintour “a magnificent phenomenon.” He writes that he has Anna dreams, as he assumes everyone else in the industry does, and that she “grabbed the chariot reins of her fashion editorship and drove a steady ascending course toward deification.” Asked if that’s a bit of a shot, wrapped in the conclusion of a remarkably positive impact on global fashion, he begs to differ. “I definitely see Anna as a heroic figure who has assumed a complicated leadership role in the ever-expanding fashion universe....I am in awe.”

Doonan devotes a chapter to Suzy Menkes, specifically to a day no one who was there will ever forget: The day Michael Kors’ ceiling fell on Suzy Menkes. “Suzy is one of the great, glamorous eccentrics of fashion,” he says. “She’s also a damned good fashion writer. As a retail person for 40 years, I love product. When you read Suzy’s reviews, you can tell she loves product. For her, it’s not an abstraction. She inhabits fashion herself.”

Another entry addresses the Queen’s look and why it has remained basically unchanged since Hardy Amies created it for her decades ago. In a Nest magazine interview Doonan did with the 90-plus designer shortly before his death, Amies explained that “Her Majesty must never appear to be chic.” Chic projects unfriendly.

“I do think there’s an unkindness to chic,” Doonan decodes the message. “You have to understand that to be good at fashion. Styling a shoot or having a vision in fashion is not about making people look cozy and communicative. There’s an hauteur which is an essential part of great style. A Nancy Cunard, a Daphne Guinness, a Millicent Rogers, a Tilda Swinton. They’re not going to bake you some muffins. Once you understand that, you understand that the Queen couldn’t be severe and ultrachic. That’s the mistake the Duchess of Windsor made and people despised her for it.”

Not so the lovely Duchess of Cambridge, who has “skillfully avoided being too chic. Imagine her with her hair scraped into some asymmetrical bob and a Rick Owens shrug and a Gareth Pugh-Daphne Guinness dress. It’s not right for someone in her position. She’s off and running because she’s a tall, skinny girl who always looks stylish in her conventional clothes. If she looked like Raisa Gorbacheva, we wouldn’t be so focused on her. She’s cursed by actually looking like a princess.”

Doonan devotes a chapter to taking many young fashion aspirants down a peg in the self-esteem category. Casting himself in the role of “dream crusher,” he writes, “I am obliged to divest the kids of today of their grandiosity.” Conversely, he notes that some exceptions — “the Proenza Schoulers, the Lims, the Thakoons, the Prabals and the Altuzarras — are a delightfully, splendidly competent bunch, likable and hard-working, too.” But, perhaps longing to achieve Margiela-esque mystery, they’re too “self-effacing” — and they dress, if not like hell, then like college students.

People who love and know fashion will find multiple lines per page to dissect philosophically and decode for unnamed subjects. All readers will find tons of humor through which runs a discreet strain of melancholy. While not at all reactionary, Doonan believes that in its current globalization-obsessed state, fashion lost some intrinsic eccentricity. More personally, in the brief chapter on AIDS, he recalls the early years when “All my friends died.” It’s clear that he feels it’s his duty to champion the memory of those lost in a world in which “today’s peacock is tomorrow’s feather duster.”

Perhaps his only real startling opinion is the one closing his chapter on Alexander McQueen. It opens with Doonan settling in to watch the royal wedding. Kate’s dress by Sarah Burton — “pure poetry” — triggered thoughts of McQueen himself. He recalls a shocking moment when, in the lead-up to a McQueen event at Barneys, he says a friend of the designer requested a room “where [McQueen] can do his drugs.” That Barneys declined proved moot; McQueen was a no-show. Doonan theorizes about McQueen’s life and tragic end, while considering that “introspection and psychotherapy are not part of British culture.” His walk-off is startling: “Designers today are too happy and too well adjusted to produce great art,” he writes. “I’m happy that they are happy, but I cannot help missing the blood and the mayhem and the rage and the broken heels.”

A little cold? “Not at all,” Doonan tells me. “I’m always trying to understand what things mean culturally.” He later clarifies via e-mail that while “great creativity is often the product of psychological turmoil and angst,” he didn’t mean to minimize the price of that turmoil. “You cannot hear the applause…if you are dead.” Nor does he think today’s younger designers are creative victims of their own happiness. “I think they will each find a way to make their mark over the course of their careers,” Doonan says. “But it will be more of a gentler, slower, sweeter thing, rather than an orgasmic, electrifying Johnny Rotten punk-rock explosion.”

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