Simon Doonan, the creative ambassador for Barney’s and Slate columnist, is one of culture writing’s funniest voices. His latest book, The Asylum, out next week, is a collection of memoiristic essays about his time in the fashion world, whose denizens, he points out in the opening chapters, often have an uncomfortable amount in common with the mentally ill.
Noreen Malone: Firstly, why is most fashion writing so bad?
Simon Doonan: Fashion is primarily a visual experience, and I think that there's actually too much written about fashion and not enough pictures. It would be like going to an art gallery, and instead of paintings, there's just lots of writing about paintings.
NM: Near the end of your book you talk about how young, bloggy folks, as you call them, tend to take things out of context. Do you dislike blogging?
SD: Actually, I've become very friendly with all the bloggers who now write about fashion. They’re really fun and they tend to be sort of irreverent. Not necessarily in their writing, but as people. Kanye West, in the Times interview, told some designer that he was never going to be successful because he didn't make Christmas presents. In other words, you'd better be making the thing everyone wants to get for Christmas, or for Hanukkah. A lot of these bloggers see fashion as Christmas presents, not high art. There's a simplicity to that and a lack of pretension that's appealing.
NM: Are fashion people funny?
SD: There used to be this feeling that fashion and humor were mutually exclusive, that you couldn’t be funny and frivolous about something that you're charging a lot of money for. Over my 27 years at Barneys, one of the things I did was institute this idea of taste, luxury, humor that was different from Bergdorf's, different from Saks. I would do these windows that were more like Coney Island, like a carnie doing these sideshow windows with a papier-mâché effigy of Margaret Thatcher in an S&M bondage suit. Because I grew up on Private Eye and Monty Python, I could imagine that. That's another thing I have in common with all these shallow bloggers whom secretly I adore and worship: They all have this great sense of humor, and they're dying to inject humor and fun into fashion.
NM: It also seems like the clothing itself can be really funny now.
NM: Those fuzzy Celine sandals that are basically deck shoes, those just make me crack up every time I see them.
SD: You can have something that's insanely avant-garde and brilliant and interesting, like Gareth Pugh or Comme des Garcons or Rick Owens, but you can also look at it and say “that's really brilliant and hilarious and I can imagine Kristen Wiig wearing that.” Those things aren't mutually exclusive. I think that's because of the Internet and bloggers who are not necessarily serving the interests of advertisers. They’re writing more the way people would talk about fashion.
NM: Yet you have a whole bit in the book about how sarcasm is kind of a dying art.
SD: I celebrate the foibles and eccentricities of things. I never write snarky things, and I always studiously avoid being disdainful. I think disdain is the end of everything. And that I think was the old fashion way for fashion people to look at things, was through the lens of disdain, like this is in, this is out, whereas the contemporary culture is much more interested in celebrating the fun and the foibles of things. You see it now at fashion shows where the audience arrives looking like they’re out of Fellini’s Satyricon. They're simultaneously gorgeous and hilarious, and also beautiful.
NM: You also bemoan the end of fashion people who are publicly sharp, like Diana Vreeland. You seem to think that's a disappearing, too, in the fashion world.
SD: Diana Vreeland had her moment, which was a pretty good moment. There’s no real need for a Vreeland-esque figure right now, because fashion is not this small universe with dictatorial women issuing edicts to people. It's this massive, unending landscape of products where the consumer can pick over it and pull out the things that they feel best express their taste or point of view. Now the consumer is the arbiter. During the Vreeland era it was about sitting at her knee and waiting for her to say pink is the navy blue of India, and then you'd rush off and react accordingly.
NM: You drew a line in your book between women's lib and not needing a Vreeland-esque figure. You also cited Lady GaGa in that chapter, and they seem similar in some ways to me.
SD: There is a sort of eternal truth there that goes from Diana Vreeland to Lady Gaga, and it's the unconventional. The unconventional message gets lost today because women seem to be more self-critical than they need to be, and they're always slightly masochistic. Having someone around, whether it's Diana Vreeland, Lady Gaga, telling you to be unconventional, it's very important.
NM: But you also praise Queen Elizabeth, who is just about the most conventional dresser in the world.
SD: A few years ago Vivienne Westwood did a whole fashion show that was dedicated to the queen, who she said was the most fashionable person in the world, because she had her own look, and she stuck to it relentlessly. Vivienne did a whole collection of tweeds and twin sets, even little crowns that were made of fabric. Public servants aren't supposed to be wasting time indulging their vanity and their sense of fashion. They're supposed to be self-denying. Public servants are supposed to do that while the rest of us rush off and wear glam rock hotpants.
NM: So do you think Washington, D.C. should be embracing its image as an unfashionable town?
SD: Yes, definitely. And I think Mrs. Obama's done a terrific job of always dressing appropriately.
NM: Well, you got in a little trouble for saying she wasn't chic, but now, having read your book and your definition of chic as inherently unkind, that makes sense to me.
SD: The reality is, Mrs. Obama is quite chic, but not sort of in a vain, self-involved way. I guess I was getting sick of people talking about her appearance all the time, and I thought it was very unfair to her and borderline insulting. To me, it's quite clear that what makes her a great First Lady is her intelligence and her strength and her warmth. Think about Nancy Reagan, think about Laura Bush, think about Hillary Clinton. You don't get all those three in any of those women, warmth, strength, and intelligence. I thought it was unfair to her and unfair to her legacy to keep focusing on her clothing.
NM: Do you think we should never be writing about politicians' clothes?
SD: I think when people write about politicians' clothes they're really scraping the barrel, especially when they write about men's clothes. They do this analysis of like, a red tie. They all wear red ties, for God's sake. Talk about looking for love in all the wrong places. The politicians in history who have worn remarkable clothes are few and far between. You have to go back to Benjamin Disraeli, who was an outrageous dandy who wore velvet, yellow velvet waistcoats and knickers and he wore a lot of perfume and jewelry. He was extremely camp and over the top. Any politician who's smart in this day and age is going to dress so as to be unremarkable, but somehow other writers feel it incumbent on themselves to remark on the unremarkable. I don't know how they do it. “Oh look, he's wearing an anorak.” And you can get columns out of it, and I think, really? An anorak?
NM: So one of the minor themes of your book, I would say, is that young people these days are so boring. Is it just that fashion people compared to previous generations are careful and careerist?
SD: No, I don't think young people are boring. On the contrary, I find them endlessly fascinating. It’s a mixed picture. I think the era when fashion designers were blowing people's brains out with new ideas and new trends every season, that era is gone. Now what you have is a landscape which is a billion, trillion times bigger, but they're not producing these benchmark, landmark ideas, they're just producing a lot more product. It's really up to the consumer to cherry-pick through it and find their own look. It's more of a happy, narcissistic period.
NM: You also make a strong argument against handing the internships that will turn into jobs to children of the elite.
SD: The reason my book's called “The Asylum” is because I always thought of fashion as a refuge for people like myself who are basically fairly unemployable. They can work in fashion because their love of idiosyncracy or eccentricity would find a niche, but now, I meet interns in fashion companies and they're very conventional kids who grew up in Brentwood whose parents happen to know this person or that one.
NM: Do you like Anna Wintour? I couldn't quite tell from your writing on her.
SD: I see Anna Wintour as being a very heroic figure because she has taken on a leadership role in the fashion universe that is vastly much bigger than it was when she and I and the people of our generation began our careers in fashion. She's created this role and she inhabits it amazingly.
NM: But do you LIKE her?
SD: I always did get on very well with her, as I said in my book, she's immensely straightforward. The idea of her as a coat-flinging tyrant is not accurate at all. In addition to being this incredibly impressive figure, she's also very pragmatic.
NM: Do you think anyone will be put out by the dishier bits of your book?
SD: I've always been in retail, so I'm terribly afraid of offending anybody, and when I have done so, I've been absolutely mortified. People say to me, don't you hate it when overweight girls wear hotpants and halter tops? And I say no, I think it shows incredible bravura of spirit to flaunt yourself in public in our culture and not be self-conscious. The only thing that I find offensive is people being self-conscious and self-critical. I think if somebody can joyfully flaunt themselves in a tutu, then bravo. We don't have enough people doing that.
NM: But just by saying that they're flaunting themselves, you are saying that they're outside the norm, no?
SD: Well, I love flaunting myself. Flaunting is like a basic human right. Everyone should flaunt themselves at least once a day.
NM: We just had a feature on what the next constitutional amendment would be. I'm sad we didn't think of the right to flaunt.
SD: If people don't go out and flaunt themselves every now and then, qu'est-ce que c'est the point?
Noreen Malone is a staff writer for The New Republic. Follow @NoreenMalone.
This interview has been edited and condensed.