As a lovely kick off to fashion week, online editors and bloggers were treated to storytime with Simon Doonan at Barneys’ Upper West Side location yesterday morning. The retailer’s always-quotable ambassador at large was on hand to read from his latest tome (his seventh), The Asylum, A Collage of Couture Reminiscences… And Hysteria, out this month.
As you can imagine, Doonan, who has been in the industry for some 30-plus years, has many “reminiscences” worth sharing. When I arrived late (I went to the wrong Barneys… shh… ) he was regaling the crowd with a story about Tom Ford giving him a wedgie.
Mixed in with the laughs, Doonan doled out some great advice and shared his reflections on the fashion industry. We pulled him aside for a little chat about how fashion has changed over the years and whether social media is helping our hurting it.
There’s a part in your book where you bemoan the fact that today’s interns are rich, well-mannered “lucky-sperm-club members” rather than “rough around the edges” outsiders. Can you expand on that a bit?
What I observed in fashion is that the people from nowhere–like Galliano or McQueen or Rick Owens–have fire in their loins and something to say. They’re scrappy outsiders. Balenciaga was from a small fishing town. People with that passion came to fashion because their creativity and vision was enough to propel them out of where they came from. I tell the story of going to this event and sitting with all the interns and they all had these famous last names–they were the kids of moguls or movie stars and I thought ‘Oh no, what’s going to happen?’ I don’t know if these kids have that inner fire and conflict to produce the kind of passion and creativity needed. It’s just a cautionary tale to leave the door open for outliers so they can make it into the world of fashion.
You mentioned that fashion right now is “all about you.” There are so many trends to follow–shoppers really have a lot of freedom in getting dressed. But has personal style in the age of street style and personal style blogs become contrived?
No, I think it’s a good thing. I have a chapter in my book called “When Bossy Bitches Ruled the Earth” and it goes back to the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s when the dictates really did come from up high and women slavishly followed trends. Now I think it’s about the consumer and the consumer using fashion as self expression, so I think it’s a good thing. Yeah, it can get very narcissistic, and so what? As long as you’re having fun and using fashion as creative expression and self expression—that’s the key, and not using it as like, “She looks better than me” and being self-critical.
So having gone to fashion shows since the ’70s, including Michael Kors’s first show when the ceiling fell in, have shows gotten better or worse? Are they more or less fun now?
Now the fashion landscape is so huge and so hilarious and so fun. It’s a global spectator sport, and you kind of have to surrender to it. But if you want to know about whether a show is good or not, find the buyer at a store. Like there’s so much press, but really, if you want to get the 4-1-1, go find one of the Barneys buyer and ask her what she’s gonna buy, ’cause she’s not taking her cue from anyone. So to me those are the unsung heroes, the store buyers who schlep everywhere and edit out the more mediocre stuff. That’s who I always talk to.
The first fashion show you went to was Bill Gibb in London in the ’70s–you mentioned he used all black models. The runways have since gotten pretty white. Do you think things will ever change?
Yeah, I’m sort of shocked by the lack of diversity on the runway. I know it’s gonna change because there’s a big shift about it and there’s a lot of concern about the lack of diversity on the runway so it’s gonna change.
What else do you think are the interesting issues in fashion right now?
Social media–people are really beginning to assess the value of it.
Are you gonna start using social media more? Take selfies?
I tried to do it. It’s really a generational thing. Like when I meet people I never think, “Oh, I should be taking my picture with them,” because I’m just so old I don’t think about it. And I should, I should do it more often. But the social media revolution has added so much electricity and madness and fun to fashion. I have no complaints.
I think some people are scared of it.
I’ve always found that all the bloggers and journalists that I’ve met over the years from the social media community, they are actually really fun. They tend to be more reverent, they’re more quirky. They actually cover fashion the way I think they should be covered, which is being brief with an approach that’s really about extended captions. Fashion in newspapers and magazines got very “texty” and fashion is essentially a visual thing. So social media is actually… it’s quick, it’s sound bite-y, ephemeral in the way that fashion is ephemeral. It actually seems like a very à propos way of digging into fashion.