Simon Doonan Interview: Fashion as a Career


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How would you describe your work ethic, and how have you achieved the success you have today?

Doonan: I always had to have very low expectations but a lot of drive.  I had a basic work ethic.  No matter what kind of job I had, whether it was glamorous or not glamorous, I sort of threw myself into it.  In my case, I guess it’s combined with creativity, which I was able to utilize, and I guess I’m patient too.  I never really hit my stride until I was in my 30s–in my 20s, I was sort of just having fun and finding out who I was.  I also think it’s good to take your time and not be too obsessive and looney about your career.

What are the biggest career hurdles that you’ve had to overcome?

Doonan: I never really thought about it in those terms. I went into retail and specifically window display.  There were plenty of gay people in those professions and gay people are identified with those professions, so it wasn’t like I went into a super straight environment like sports or Wall Street and then had to sort of persuade everybody that I was competent.  I went into a super gay professional environment and just sort of threw myself at it creatively, and that bore fruit for me.

Has sexual orientation ever played a role in your career?

Doonan: Well, I think with my writing, which is part of what I do, sometimes people don’t take it seriously if they think that you’re gay.  In the past, like when I got one of my books reviewed in the New York Times, the reviewer described me as ‘foppish’ and ‘superficial.’  I thought it was kind of funny at first, and then I realized he was reviewing me and not the book.  I think that can happen if you’ve always been out.  Because I’ve always been out, and sometimes people don’t take me so seriously.  They’re more likely to take a gay woman seriously, whereas with a gay man they think, “Oh yeah, he’s probably creative or funny or whatever.”  Maybe a lesbian is more likely to be thought of as having some kind of professional gravitas.  I don’t feel like my career has been a struggle.  I’ve been really lucky to have a great career in retail, and I’ve been able to augment it with other things like my writing, personal appearances, and that kind of stuff.

What do you consider the current style trends for the LGBT community?  Are they different from mainstream or are they the same?

Doonan: I don’t know.  I think fashion is a very chaotic, diverse landscape.  You’ve got anything from the Jersey Shore to high fashion and Tilda Swinton to Brooklyn hipster chic. There are a million different ways to dress now.  The fashion landscape is very complicated, and gay people are in there, enjoying it, and expressing themselves.  There are particular trends which I think are identified with gay people –gay men tend to like tight clothes, but so does everybody else at this point.

Do you have a response to the negative press and rumors surrounding your promotion?

Doonan: I just think it’s hilarious that people think they have insights into situations they clearly have no connection with.  I’m amazed at people’s willingness to speculate about motivations and situations.  Actually, I don’t read all that, blogs and stuff.  I’ve always had insanely focused concentration.  When I get to work, I know exactly what I need to get accomplished.  I only check my email later in the mornings or maybe even in the afternoons. I don’t believe in this thing of being in response mode, and I think I’ve become successful because I’m not distracted.  When I get to work, I think, “I need to do this, I need to do that, and I’m actually performing tasks rather than just responding to stuff.”  When I go on my computer, I know I have to write my article for Elle Decor, I have to write this, I have to write that, I have to respond to that.  I go through my emails and it’s very task-orientated.  The idea of surfing people’s opinions about me in a sort of random way or people’s speculations–I don’t think that’s a good key to success.  I think there are people totally distracted with Facebook and social media, and it is going to inhibit their success.  The people I know that are the most successful are sort of relentlessly focused on their tasks and prioritize for themselves, rather than getting distracted.  The culture of distraction and social media can be very corrosive.  I think you have to be wary of it, because you could really lose your mojo and get lost in it.  I make a point of not doing that, so I miss a lot of the negative speculations about my job and myself.

Do you have any future goals and ambitions?

Doonan: My main goal is to grow old ungraciously.  You know they say you should grow old graciously?  Well, I want to do the complete opposite and then do all the over-the-top things.  I think when you get older you should dress more flamboyantly, you should wear bigger sunglasses, and you should have more fun and do all the crazy things you’ve always wanted to do.  I’m staring down the barrel of sixty and thinking, “Yeah, before I clock my clogs, I want to have great experiences.”  It’s not quite so much about career accomplishments.  I am interested, though, in getting more and more involved in internet projects.  I write a column for Slate Magazine, and I write for the Barneys website.  That kind of stuff excites and interests me.  I don’t have any preconceived ideas, and I never have tons of specific ambitions.  You know how people say you’re supposed to have a dream and all that stuff?  I never understood that.  I think my goals were always relatively simple.  I wanted to keep my job, do a good job, and then see where that would lead.  I think sometimes having a dream, a big dream, is like wanting to win the lottery.  You know it’s not necessarily realistic, so it’s much better to have achievable goals.  To have achievable, simple goals unique to your situation could be a lot more satisfying than some American Idol, win-the-lottery-dream, or have-my-own-fashion-company dream.  A lot of people tell me their dream is to own their own fashion company, and I say, “If you knew more about fashion, you would understand that it’s actually a nightmare to deal with the logistics and horrors of owning your own company.”  Karl Lagerfeld doesn’t own Chanel, he just works there.  He strolls in and out and does an amazing job.  Just stop and think before succumbing to this idea of unrealistic dreams, because it may have no relation to what you really want.  It’s much better to have achievable things because you can actually get there.

Some people consider the fashion world to be very glamorous but also cutthroat and tough.  Do you believe that LGBT people in fashion help each other out?

Doonan: Yeah, I do. I think that fashion is not a bitchy and cutthroat business.  It is not anywhere near as bitchy as the music business.  I think in fashion, people tend to be very supportive to one another. It’s actually very unusual to hear somebody in fashion slagging off somebody else.  I know that sounds crazy, but it’s true.  People are very reticent to about giving bad reviews.  If you compare the average theater review with the average fashion review, you’ll see that fashion people get off very lightly.  Fashion is actually a culture of mutual support, and that’s not me just being Pollyanna.  The music and film industries are truly cutthroat, but the fashion industry is actually very Kumbaya.

Over your years in this business, how has the fashion, from a business perspective, changed?

Doonan: It actually went from being this tiny little enterprise that was the prerogative of rich women to this massive, unending juggernaut that has penetrated the lives of everybody.  In the 80s, you couldn’t sell a TV show in Hollywood if it had a fashion component–it was like the kiss of death.  Cut to the late 90s, Sex and the City, Ugly Betty–fashion became central to our culture.  It’s good to remember that this is something that has happened in the last 20 years.  Fashion went from being this marginal interest of wealthy people to being this very central thing.  Now you can buy fashionable, glamorous clothes at H&M, Target, and  Barneys.  The fashion landscape is infinite, crazy, and completely incomprehensible, but also a lot of fun, and there’s room for a lot more people there.

Do you have any advice for someone who is aspiring to work in the industry?

Doonan: If I were coming out of school I would go into retail first and then from that point try and work my way into the design studio of a company.

Who are the up-and-coming designers that you have your eye on?

Doonan: Well, the up-and-coming ones come up so quickly.  Alexander Wang is now hugely successful.  It’s good to remember that it’s not easy being successful in your twenties.  Being very successful before you have a lot of experience and maturity is hard for people to handle.  Look at people like Lindsay Lohan.  She is hugely successful and obviously a creative and  special person, but the maturity and experience aren’t there.  This has had catastrophic effects for her.  Now, to answer your question, Aaron Sciandra works with me on a lot of different projects, but he also has a great bag business called, which is an incredibly creative business with tons of great ideas.  Aaron is a good example of how you can be entrepreneurial, creative, and have a website and make great stuff.  Maybe you’re not selling eight billion pieces to Target or H&M, but you have a nice creative business there.  Don’t get hung up on some global domination strategy–that would be my advice.  Be creative and do it more in a guerrilla way, and have a lot of fun with it.

Is there anything else you want to add?
Doonan: Don’t sit at home waiting for Anna Wintour to call you!  Go out and get a job in the store.  It gets you out there where you meet other people.  Retail has been very good to me from the beginning, and I’m still very involved in it 35 years later. It’s a great place to get a foothold and whether it’s at the Gap or Chanel, it doesn’t matter.  If you get involved, you find out who you are and meet great people.  You know, if it hadn’t been for retail, I wouldn’t have had the fun career that I’ve had.  So, retail, retail, retail–I’m a huge believer in it!  Especially if you are feeling a bit marginal–if you’re a gay or transgender person who feels marginalized, in retail you’re not marginalized.  I’ve said to so many people, “Why don’t you get a job at a store?”  They look at me like I’m giving them some third-rate idea, and then I say, “Listen, I work in a store, and I’ve always worked in a store!”

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