Simon Doonan finds ‘Asylum’ in the mad fashion world, and writes a book about it

September 10, 2013

Simon Doonan is a 30-year veteran of the fashion industry and a veritable vault of tales about the designers, editors and writers who populate the often-eccentric world of style. In his latest book, “The Asylum: A Collage of Couture Reminiscences . . . and Hysteria,” Doonan penned what he calls a “love letter” to the industry that has provided him and other fashion creatives with a “form of refuge.” Below is an edited transcript of a conversation between Doonan and The Washington Post’s Cara Ann Kelly.

I love the hilarious compilation of events in “Asylum.” Have you thought about writing this book for a long time?

I think it was probably when I turned 60 last year and I realized that I’d seen the fashion world go from this teensy-weensy little industry into this global spectator sport. I thought, “I am one of those people that has been around and seen this insane volcanic growth. And so I’d better write down the things I think are noteworthy before I forget them.”

You devote a chapter in your book to Anna Wintour, the editor in chief of Vogue, and how she is the reigning queen of fashion.

I do see Anna as a heroic figure. I think she is a really exceptional person.

For a nutty, creative person I did really well in a corporate environment. I became an executive vice president. I ran my department very conscientiously. At one point, I thought maybe I should go for it and become the CEO, and I thought, “Why not?” Then I realized I don’t have what it takes to run a company. So I’m in awe of people that take a leadership role and that do it with such effectiveness. A lot of people want to run companies and want the leadership role, and they just want it for their own sake. I feel Anna has done this extraordinary service to American fashion and global fashion and she’s one of those handful of people that are a true icon.

It seems hard to take that traditional path up in the fashion industry now, and many creative people are skirting it with blogs and other avenues.

I wasn’t even remotely interested in “moving up in the fashion industry.” I wouldn’t have even known how to do that. I had no expectations. I just needed an outlet for creative expression.


“Asylum” by Simon Doonan. (Courtesy of Blue Rider Press)

I found that in window display. I had no long-term goals. I never thought it would lead to being an ambassador of a fabulous specialty store.

Young kids say, “How did you get started?” I don’t know what they are talking about. I got a job and I threw myself into it.

So young kids will look at my career and think it’s some strategized thing. My goal was just to be creatively stimulated. That is sort of why I took up writing. I needed another outlet. I took up writing when I was 46.

What are your thoughts on unpaid internships, which have become controversial for the fashion industry?

I have mixed feelings. At Barneys we have a very democratic approach, and [interns] are compensated. I feel good about that. A lot of the interns and plum jobs seem to go to people who have influential and well-known parents. So I caution the fashion industry about that. I think that the really intensely creative people who are the gasoline in fashion aren’t the product of Brentwood or the Upper East Side. They tend to be outliers, so it’s important to mix it up with those entry-level jobs.

You talk a lot in the book about bloggers.

What I found is that with the whole blogger community that they are really fun and they are very irreverent. I actually get on with them very well. I was initially skeptical [but] they seem to really understand the ephemeral nature of fashion. It needs an irreverence.

What are your thoughts on how much attention Michelle Obama has brought to the American fashion industry? [Doonan was criticized for saying that the first lady was not “chic” — a comment he says was taken out of context.]

I feel it is that intelligence and warmth and inner strength — the fact she is fabulous, beautifully dressed, so elegant and effortlessly stylish — there is no downside to that except maybe for her.

Because I’m such a fan of hers, I’m looking out for her in a way in saying “Hey, of course she is beautifully dressed. Step back and look at why she is the best first lady in living memory.” The other first ladies have been great. They haven’t had all of those three characteristics. Hillary is very strong and intelligent, but she isn’t as warm as Mrs. Obama. I’m saying she hits all the buttons, and she also hits the style button, too, but we must be careful not to let that eclipse everything else.

What do you hope to see in the future in the industry?

The fashion landscape has become 50 billion times larger than I ever thought it would. It’s going to evolve in different ways. It’s this mad chaotic landscape with moving goal posts and shifting sands.

The one thing you can be sure of — it’s going to keep changing and evolving. I think people will probably start to have smaller shows, like Oscar de la Renta, because they realize the customer who is actually buying high-end designer clothes, she’s getting her information from her personal shopper at Barneys. She may not be reading 5,000 online blogs, then deciding what to wear. She’ll look at Style.com to get an overview of what is going on. The role of retail and online commerce is going to shift back into that direction toward the consumer, the people who really pay full retail for high-end designer clothes.

The real heroes of fashion are the women who come into stores and go online and pay full retail for Proenza Schouler.

That’s why I love my new job at Barneys, which is creative ambassador. It’s focused on the clients. J’adore les clients.

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