As the name suggests, Barneys' creative ambassador did not exactly sugarcoat the most, um, colorful of fashion-industry moments he's encountered throughout his illustrious career. But, rather, in this just-released must-read, Doonan's documented the ghost stories, superstitions, faux pas, and, all-around cray-cray occurrences he's bore witness to. But, before you jump into thick of it and pick up a copy for yourself (at Barneys of course), we spoke with Doonan one-on-one. Read on for thoughts on his own personal belief system, and why, despite the wickedly funny stories in this new book — including an exclusive excerpt on page two — he would commit himself first to the fashion asylum.
Tell us about The Asylum. When did you decide to dig into the crazy behaviors of the fashion world, and was there a particularly strange occurrence that finally inspired you to get it all down on paper?
"When I hit 60 (last year), I realized I had been orbiting around the fashion universe for decades and that I better scribble down my fave recollections before I lost the plot and forgot everything."
"It is a humor book with lots of cheeky recollections, but I am hugely grateful to have crawled out of obscurity into the arms of Mother Fashion and had such a fab career. The Asylum is my love letter to fashion."
Your story touches on ghosts, superstition, and other perhaps unconventional beliefs that you've encountered in fashion. Where do your beliefs fit in? What's (at least) one superstition that you swear by?
"I guess I am an existentialist. Think Jean Paul Sartre. I believe everything is pretty random. Lots of people believe 'everything happens for a reason.' I believe nothing happens for a reason."
"But unlike Sartre — the chaos caused him to experience his famous nausea — I see this as a cause for celebration. If everything is chaotic, life is more interesting."
If there was such a thing as a true fashion asylum, who would be the first person you would commit?
"I would commit myself. I could use a little R and R."
Who would design the straitjackets?
"Rick Owens, of course. I also think Ed Hardy would be great. Very sauvage!"
What were some of the stories that had to be left on the cutting-room floor?
"I tried to stay away from material which is too esoteric and insider. I wanted the book to be funny to a broader audience. I am basically a carny."
With Fashion Week upon us, what kind of special "insanity" can we expect? And, what's your personal key to survival among the madness?
"FW is going to be more insane than ever. Keep some dried fruit in your purse. It's healthy and yummy and keeps you 'regular.'"
Click the arrow below for more of this story and an exclusive excerpt from The Asylum, including a tale of seeking clothing that fits and finding Thom Browne…and his hairy ankles.
Thom Browne’s Hairy Ankles
A mash-up of gender-confused fascist lesbianism. A shrunken preppy jacket with an armpit-scraping, high-waisted pant. Howdy Doody taken to his complete and utter lunatic conclusion. Visconti’s The Damned meets Pasolini’s Salo. Lacroix meets von Trapp. Gilbert & George meet Ross Perot. White mink stoles, calf-length skirts, marcel-waived hair, fur-trimmed capes, cashmere stockings and Swarovski encrusted attaché cases...and that’s just the men.
The above are some random notes I took while watching a recent Thom Browne menswear show.
How did Thom happen? How did he become the most influential menswear designer of the 2000s while simultaneously being the most unbridled and avant-garde and totally fucking crazy?
During the eighties, and most of the nineties, men’s designer clothing was huge. And by huge, I do mean capacious, tentlike, flowing, ample. If you were a trendy dude who wandered into Maxfield, Barneys or Charivari, then you saw immediately that cocoons and capes and general bagginess were where it was at.
If a guy wanted a black Yohji highwayman’s cloak, a billowing Versace scarf-print silk shirt or a black boxy boiled-wool Comme des Garçons suit—those voluminous CDG. suits were Karl Lagerfeld’s preferred uniform before he dropped major poundage on that cornbread diet—he could have his pick.
The basic assumption was as follows: Designer clothes are expensive. Rich dudes tend to be well-fed and beefy. Et voilà! Blouson is the mot du jour!
If, on the other hand, you were freakishly undersized, or just poor and petite, then you were shit out of I am one of those freakishly undersized personages. As a result, that baggy eighties Bananarama blousey period was, for me, a very emotionally scarring one. Being surrounded by designer clothing and not fitting into any of it was an alienating and horrific experience. Once in a while I would give it a whirl. I would try on a Montana this or an Armani that. The result? I was so swamped by fabric that I was invariably mistaken for an oven mitt. People would pick me up, stuff their hands inside me and slam me upside their pot roasts.
My point is this: The oversized ethos only worked on dudes of average or above-average height. So what did I wear?
Back then, back before LiLo and Kim and Perez and Al-Qaeda and Brangelina and Real Housewifery, there was no Zara or Uniqlo or H&M. There was no affordable fashion in teensy sizes. But my drive toward self-adornment was powerful. I found a way to survive: vintage clothing.
I came to know every good second-hand store in New York City, Miami Beach and Los Angeles. I sussed out the emporiums that always carried a meaty selection of unworn dead stock or second-hand merch and came away with armfuls of well-priced trouvays. The clothing manufacturers of the fifties, sixties and seventies were fully committed, back before the arrival of all that baggy blousonerie, to a niftier, narrower silhouette.
Before long, I became a rigorous vintage connoisseur. I could spot a moldy green armpit at fifty paces. I knew how to check seams for lice. And I would still be checking for skid marks and buying vintage if it were not for one man. His name is Thom Browne. With his shrunken ethos, Thom put the “dinky” back in designer clothing.
If you kidnapped Thom Browne from his home in New York City and plonked him down outside a convenience store in Kentucky, people would assume that he had escaped from the local mental health facility. His personal style is so codified and perversely conservative that it would definitely freak out the locals; with his high-waisted, flat-front pants; shrunken jackets; oversize pant cuffs cropped to expose several inches of ankle and hairy shinbone; and massive, cartoonish wing tips, Thom manages to simultaneously embody and destroy every menswear convention. His vision for men combines and magnifies various twentieth-century archetypes: the sixties congressman, the prewar Ivy Leaguer, Bobby Kennedy, Mr. Rogers and more.
Despite the objective weirdness of the TB look, it has been hugely influential. It is the influence. You cannot walk into a store today without seeing traces of Browne: ventriloquist-dummy-size jackets, a cardigan with a contrasting arm stripe, a painfully narrow tie, a center-vented gray wool jacket with a grosgrain ribbon trim.
When I happen to see Thom sitting in a restaurant or walking down the street, all Thom’d up, I usually think, That’s either Thom Browne or it’s a very stylish and handsome Jehovah’s Witness. Thom is, in many ways, both. He creates and proselytizes the Browne look with a missionary zeal. He is a bloke with a vision and, unlike certain designers I could name who never seem to wear their own clothes—you know who you are!, he lives and breathes his own sartorial philosophy. His conviction and passion are what have propelled him into the spotlight. The courageous exaggerations of the Browne style, the polar opposite of the floppy draperie that dominated menswear for so long, have made him the most relentlessly copied menswear name to come along in years. He understood that the plump baby boomers and the eighties muscle dudes were aging out of their designer fixation, making way for a new generation of scrawny manorexics. A wave of hipster postgrunge freaks had arrived and they have no desire to look even remotely like an oven mitt. Their fashion icon was Spud from Trainspotting
. I don’t do the supershort Thom Browne pant—my legs are short enough already—but I am nonetheless one of his acolytes. He has given me a way to look both tidy and eccentric. And—cue the trumpets and heavenly choirs—that quirky shrunken-jacket silhouette is, on my freakishly undersized body, a perfect fit. It looks normal! Praise the Lord!
And what of the man himself? Who is the dude behind the grosgrain?
A one-man performance troupe, Mr. Browne eats at the same restaurants at the same time every day. I have no idea why. Despite having had many conversations with Thom, I have no idea what makes him tick, what it is like to be Thom and wander the streets with chilly ankles. He is well mannered but remote. This oldschool reserve has only added to the enigma. Thom Browne the unknowable.
The depths of Thom’s unknowability are confirmed every time he stages a fashion show. These occasions are dominated by outrageously unwearable concoctions—ballooning skirts, squishy cod pieces and linebacker shoulders—which challenge all of our preconceived notions about fashion. Men in terrorist masks and quasibridal frocks wander around rooms filled with turquoise wedding cakes. Chicks with giant silver egg-shaped thingys on their heads reposition themselves like giant chess pieces. What does it all mean? No explanatory notes are provided. Whether promoting men’s clothing or women’s, these arty, protracted, incomprehensible and thoroughly enjoyable affairs never reveal anything about this particular season’s concept or about the man himself.
I love to watch the facial expressions of the show attendees. Without the benefit of explanatory insights into Thom’s MO, the audience is suspended in a state of mild discomfort. Should we cheer? Are we allowed to laugh? Are these clothes for sale? Watching the mugs of the front-rowers at a recent show, I suddenly became aware that I had seen this particular expression somewhere before. It’s the same embarrassed-but-slightly concerned face I have seen on my neighbor’s fluffy cat as she executes a poo in her litter box.
Of one thing I am certain, Thom is extremely anal-retentive about the production of his shows. Rehearsals continue until everything is just so. I base this observation on the fact that Thom once kept the sobbing, barelegged fashion pack waiting al fresco for half an hour in Arctic temperatures. Our tears were turning to icicles as we begged for mercy and pantomimed hypothermia to the PR flacks with clipboards who were observing our slow death with uncaring gazes through a frosty window. “Thom needs one more run-through,” said a gray-clad acolyte and rebolted the door.
Last Christmas I walked into Il Cantinori, one of Thom’s regular New York eateries. Near the window was a long table with sixteen gray-suited look-alikes eating pasta. Yes, it was the Thom Browne corporate staff holiday outing. TB himself was at the head of the table.
Out of towners were riveted.
“What’s with the Hutterites, or whatever the fuck they are?” asked one well-lubricated diner.
“The Branch Davidians are in the house!” slurred another.
Thom just smiled and ate his pasta.
Copyright 2013 by Simon Doonan, courtesy Blue Rider Press.
The Asylum: A Collage Of Couture Reminiscences...And Hysteria, $26, available at Barneys New York.