Gail Chovan and Simon Doonan discuss drag, soccer culture and why personal style should be about self-expression, not external validation
by Margaret Williams
Photographs by Jessica Pages with assistance from Katie Leacroy
This series has all around been a joy to produce, but I will admit, no other interview pairing has had me (or photographer Jessica Pages) more starstruck than this one. Simon Doonan is an icon. Born in postwar Reading, England, he first began department-store window-dressing in his hometown — a role that would lead him to do the same in London, Los Angeles and New York, where he joined the Barneys staff in 1986. The legendary department store, which recently declared bankruptcy (this conversation took place before that announcement), is now synonymous with the fashion plate, where after 35 years and myriad roles, including as creative director, he now serves as ambassador at large.
Doonan, who married his husband, designer Jonathan Adler, in 2008, continues to breathe relevancy and joy into whichever cultural pocket he inhabits and most recently can be seen on NBC’s “Making It,” with Amy Poehler and Nick Offerman, and as the writer of numerous books, the latest of which, “Drag: The Complete Story,” comes out this month.
Gail Chovan is equally iconic and distinctly connected with Austin’s cultural and artistic underground. While the designer and University of Texas professor is known for her oft-black menswear-inspired clothing, untamed hair and accessory-laden collarbone, Chovan’s sharp knowledge of the world around her, and its historical context, is what leaves the strongest impression upon first meeting. After 21 years in business, Chovan closed her South Congress boutique, Blackmail, this past spring and is now pursuing a graduate degree in museum studies with Harvard University.
These innovators met in Chovan’s kitchen one Saturday last March, as Doonan was in town for SXSW, and though they were meeting for the first time, their stylistic chemistry was natural.
Simon Doonan: I love your store, Blackmail. I was in there yesterday.
Gail Chovan: There’s not much left. Twenty-one years, and it just seemed like the right time [to close].
SD: Retail is f-ed. If you want to continue, you can always do it online.
GC: I think we’ll do that. What are you up to?
SD: I’m here with Dayna [Isom Johnson], one of the judges from “Making It.” We are about to film season 2. The winner [from season 1] actually lives here. Khiem [Nguyen]! He’s a brilliant, talented woodworker.
I still work a bit with Barneys as creative ambassador at large. You know, wearing a sash, doing a lot of waving. I love Barneys. Thirty-five years of my life. My window era.
GC: And that’s how I mainly know about you. From your work with Barneys.
SD: But I have these books, one that just came out about soccer [“Soccer Style: The Magic and Madness”] and another one on drag coming out in September.
GC: That’s fascinating.
SD: The culture of soccer is a huge, crazy, explosive global fiesta.
GC: We spend every summer in France, and so after the World Cup last year, we were in the streets. I mean, I don’t follow it that closely, but it sure is fun.
SD: I’m not really qualified to opine about the game itself. This is more about the culture around soccer. The tattoos, the WAGs [wives and girlfriends], the overspending, the dissolute behavior. I have a whole chapter on fans, demented outfits, unbridled passion.
GC: How did you get into that world of style and excess and fashion? Because it seems like it would be sort of at odds with your personal style.
SD: No, look at the way I dress. I’m flashy, just like they are. I grew up poor. I like to have some —
SD: When I grew up in England, I was always interested in the stories in soccer: who’s just crashed their Lamborghini, who’s having a scene tattooed on their arm and then the next week they’re having it lasered off because they’ve gotten divorced.
GC: Oh my god, that’s hysterical. How have you stayed engaged this long? Any fatigue?
SD: I was always interested in the culture around me, regardless of where I was. I never had burnout. I consider myself incredibly lucky. I grew up after the war. We had nothing. Lived in a two-room flat with no running water with my parents, my sister. So to have the life I have now, every day I think, “God, I’m so lucky to do all these fun projects.” How about you?
GC: No burnout here, either. I just started back to school at the age of 60. Going through Harvard to do a master’s in museum studies.
GC: In two weeks, I’m going to the Victoria [Victoria and Albert Museum in London] to do a weeklong period course.
SD: In the old days, costume exhibits were considered an inferior form of expression. When I worked at the Costume Institute in the early ’80s, Diana Vreeland was still in charge . It was underfunded, so we were always gluing mannequins together. The idea of all this explosive McQueen stuff. Back then you could never imagine the museum allocating funds, because it was considered a bit déclassé.
The new book is all about the history of drag, so I had to really think about that in terms of costume change and what represented drag, going back to ancient Greece. I went as far back as I could find.
GC: What is the earliest documentation that you were able to find?
SD: In ancient Egypt, women were not royal, and I can’t remember the exact B.C. date, but one queen wore a ceremonial beard to indicate her royalty. They didn’t have crowns, so she wore this beard. So that’s an early example, but then mythology’s full of androgyny and transvestism, as it was called back then.
The most challenging thing about drag, I think — and you’ve done it, I’ve done it — is how long it takes. It’s just, like, oy vey. You know, you see “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and RuPaul — you know, that’s four hours. Six hours. It’s incredibly time-consuming. Especially the new wave of drag, what they call the look queens.
GC: What’s the look queen?
SD: It’s sort of a level of artistry — Ryan Burke, Kim Chi, they do extraordinary, meticulous painting. They’re doing things on their faces that you or I couldn’t do on a flat piece of paper.
GC: I think that’s happening in fashion as well — if you just saw Rick Owens’ show [Paris Fashion Week Fall 2019] with all the facial modification.
SD: Actually, your look is very Rick Owens.
GC: I like Rick and Michèle [Lamy] but I like a little more vintage. Last night, I wore a suit and I was like, “I’m only going to wear suits now. I want really well-cut suits.” Kind of like Betty Catroux.
SD: Yeah. You should. It’s sort of the polar opposite of Austin, where you so rarely see suits on the streets.
GC: I wore it last time we went to a dinner and everyone was like, “Oh my gosh, it’s a suit.” Plus, going back to the androgyny thing, it was easy for me to do because I’ve had cancer, I have no breasts, didn’t put them back on. And I’ve never been a girlie girl. Betty Catroux’s always been one of my star icons. What about you?
SD: At the moment, I follow a lot of sports people on Instagram. I love Russell Westbrook, the basketball player. Floyd Mayweather’s really fun; he wears all this designer stuff. I like people that go for it. Make an effort to be memorable, but not because you’re desperate for attention, but because you’re creative.
GC: And because that’s who you are.
SD: Yeah, it’s who you are. I think there’s sort of a new cult of anonymity where everybody’s wearing solid colors and sort of some approved version of clothing that’s unimpeachable. You were probably born this way. I was born this way. Like, I always was interested in presentation.
GC: Exactly. It’s a genetic thing. I remember I was designing clothes and living in Washington, D.C. I took this job gift-wrapping books for Christmas. There was an old man that worked in the bookstore and he would call me Madame Elegance. He was like, “How did you get to be so elegant?” And this was like 35 years ago.
I have people text me, like, “Should I wear this tonight? Does this work?” I’m like, “Yeah.”
SD: I’m not self-critical in that way. I’m self-critical in other ways, but I think it’s growing up gay when it was illegal and you had to love yourself. You weren’t getting external validation. So I’m always encouraging people to try and live without constantly seeking reassurance externally. Fashion — style — should be self-expression. Like Quentin Crisp said, “Don’t bother keeping up with the Joneses; drag them down to your level.”
GC: I love that; that’s great.
SD: I was always around very empowered women — my mom, my auntie, my sister — and so when I’m around people that are constantly criticizing themselves, I want to say, “Hey, no, it’s not really like that. No one gives a rat’s ass.”
GC: But don’t you find that they’re going to ask you, “Well, what looks good on me?” People always ask me.
SD: Well, I always say, “I’m not helpful. I give kamikaze advice.” I’m good at inspiring people to be excited about what they wear and take risks and realize that no one’s keeping score, but in terms of parsing the minutiae of what you might wear to your sister’s wedding, I don’t know — go to the costume shop across the street and find the most fun thing that’s actually quite flattering and wear it. Everyone will remember it.
This story is part of our “Listening In” series, where we pair SXSW speakers and artists and then happily eavesdrop on the exchange. Find the complete series at tribeza.com/listening-in.