Glenn O’Brien Interview
Written For: AskMen.com
Men have a shallow relationship with clothing. When we reach for a white shirt in the morning, we think, “Is this clean? Is it ironed? Will this look good?” Beyond that which is easily and quickly perceived, rarely — if ever — does buttoning up our shirts inspire thoughts of politics and revolution. But for Glenn O’Brien, the relationship between men’s fashion and the world we inhabit is much more meaningful:
There are, of course, the men we call “suits.” These are fellows who wear the business uniform because it’s still part of their profession. They’re often middle management, but among the most connected to this traditional cookie-cutter style are politicians, although they tend not to wear good suits… They wear the suit because it is the uniform of capitalist democracy. Those super-capitalists, the Chinese communists, are similarly devoted to the ill-fitting business suit. And when you think about it, it’s mostly the suits among us that are holding business government on traditional, institutional courses ranging from stupid to suicidal.
These are the considerations O’Brien makes in his book How To Be a Man, a series of essays on everything from drinking and smoking (in style, of course) to pleasing women. We at AskMen consider this to be essential reading, because you’ll laugh, you’ll laugh while learning how to improve your style (“I want a bathing suit that discreetly complements the man basket yet doesn’t reveal whether or not the wearer is circumcised.”), but mostly, you’ll begin to appreciate O’Brien’s proposal that fashion, often an afterthought for men, is just the catalyst the modern man needs to bring forth change — a revolution, perhaps. Or, as O’Brien says it: “If you resemble the masses, you are the enemy. If your appearance is complex, evocative and unique as a snowflake, welcome to the avalanche of individuality that will bury the totalitarian drones of the status quo!”
Well, I know I’ll never button up my white shirt the same way again.
We caught up with Glenn O’Brien to pick his brain about masculinity today, common fashion mistakes men make and how he loves reggae (yup, it’s true).
Glenn O’Brien On Masculinity Today
Sachin Bhola (SB): So, first of all, congratulations on the book. I wanted to talk to you about the motivation behind it. Why a guide on how to be a man now?
Glenn O’Brien (GO): Well, I think it’s not something that is… it’s not like you couldn’t have done one 10 years ago or probably couldn’t do one 10 years from now. I just basically have been doing “The Style Guy” column for, you know, a really long time. I guess… I don’t know… I actually used to know how long I’ve been doing it [laughs].
I started it in Details and then moved it to GQ. It’s just this continuing interest, and I get new questions all of the time, so I kind of developed a clientele, you know. I call it a following, so I thought I’d take advantage of that and write a book for that audience. But then I realized that it was also a good format for a book of essays that just generally rolled into men…
SB: On the theme of men, men’s media seems to be obsessed with all things ’60s and Mad Men. Where do you think that obsession comes from, and do you think this defines the modern man?
GO: Every era looks back on some other time that represents values and qualities that are no longer available, and I think that in the ’60s it was kind of the height of modernism. There was wonderful, progressive architecture and, you know, men’s clothing was very kind of clean and not formal, but really functional and had a kind of aesthetic that has… I mean I have always liked it since that time. Basically the clothes I was wearing when I was a teenager are things I would wear today, and I just think that, in a way, it was kind of a golden age of design.
And as far as the culture goes, it was also a time when there was a tremendous amount happening in music, jazz and art, so I think people may be a little lost now because, I think, the mass media has sort of eroded America, or the Western culture… it’s not what it was. So I think people look to that with admiration.
SB: Do you think, then, the modern man is perhaps longing for tradition that is absent in today’s world?
GO: No, I don’t mean tradition in the stuffy sense, but I think that maybe there’s a longing for a more cultural culture. You know, that’s not all, like, reality TV and celebrities and this and that, but a little appreciation of finer things.
SB: Let’s talk a little bit about your career and the industry. What do you think the appeal of working in the fashion industry is for a heterosexual man?
GO: I don’t think sexuality has anything to do with aesthetics. I mean, I know that that was the premise behind Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and all that. I think that in a lot of ways, men — or boys — are raised in a peculiar way in America, where, you know, maybe it’s because of the influence of, sort of, militaristic generations from World War II or something like that, where this kind of exaggerated idea of masculinity was imposed upon people. To tell you the truth, if you like girls, there’s no better industry to be involved in than the fashion industry [laughs].
SB: [laughs] That’s a very honest answer. What would you say is the biggest critique of our industry?
GO: The thing that I find least palatable is — which is something that we find in many industries — is the domination of the big companies. I think that a lot of the most creative people, they get absorbed by conglomerates and then, you know… You see what happened with Helmut Lang and Jil Sander. I think often things don’t work marvelously well on a modest level when you try to expand it exponentially; it just doesn’t work anymore. So I think the mania for growth is really unhealthy sometimes.
Glenn O’Brien On Fashion & Style
SB: In your book, when discussing personal style, you talk about how “the bad news for many is that they have no style to live beyond them. If you are a type, you lack style.” Who in today’s world — men that you’ve met — do you believe will have lasting style?
GO: Well, you know, I kind of hesitate to name names, but I am friends with a lot of artists… and I think that the people who are generally involved in culture, whether they’re artists or collectors or dealers or writers or musicians, they tend to have a style because they’re used to expressing themselves. And I think the ones that lack style are often people who have to exist in a corporate environment, where sometimes you don’t want to stand out; you want to hide. And I think that that’s unfortunate. I would hate to wind up in a situation where I felt I had to, like, keep my head down.
SB: Let’s talk a little bit about fashion. What are some common fashion mistakes you see men making?
GO: I think a lot of men, especially American men, don’t know what fits. So you see guys wearing clothes usually that’s too big. I mean, I see men swimming in their suits, you know, like in Midtown. And I think it’s a common problem for American men: The sleeves are too long, the pants are too long, the jackets are too big. The most common thing is that people probably just didn’t think about what they were doing. Usually when people are paying attention, they’ll look OK.
I hate the, sort of, influence of team sports on men’s fashion — if you call it “fashion.” I mean, walking around in football jerseys and baseball caps… I’m much more pro-civilian look. I don’t want to look like I’m on a team unless I’m actually playing something.
SB: On the other hand, what do you think men are doing correctly, something that they’ve finally mastered?
GO: Well, I think there’s more stylish young men than there was 10 years ago, so I guess they’re feeling, maybe, a little less uptight. Realizing that it’s OK to be different, to have a sort of look of your own. I do… sometimes think, “Gee, I’m not seeing as many baseball caps as I used to. Maybe I finally had an effect.”
SB: I think people are finally practicing what you’re preaching! What about skinny jeans — how do you feel about it?
GO: I think trim is good. Jeans don’t look good if they’re baggy, so I think the classic, sort of slim look is fine. The thing that I kind of don’t like about jeans now is that I think it looks funny if your pockets are on the back of your legs. I think your pockets should be within the vicinity of your butt.
And I hate distressed. If you want distressed clothing, distress it yourself, you know? Because it’s weird if you run into somebody and they have exactly the same holes in their jeans as you do [laughs]. I’d be, like, really embarrassed. It’s worse than two women wearing the same dress to a party.
SB: You have this wonderful passage in your book, where you talk about the men’s fashion industry moving at a glacial pace and that we’re in need of a revolution, referencing Thom Browne as a potential leader of this revolution. What do you think the revolution will look like, say, 5, 10 years from now?
GO: I think we’ll probably see more color. I mean, Thom has kind of started a revolution in fit, which I think is really great because, I mean, men are now a lot more fit than they used to be, or at least men who have some sense of style are generally fit. Like Thom is a big runner, you know. I think his clothes are a reflection of the body, which is what it should be. I mean, I don’t think we should be walking around in tights, but I think that if you have an athletic body, it should be noticeable. And now the jackets are shorter, the pleats are kind of gone, and I like that. I think it’s progress.
Glenn O’Brien – Bits & Bobs
SB: Is there anything people don’t know about you that you’d want to share?
GO: I like classic jazz a lot, but I just got into — I happen to run into James Murphy, the guy from LCD Soundsystem, so I’m the newest fan of LCD Soundsystem. I didn’t even know about them, but they’re great. In the car coming down here, we were listening to the underground garage radio station. I’m a big reggae fan. You know, I wrote a music column for Interview for 12 years, and so maybe people don’t know that I’ve written lots and lots about art and music. And I’m not just a fashion writer. The thing is today, you kind of… you seem to have to have a niche to get any traction.
SB: Was there a risk that you ever took in your career that really paid off, that would inspire somebody else who wanted to follow in your footsteps?
GO: My whole career was a risk. I mean, I really never thought about money as much as knowing what I wanted to do. So yeah, I think that basically I was never afraid of taking risks, and I was never afraid of quitting a job if I didn’t agree with people that I was working for. You know, it might cause you suffering in the short run, but in the end, I think, you’re happier if you stick up for what you believe in.
Video of Glenn O’Brien hosting TV Party. Watch him rockin’ out – he’s badass.