In recent days, the art, music and, not least, fashion worlds have all mourned the unexpected passing of Glenn O’Brien. The dust of his life path, even before one read his men’s style writing, kicked up many different clouds that each could qualify him as a style icon, worthy in fact of the most florid and flamboyant epithets of praise I know. His many public incarnations, beginning at the birth of Pop Culture as a product of Andy Warhol’s Factory, earn him the appellation protean: constantly adapting, indeed ahead of the curve. O’Brien’s acid wit rarely fueled a poison pen, but deserved the term epigrammatic. And his ability to marry and convey different conflicting views and inspirations made him a contrarian in the best possible way, a true original.
Many of the necrologies currently scattering like grave dirt mention O’Brien’s vast, varied, and immensely entertaining CV: his debut as a clean-cut kid who by his admission was one of the two people brought in to edit Warhol’s new magazine Interview because they weren’t effed up on drugs. (Warhol famously said everyone gets their 15 minutes of fame; coincidentally I always thought Interview took 15 minutes to read, but at least they were a fun 15 minutes, more than I can say about almost any other publication.) His days hosting the anarchic public access cable show TV Party (which he created with Blondie’s Chris Stein) welcoming in the bright lights of the postpunk generation; his stints as “Editor at Large” of High Times, a title he claimed to have invented in homage to the legally suspect area of the magazine’s avowed subject; Creative Director of advertising for Barneys New York; columnist for Artforum; and a long tenure as The Style Guy for the defunct Details and, until a few years ago, GQ, which has become even more irrelevant since his acrimonious departure. Thence to Maxim, as the Axe Body Spray of men’s magazines tried to rebrand. Latterly, he launched a new show on Apple TV called Tea at the Beatrice, where over sedate afternoon tea at Graydon Carter’s Beatrice Inn he hobnobbed with personalities from art and fashion as diverse as Gisele Bündchen (whom the NYT in its amnesiac idiocy is now calling an “influencer”) to the artist, provocateur and posturer Shepard Fairey, whose college-town Andre the Giant shenanigans influenced me indelibly.
In addition, over that time he co-wrote Madonna’s Sex, and, far more stomach-turningly, helped write the most recent Berluti book. In between, he came out with the best-seller How to Be a Man, an engaging compendium inspired by his work as GQ’s Style Guy. When he parted ways with GQ in 2015, it kept custody of the Style Guy moniker, though not his incomparable voice: he sniped to the to the snarkblog Four Pins that the change was part of GQ’s devolution into a magazine that could be slipped under a door.
What does his loss mean for fashion? The numerous plaudits and obituaries that have poured in enumerate all of his glittering trajectory, almost as if to minimize his fashion writing, or to imply that his Style Guy columns, which he mentioned took him “one day a month,” were not serious, because clothes, fashion, style are all implicitly unserious and frivolous. A review of almost all writing about clothing and style, including that by most claimants to intellectual viewpoints on them, could justify this assumption: writers repeat received nonsense, parrot rationalizations that $6,000 suits somehow pay for themselves, and generally proffer self-congratulation, either to those who follow expensive trends, or to the creepiest advocates of retrograde cliché. Sensibilities they lack – or fail to express – are history, perspective, individualism, and any semblance of creative thought. O’Brien’s numerous different incarnations weren’t just a résumé for us to take him more seriously than “just” another style writer. Rather, all of those different avatars conferred on his style writing the expanse of his experience, his knowledge, his culture and his individual taste. He broke out of cliché, the deep wellspring of #menswear writing, and burst the hide bounds of conservatism, the safe constraint of rules where the cautious or ill-informed men’s clothing writer seeks masochistic refuge. O’Brien loved clothes and brought his esthetic sensibility and the empiricism gained of personal experiment to how he dressed and how he, when asked, advised others to dress. He married custom suits from Steed, perhaps the best British exponent of the drape cut, with Belgian loafers without even a whiff of grapeshot.
And he introduced readers, even occasional ones like me, to a set of modern style icons, New Gods as baroquely different as Jack Kirby’s, from fellow Warhol scenester Fred Hughes (whose habit, O’Brien described, of wearing three different checked patterns I’ve never forgotten and often emulated) to the Iranian-American writer and political polemicist Hooman Majd.
Looking back, it fits: Warhol magnified and elevated our mass modern culture, a culture of frivolous commonplaces, taken for granted. What, to the popular mind, could be more so than fashion, that supposedly changes from season to season, and clothes, that conventional wisdom says are not serious? O’Brien brought a keen wit, a magpie eye, a vitriolic pen, and a broad culture that did not disdain the low or dismiss the high. Our Pop Culture style writer, it took a man of that breadth of interests, that depth of knowledge, to say something original and interesting about clothes.
As he explained to Four Pins in the aftermath of his GQ breakup, he strove to be both “philosophical and unpredictable” in his clothing writing. Amen.
Glenn O’Brien, 1947-2017.