3 min

Flaunting it in fashion

Bored by the endless monochrome of a Toronto non-spring, I find myself looking for people who seem to have transcended the quotidian. In a word, heroes. Not Oprah-esque victims who have overcome predictable adversity, nor even the standard grand marshal-style bigwigs — public figures with a public face — but someone with something interesting to say about both the exterior and the interior life.
   For this reason I find fashion designers among the most interesting gay figures out there. Not the young’uns who populate the reality shows. They’re too giddy to be more than charming. But, rather, the veterans, the old dears.
   Sometimes the biggest hurdle anyone can face is their own personality and many of these designers seem to have managed to channel their oddity (read: creativity) into something profitable, tangible and useful. Forced by the constraints of their industry to adapt and change, they seem to be where gay men in general used to be: out there on the edge asserting unusual wrinkles of the self.
   Fortunately these days there’s no shortage of stories about these guys (and they’re always, it seems, guys), both on screen and in print. You don’t have to do more than wait for the New Yorker’s twice-yearly style issue. There’s almost always a profile of a big name designer and, designers being designers, it usually amounts to a mini gay biography, complete with chequered sex life.
   In March 2005 there was (Domenico) Dolce and (Stefano) Gabbana, couturiers to Madonna, rulers of a massive fashion empire and sometime lovers. Together for 19 years, they figured out how to make it work even after they broke up and acquired separate boyfriends.
   In September 2008 it was Mark Jacobs, who took a leaf from the Madonna playbook and turned his own transformation into a media metaphor. A former “schlump,” the creative director of Louis Vuitton became a dedicated gym-boy with a self-consciously hot love life. Be “shameless,” he urged in the profile.
   In March it was Alber Elbaz, a designer whose worries make Woody Allen’s neuroses seem gossamer thin. Wildly successful (at Lanvin) and partnered to a boyfriend of 16 years, he still worries about his weight.
   And now coming soon to a screen near you is Valentino: The Last Emperor, the moving story — says the advance press — of the Italian couturier and his longtime friend, partner and sometime lover, Giancarlo Giametti. In 47 years together, says Giametti, they haven’t been apart even two months total.
   But my favourite designer so far is Karl Lagerfeld. Severe and solitary, he works every contradiction in contemporary culture. With his shades and grey ponytail, he’s both uniquely contemporary and a romantic throwback — a cross between Anna Wintour and an 18th-century courtier.
   In the ruthlessly elegant documentary Lagerfeld Confidential he comes across as both engaged and alone, the consummate professional who knows how to manage his image for maximum gain.
   At seventysomething (the exact date of his birth is contested), he’s also a man who’s utterly sure of himself. Watching Lagerfeld toy with an interviewer is more fun than watching Meryl Streep play the boss-from-hell in The Devil Wears Prada. Amused by the interviewer’s halting attempts to interrogate his sex life, the designer simultaneously says it’s no big deal and makes a very big point. People who suggest kids should wait until they’re 20 to have sex are hypocrites, he says. He’s been practising since he was 13, and his parents knew about it and forced him to take responsibility for it.
   He’s blunt about sex but tantalizingly discreet about his love life. There are some “tragedies” he couldn’t possibly discuss.
   He’s for prostitution (“It avoids frustration and I admire people who do it…. We can’t all afford a mistress or an expensive friend”) and against gay marriage. “What was needed was something new, a new way of living. Marriage as we know it was created by the Church for reproduction. So let’s invent something else, not ape the despised bourgeoisie.”
   Only a French designer (though German by birth) could get away with a crack against the “bourgeoisie.” It’s just so ’60s. But there’s no doubting the strength of his convictions. Even when he’s denouncing the very materialism that employs him — he finds possessions burdensome; this from a man who flies aboard private jets — he sounds witty, acerbic and engaged with the world around him.
   None of these guys is a good role model for the masses. Their eccentricity, individuality and sexual self-assertion is lubricated by lots of money and that’s not a luxury available to most of us.
   But there’s something about the fashion imperative, the tension between creativity and commerce perhaps, that seems to attract some truly interesting birds. They’re not political in the conventional sense — the last place you’d expect to find them is on a picket line — but their willingness to flaunt their individuality in an anodyne world makes them radicals of the first order.