Over the course of his career, Glenn O’Brien has been all things to all people. Writing for GQ, he dispenses sartorial gospel and incisive wit as The Style Guy. Before that he was a columnist at Artforum and Details. He’s at home writing about I Claudius, cufflinks, or John Coltrane. As an adman he was responsible for the image of Barneys, Calvin Klein, and Island Records. He’s also been an editor: perhaps you heard about his tenure at Interview magazine. Through it all, O’Brien still makes time for his hobbies: golf and housekeeping.
Ultimately, Glenn O’Brien excels at being Glenn O’Brien—he brings his personal style to bear on every endeavor. What is that style? Curious, urbane, unafraid of the profane. In short, he’s an iconoclast at home everywhere.
We met at the bar at Il Buco, his local Italian.
David Coggins: You’re Irish but you don’t drink whisky.
Glenn O’Brien: That’s right. I’ve never liked Scotch. I only drink beer if I’m trying not to drink because I’m not crazy about it. I have a couple of margaritas a year. I’ve never had a whole martini in my life. I used to drink rum. I tried Chris Blackwell’s rum recently. He’s got his own rum now called Well Black and it’s really good.
DC: Do you have to be in Jamaica to enjoy it?
GO: I had it at his apartment up by the planetarium. It’s designed to be drunk neat, but he also makes a mean rum punch with it.
DC: You come to Il Buco a lot, it’s your local.
GO: I think they have the best food in town, I eat here as often as I can. The chef is great and the wine is really good. You always discover wine here, like this Rioja.
DC: They serve Spanish wine here even though it’s an Italian restaurant.
GO: They’ve always had good Spanish wines. And they also chill their wine to 60-some degrees, which I really like.
DC: You’re one of the people who likes a drink I like, a drink that dares not speak its name: the white wine spritzer.
GO: I do like that. The Romans invented the spritzer or even the Ancient Greeks. They thought drinking your wine undiluted was drinking like a barbarian. Scythian style.
DC: I do it when I have to pace myself at art openings. But I order it as white wine with soda water because I’m too embarrassed.
GO: Just throw ice in it. In classic literature every time somebody drinks undiluted wine they do something terrible, like murder somebody.
DC: As the Style Guy, you deal with a variety of concerns.
GO: In the issue that just came out, The Man of the Year Issue, somebody asked if you have to be royalty to wear a double-breasted suit. It’s hard to wear them if you’re really youthful or if you’ve got a bigger figure. You can’t wear it unbuttoned and you can’t wear it with a button-down shirt. Then, the other night at 1 in the morning I turn on the TV and there’s Yolanda and the Thief, this Vincent Minnelli, Fred Astaire movie and there’s Fred in a double-breasted suit wearing a button-down shirt and he looks fantastic. It works if the jacket closes high enough. So I’m recanting my former position.
DC: And here you are wearing a double-breasted suit with a button-down collar.
GO: It’s the first time in my life I’ve ever done this. My wife thinks the double breast adds years.
DC: She’s one of your toughest critics.
GO: She’s tough.
DC: When does she make her verdicts?
GO: When we’re getting ready to go out she’ll say ‘wear the other one.’
DC: How long have you been writing Style Guy?
GO: I think it’s 10 years. And I was in Details for 6 or 8 years before that.
DC: Do you really get questions from readers or are they fed to you by editorial interns?
GO: They’re genuine.
DC: How have the questions changed over the years?
GO: The GQ readers are pretty young and they just want to know basic things—and it might not be such a good idea for them to listen to their father.
DC: Are there still pillars of wisdom that should be adhered to or are we at a point where anything goes and you make your own laws?
GO: I think it’s about common sense. A lot of people don’t have that. The rules are made to be broken but you have to know them to do it right. Supposedly you’re not supposed to wear black and brown together. It looks like you’re doing that right now.
DC: I’m a rule breaker.
GO: Vincent Gallo does that spectacularly, he wears black pants and brown shoes. Anybody who’s really stylish breaks the rules.
DC: When you were 25 years old were you breaking rules?
GO: I was very conscious of how I dressed from an early age. Just the way my son Oscar is. He buys all his own clothes.
DC: Really. Where does a nine-year old New Yorker buy clothes today?
GO: He likes Brooks Brothers, he likes the Gap. Sometimes we order together online. He has good taste. I got my sense of propriety from my grandmother. I’d be going out on a date and she would say ‘you’re not wearing that pink shirt, are you? If I were that girl’s mother I wouldn’t let her go out with you.’
DC: This is in Ohio?
GO: Right. When I was in high school there was a fantastic store in Cleveland that’s where I would get all my clothes, Captain’s Quarters, in Rocky River. They specialized in Gant shirts. But my grandmother was very proper and at night you wore black shoes and a white shirt.
DC: Did you hear her advice echoing in your ears?
GO: I still hear her advice echoing. Do you know the genesis of the Style Guy? It wasn’t my idea. I was working for Details for a long time. James Truman brought me in there as a contributing editor. At the time Joe Dolce was the editor. Joe had an idea for a column called ‘Your Gay Friend.’ This was long before Queer Eye. His idea was that gay men had this knowledge of style that straight men lacked. For weeks they were trying to figure out who could do it and finally at a meeting David Keeps said ‘Glenn is the right person for this.’ And somebody said ‘Well, he’s not gay’ and David said ‘But he knows this stuff.’
DC: And who came up with the name?
GO: I think it was David Keeps. It lasted through several editors and finally they hired Mark Golen and I took one look at him and said ‘This is not going to work.’ And he had the same feeling. And I wrote one column for him and he edited it. And I called Truman and said ‘James, can I move to GQ?’ He said ’That wouldn’t be ethical I’d be poaching you. You have to quit.’ I said ‘Fine, I quit.’ And he introduced me to Art Cooper and Art hired me right away.
DC: Is giving advice different now?
GO: I think it’s gotten more sophisticated. In the beginning it was a lot about what color socks should I wear with a blue suit. Or should I wear black shoes with a blue suit. One of the funny things that happened as a result of it was that I was asked to write an advice column for Italian Vanity Fair, which I’ve done for a long time and write weekly.
GO: Yeah. It’s more like Miss Lonelyhearts. Like women who are having trouble with their mother-in-law. Or with their boss.
DC: They send you ten questions or how does that work?
GO: Every month they send me a dozen letters and they’re usually really good. They’re probably 75-25 women to men.
DC: And you’re known as…?
GO: Il Grande Glenn.
DC: Is that true?
GO: I didn’t come up with that either.
DC: What about this new attention towards American craftsmanship and clothes made closer to home?
GO: Did you see that documentary on HBO called Schmatte? It’s really good. It’s about the collapse of the American garment industry. In 1960 90% of the clothes Americans wore were made in America and now it’s 10%.
DC: You used to buy your suits at Anderson Sheppard when you were spending a lot of time in London. Where do you buy your clothes these days?
GO: I’ve been thinking a lot lately about getting another suit from them but I’m now afraid to even ask how much they cost.
DC: When you go in do you have something in mind or do you decide when you see all their fabrics?
GO: I’ll figure it out before I walk in the door. I had a great linen suit that has outlived its usefulness—it’s now extreme casual wear. It’s stained and funky, I think it’s time for another summer suit. I still shop at John Pearse of London. This is a really old suit with his trademark red felt below the collar. This patterned fabric inside the lapel pocket is another brilliant Pearse detail. John is fantastic. He used to dress Brian Jones and Syd Barrett at Granny Takes a Trip, and he’s a lot cheaper than Anderson and Sheppard.
DC: All of your clothes aren’t bespoke.
GO: Most of my tailored clothes are. I just bought some Levi’s from the Liquor Store. I haven’t been to Freeman’s in a while but I really like Freeman’s and Nom de Guerre. I just bought an unstructured jacket at J Press that’s made in France, believe it or not, completely natural shoulder.
DC: Have your dressing habits changed over the years? You’ve always been partial to suits and Belgian shoes.
GO: I’ve worn the Belgian shoes for twenty-something years. I’ve basically had the same taste in clothes since I was a teenager.
DC: Where did you get your first suit as a boy in Ohio?
GO: Higbees. They had some good stuff. I loved Bonwit Teller. They had a good one in Cleveland. Are you too young to know Bonwit Teller? That was one of the great New York stores, it was really stylish. All the great stores went out of business within 5 years of one another. Bendel’s, Best and Company, and Bonwit Teller.
DC: That was before your affiliation with Barneys.
GO: Yes, I went to Barneys in 1986. I learned a huge amount from Fred Pressman.
DC: You dedicated one of your books to him. What did he teach you?
GO: He just knew everything. He had great style, he was cool and unpretentious. He would wear incredibly beautiful custom-made suits but then his shirts would be a little frayed at the collar. He would always wear the same black knit tie, and beautiful shoes. He was really hip.
One day we were looking through all the new clothes, the fashion clothes and there was this one Gaultier overcoat that was really out there. Fred put it on and he was looking in the mirror and said: ‘If I were 30 years younger and 4 inches taller, I’d wear this.’
DC: It helps to know yourself that well. You write online but are you much of an online person?
GO: I look at eBay almost every day.
DC: What are you looking for?
GO: I’m looking for a Citroen. And it’s a good place to look for ties.
DC: Right. I go there for old ties from Sulka.
GO: Sulka is good, Charvet is good. There’s a defunct Madison Avenue cravatier whose name I won’t mention because I don’t want any competition. He went out of business in about 1972 and all the boys who worked at Andy’s Factory bought a lot of the stock at the final sale.
DC: Do you have a lot of competition for the wares defunct Madison Avenue cravatiers?
GO: I’ve been wearing the same width tie throughout the vagaries of fashion, as they’ve gotten wider or thinner. For years I wore mostly Hermes ties because they never got fat. I’m just looking for a three-inch tie, I don’t care who makes it.
DC: How extensive is your wardrobe? How many shirts are we talking about—is it like Gatsby—more than 100?
DC: Between 150 and 200?
GO: Between what’s here and in the country, probably between 150 and 200. A lot of them I got at extreme discount at Barneys.
DC: Suits, are we talking about Casino where he needs a machine that rotates everything?
GO: We have a big problem with storage of our clothes. Gina has a really big wardrobe and I have a fairly big wardrobe. It would be my dream to have one of those dry cleaner rotators.
DC: On other matters of the day.
GO: Are we going to talk about Thom Browne?
DC: I’m a little exhausted with Thom Browne.
GO: Really? I think he’s a genius.
DC: But are his clothes really practical or is he pursuing a vision that’s unworkable for most people?
GO: His vision is very strong and peculiar. But I think that that vision really pushed the mainstream silhouette. Everybody today is wearing tighter suits, shorter jackets, and that’s him. And American men have a baggy problem. The way he dresses himself? I would look ridiculous with my pants that high, but it looks alright on Thom. What he’s doing for Brooks Brothers is great, I have a lot of Black Fleece.
DC: In a way, he’s better suited for Brooks Brothers because they keep him from becoming too mannered. What about all this talk about 19th Century influences, artisanal everything. All of that’s true about tweed and beards, but what about Mad Men and the streamlined look?
GO: Maybe it’s generational. The people with the shaggy bearded tweedy look are younger, and those with the Mad Men look are in their thirties. I just saw Tom Ford’s directorial debut and it takes place in 1962—and Mad Men is 1963—it looks just right, now. Except the rise in the trousers.
DC: That’s tough.
GO: Peter Gunn is the right look, I just bought the complete DVD set.
DC: With the Henry Mancini theme song.
GO: Right, there’s Peter Gunn and More Music from Peter Gunn.
DC: You went to Long Island for a long time, now you have a house in the country, why did you make the change?
GO: I was going out to the Hamptons for a long time, and it was a lot different. That Hamptons went away.
DC: How did you know? Was there one moment, like Jay McInerney’s 50th birthday and you said ‘That’s it, I’m out of here?’
GO: It was more like trying to get a parking spot at the beach. There was residents parking and that went away. And then I bought a scooter. It became too hard to do everything, and going to the super market became a hassle. I was getting road rage. And then I had people drive through my fence drunk. And I don’t swim in the Atlantic except for the one day when the 2-year olds go in. I don’t miss that really. I do miss my old golf club out there—Noyac.
DC: Any other sage advice for the young Turks out there?
GO: It’s important to have a sense of occasion, which people have lost. There’s a great book called Sex and Suits, by Anne Hollander. She talks about tuxedos and says if all the men in the room are wearing dinner clothes then instead of making them all look the same it actually emphasizes their differences. I think people really miss that, not formality, but having a standard. It doesn’t make you a victim if you’re wearing a suit and tie.
DC: You’ve been wearing a suit and tie as long as I’ve known about you. It’s funny talking about Mad Men, you were branding for many years.
GO: We re-branded Burberry. I used to do a lot of freelancing for big agencies, like Chiat Day. They would hire me and I would go in and I would be wearing a suit and tie and the creative guys were wearing sweatpants and concert t-shirts and flip flops and they would stare and say ‘You’re a copywriter?’
DC: And now you’re part of the establishment. It’s good to do what you do whether you fit in or not.
GO: By dressing expressively you figure out who you are and what works for you. By knowing what you like you find out more about yourself. That sounds pretentious but it’s true.
DC: And what’s your public stance on the dissolution of your relationship with Brant Publications?
GO: I’m legally enjoined from commenting. But I wish them the best of luck.
DC: Before everything went south, what were the satisfactions about running a magazine?
GO: I liked being a boss. I liked giving a magazine a tone and a voice and a personality. I just realized this week that I miss going to an office.
DC: Do you make a distinction between your different jobs?
GO: Everything I do ultimately I do to entertain myself. I’m the worst when a magazine comes, I’ll go right to my column, I’ll open it up and start laughing.
DC: Why is that?
GO: Because I’m shameless, that’s really funny, this guy is good.
DC: You’re going to play bridge now. Your hobby is housekeeping. How does bridge fit in?
GO: You’ve been on the game show with me [Title This] you know how competitive I am. They have to humor me, and promise me I’ll get good cards. When I was a kid I loved game shows like What’s My Line. That’s what made me want to move to New York. The witty panelists like Bennett Cerf, Kitty Carlisle, Arlene Francis and Henry Morgan. I would think: ‘That’s what I want to do, I want to be on a gameshow and go to the Stork Club afterward.’
DC: What are you working on now?
GO: I’m making a new magazine and I’m writing a book. The magazine will be written in the vulgate or vernacular and center around the arts in the incipient post-celebrity era. The book is a sort of combination philosophy/jokebook/non-boyscout handbook. I see it as being in the tradition of Ezra Pound’s Guide to Kulchur, Friedrich Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil, J.P. Donleavy’s The Unexpurgated Code, Buddy Hackett’s The Truth About Golf and Robert Benchley.