Remembering Fashion’s Fallen Heroes

Simon Doonan in 2013
Simon Doonan in 2013

Photo by Ben Gabbe/Getty Images

The following piece is an excerpt from Simon Doonan’s new book The Asylum: A Collage of Couture Reminiscences … and Hysteria.

In 1982 I took my boyfriend to the doctor.

“It’s just an in-grown hair,” I said, pointing to the purple mark on his neck.

The doctor had a different diagnosis.

“You have AIDS,” he said.

“Can you give my friend a referral to a specialist?” I asked.

“There are no specialists. There is no referral. Are you guys religious?”

Within two years, my pal was dead, and so were many of my other friends, ex-boyfriends and colleagues. To date, more than 600,000 people have died of AIDS in the United States alone.

Thirty years ago, when AIDS arrived, it hit the fashion industry—my people—like a sledgehammer. Readers d’un certain âge will recall how bleak and ghastly it was. Like me, you can only remember those dark days with a mixture of horror and sadness.

To those of you who were not around, I can only say this: You have no idea how lucky you are.

One after another, the brightest and boldest succumbed to this horrifying disease. Our creative pals—some famous, some infamous, most unknown and just starting to hit their stride—perished after being unwittingly infected by the disease of the century. Many died agonizing deaths in the hallways of hospitals without hope or familial support. Back then, in the early days, AIDS really was just like a medieval plague. “Who is next?” was the question on all our lips.

Patrick Kelly, Angel Estrada, Isaia, Adrian Cartmell, Clovis Ruffin, Halston and so many more. AIDS decimated a broad spectrum of the fashion universe. Antonio Lopez and Juan Ramos, Tina Chow, Robert Rose, Peter Lester, Tim Hawkins, Sergio Galeotti, Robert Hayes and Laughlin Barker.

Photographers too: David Seidner, Barry McKinley, Tony Viramontes, Herb Ritts, Bill King, Steven Arnold, Stevie Hughes, Kenneth McGowan and Doug Coder.

And so many of my window-dresser pals: Bob Currie, Michael Cipriano, Cliff Murphy, Colin Burch, Bob Benzio, Stephen Di Petrie, Talmadge the one-namer, and so many more.

These names are just the tip of the iceberg. I cannot list everyone. This book would turn into War and Peace.

At the height of this dark and horrible period, I recall visiting a sick friend named Jeffrey Herman. He was a model turned photographer who had just begun to receive some recognition for his pictures. When he fell ill, his life, his hopes, his creativity and his dreams all screeched to a halt.

During Jeffrey’s agonizing last days, he expressed a very pessimistic conviction.

“This is the end. We were all headed toward oblivion. Nobody will remember us. We will evaporate. We are dust. We are the lost generation.”

I often think about what Jeffrey said and sometimes I wonder if he might not have been correct. Fashion is ephemeral by nature. Today’s peacock is tomorrow’s feather duster. Fashion is about what’s next. What’s next? What’s next? What’s next?

And now that the fashion industry has become this massive, ever-expanding juggernaut, now that we have the twenty-four-hour madness and fabulousness of Internet bloggings and tweetings, now that we have all this distracting meshugaas, it is conceivable that we might forget all the great and talented people who kicked the bucket.

When AIDS struck, the fashion world rallied as never before: Kenneth Cole, Anna Wintour, Donna Karan and Ralph Lauren all did their bit, as did Barneys. I am proud to say we hosted the first retail AIDS fund-raiser at our Seventeenth Street store in the mid-eighties. The philanthropic effort was unprecedented. And the effort continues.

But fund-raising is one thing, and remembrance is another.

When I saw how beautifully the victims of 9/11 were memorialized, I could not help but think also of my fallen heroes. I thought of the bright lights of fashion who were cruelly snuffed out in the 1980s.

And I thought about how important it is for us to keep the flame burning for our friends who slipped away from us over a quarter of a century ago, not just for ourselves, but also for the upcoming generation, many of whom were not even born in 1981.

Upcoming generations need to know that Perry Ellis was a real person, not just a brand name, a beautiful, generous man with long hair and a uniquely poetic vision.

They should know that Moschino is not just a made-up name on a label in the neck of a random frock. Franco Moschino was a true innovator, an Italian surrealist with a wicked wit.

We need to share our memories of talented and inspirational eccentrics like Klaus Nomi, Tommy Rubnitz, Leigh Bowery, Way Bandy and Ricky Wilson of the B-52s. And we need to share the magic and the bravado and the positivity of great fashion designers like Willi Smith.

So let’s prove Jeffrey wrong.

Let’s know our fashion history and always speak their names and pass on their passion and their legacy.