Glenn O’Brien on Women’s Fashion, Brad Pitt’s Chanel No. 5 Ad, and Hung-over Shopping

Glenn O'Brien with Madonna in 1992.
Glenn O’Brien with Madonna in 1992. Photo: Ron Galella, Ltd./Getty Images

Glenn O’Brien, also known as the man behind GQ’s “The Style Guy” column, is one of the most level-headed voices in fashion. As the industry churns through trends, collections, and designers faster than ever, he remains a steadfast believer in logical dressing. “You just have to follow your basic good sense — hopefully you have some,” he told us over the phone this week. “And I try to be funny about it. But I think humor actually is rooted in common sense anyway, so there you go.”

As O’Brien writes in his own bio, “I feel like I have written for every magazine there is, but I haven’t.” That said, he’s come pretty close, beginning his career at Interview magazine when it was less than a year old and later working as an editor for Rolling Stone and Spin; a columnist for Artforum; the editorial director of Brant Publications; and a regular contributor to Harper’s Bazaar, Allure, French Vogue, and many others. He had a stint as the creative director of advertising at Barneys, and has also authored several books, including How to Be a Man: A Guide to Style and Behavior for the Modern Gentleman (Rizzoli, 2011). Most recently, he wrote the script of the new Brad Pitt Chanel No. 5 commercial — yes, that one. We talked to him this week about women’s fashion, stupid shoes, and what it’s like to have his work made fun of.

Do you have a hard-and-fast style philosophy?
Beau Brummell, who was this great dandy, once said, “If people turn around to look at you on the street, you are not well-dressed.” I think having good style is about having something that people notice later. It doesn’t bowl people over when you walk in the room, but they look at you and say, “Oh, that’s sort of interesting, the way he combined that tie with the socks and that suit, or whatever. It’s about subtlety.

Do you feel that men’s outlook on style has evolved a lot since you started your column?
I think it’s getting better. For many years, it was kind of forbidden to talk about men’s clothing in the same way that women feel free to talk about it. It would be too gay or something to be concerned with your appearance. A lot of guys don’t dress to look good; they dress to not stand out, which is sort of a bizarre motivation. It’s like dressing to hide. But guys look much better now than they did ten years ago, and I don’t think that’s my imagination.

What do you think is the biggest difference between women’s fashion and men’s fashion right now?
I think there are a lot of parallels, but I think women are much more brand-identified. I like seeing women who aren’t dressed by some designer or stylist but have their own consistent look.

Any examples?
Oh yeah, there’s lots. I always liked how Joan Buck, who used to be the editor of French Vogue, always looked like a cross between a CEO and a college professor. 

Some say street style has lost its authenticity, because you have these street-style celebrities who dress to be photographed. Do you agree?
I think it shows how safe New York City’s become, that people can walk around like that without getting beaten up. [Laughs.] But really, at a certain point, a person starts to look like a clown. Many have gone too far.

What’s your process for getting dressed every morning?
I think about what I have to do and where I have to go. Today I knew I was going to stay home and write, so I put on my brand-new jeans that are so stiff I can barely walk in them. I have a kind of uniform. I wear jeans all the time, usually from APC.

What’s the most extravagant thing you’ve ever bought?
I usually buy things that are really expensive when I have a hangover. [Laughs.] Like an extravagant Hermès camel-hair overcoat.

Did it help you feel better?
Not really. But I’m glad that I bought it. Sometimes it’s good to splurge.

Does your wife ask for your advice while dressing?
Yeah, the same as any woman — “Which shoes do you like better?” But whatever I say has no bearing on her final decision. She’s just thinking out loud.

Do you ever think it’s intimidating for her to be married to a style expert?
No, because I wasn’t when we started dating. We met when I was the creative director of advertising at Barneys, and I was a copywriter and she was in the PR department, so we were just colleagues. I don’t think she was ever really intimidated by me. I was more intimidated by her because she was so beautiful. Can you be sure to put that part in the piece?

Sure. I heard you wrote the copy for the new Brad Pitt Chanel No. 5 commercial. What was that was like?
Yeah. We shot it in London, and it was directed by Joe Wright, who is fantastic, so for me it was not only a thrill to have Brad Pitt saying words I wrote, but also to work with Joe. Brad’s got a good sense of humor. Whenever you do a commercial with a script, you do a lot of takes, and Brad would do takes imitating Marlon Brando or Dennis Hopper.

What did you think of people making fun of it?
I’ve done quite a few ads that have been parodied, and you always know you’ve really got it made when that happens. I did this campaign for Calvin Klein with Steven Meisel years ago that was considered to be very risqué, and President Clinton spoke out against it, but then we were parodied by Beavis and Butt-Head. And to me, that was the highest compliment.

What’s something you see a lot of women wearing that you dislike?
I see a lot of really stupid shoes. Like boots that have exposed toes — they cover your whole foot and ankle, and then your toes are sticking out. And shoes with wings on them, or shoes that look like stealth-bombers or Cadillacs. 

You’re a proponent of timeless fashion. What would you recommend that women buy that they can wear forever?
I think the great designers, at their best, make things that don’t go out of style. Like an old Chanel suit or Jil Sander. A lot of the stuff Raf Simons does isn’t going to go out of style next year. 

Anything else you really like on women? 
I like hats on women. Ladies’ hats, like the kind Halston used to design. It’s a great old tradition that we’ve let go. I think the Brits go a little too far, but it’s a cool genre. The great things that were lost in my lifetime for women are hats and pins, like brooches. Brooches should come back too.

Glenn O’Brien on Brad Pitt and Women’s Fashion