It’s Kind of a Funny Story: Simon Doonan and Jonathan Adler
The first in a brand new Man Repeller series that will profile fashion couples on how they met
Simon Doonan: There is this misconception out there that somehow Jonathan shagged his way into Barneys. That he got his pots in via me but that’s actually not true, I vividly remember seeing his striped pots and thinking these are great! Are they glass? Cut to a year or so after Barneys started carrying them, this friend of mine, Gerard, said, “You should go on a date with Jonathan Adler.”
Jonathan Adler: And I had always had a little crush on this little fellow. I knew who he was, and I had seen him…
I knew exactly who [Simon] was and always fancied him, and I would see him walking around the village. Then when Gerard called me about him, I was selling my pots at Barneys, but actually I was like a full-time clay spattered potter on roller blades and Simon was sort of like, Miss Thing, and I thought he would be way too Miss Thingy and I thought, “I don’t want to go on a date with him, he’s probably very grand,” and he is.
(Laughs) Our mutual friend Gerard was like, “He is not grand, he is perfectly normal,” and I went in sort of grudgingly thinking, “Ugh, this is going to be like dating some super fancy gay,” and it was going to be very dissonant of my potter lifestyle. Cut to: he is about 87 times more bohemian than I am. There was a total bait-and-switch, I think that he thought he was getting a gritty bohemian potter and I thought I was getting a fancy shmancy gay.
There has been a great—
JA: Which I think is often the case in relationships. What you think you’re signing up for oftentimes turns out to be the exact opposite.
SD: Yeah, I’m the one wandering around like Hansel from Zoolander in fringe caftans and Johnny’s like Joan Collins in Dynasty.
JA: Or Joan Crawford in the PepsiCo boardroom.
JA: When I first met him, my friends were like, “What’s he like?” and I said, “Are you sitting down? He has a cell phone!”
SD: But it was the size of a brick with a knitting needle coming out the end of it. We went to — every expense was spared on the first date — to a restaurant that no longer exists called Meriken. This was 20 years ago.
JA: It was ’94.
SD: It was before the food revolution. He came busting in the door and he was quite moist, I recall.
JA: It was this weird November day that was 70 degrees but I had a down coat on. I rollerbladed up and I was late.
SD: He was wearing a Victor backpack, a Lacoste coat, jeans and rollerblades, and was spattered with clay from head to foot. There was clay dust everywhere in the restaurant!
JA: I looked like Pig-Pen from Charlie Brown! I was late, so I got there, took off my blades, ran in and burst into a sweat. I was like, “Gimme five.” Then I went downstairs, in one of those deep sweats where you have to pour water on your head. I was gone for ten minutes, he must’ve thought I had…
SD: A heroin addiction!
JA: Luckily, he’s very unflappable.
SD: We have a lot in common even though he’s Gen-X and I’m a baby boomer, essentially. One of the things we don’t have in common is our conversational rhythms are very different. When I hear him and his friends talking, it sounds like a bunch of parakeets all squawking at the same time, because in England, my generation — you can sit and have dinner with a friend and just have these lapses in conversation, and it’s not awkward. I understand that it’s different—
JA: My conversation style is bearable and yours is unbearable!
It was particularly difficult on date un, because he was very un-interrogative. For readers out there, rule #1 about dating is “Ask questions about the other person,” which Simon failed to do.
SD: It’s culturally very different in England. If you said to my mother, for example, “How are you?” she’d say, “Why, what have you heard?” Information in conversation emerges, it isn’t just flash light.
JA: But on date un, you want to know “Where are you from?” So he’d tell me, and then, silence.
SD: We have completely different perceptions of the date. I thought, “This guy is so cute, and talented and fun.”
I’d had my insane years of being arrested for drunk driving or wearing plaid bondage. My 20s and early 30s — I was like Britney without the fame, money, or fans. So I was very comfortable around people who were unconventional. I was delighted to see how idiosyncratic and unconventional he was, so I thought, “Oh, we’ll get along,” even though I was wearing a pinstripe suit, I think it was.
JA: I thought it was very awkward, and I was like, “He’s cute, but a bit lacking in the personality department.”
SD: That English reserve—
JA: Remains unbearable.
The date sort of went okay, and I was like, “That was a bit awkward.” Then I went home and called my friend Gerard and said, “I like him, I think he’s super cute, but I thought he didn’t like me because he was just mute.”
SD: Even though I’d been gone from England a long time, I had that sort of reserve where you don’t blast out of the gate with your personality, revealing everything.
JA: So I called Gerard and said, “I don’t think he was into me.” I didn’t hear from [him], and at that point, Gerard was our go-between, and I thought that was that.
SD: Then I was going to Europe a lot for the collections: men’s, women’s, everything. My schedule was bananas, plus, Barneys was opening in Japan so I was flying back and forth to Japan, setting up stores there. I was an exec VP of creative services, so I was completely work-oriented. I went on 8 million trips, and Gerard called me and said, “What did you think of him?” and I said, “He was great! What did he think of me?” “Oh, he really liked you!” The minute he said that, I allowed myself to know and feel what I felt, because up to then, I’m thinking, “I’m 42, he’s young, he’s groovy, he’s not going to respond to me,” but when I knew he liked me, I allowed myself to feel.
JA: Either you called me or I called you, and a couple weeks later we went on date deux.
SD: People didn’t communicate then the way they do now.
SD: As gays, you don’t have rules the way other people do. People now over-communicate insanely, so if you don’t get a text right after, it’s weird. But back then, it wasn’t weird. In the time we’ve been together, the world changed.
JA: On date deux we went to this restaurant in the West Village called Moustache. It was O.N., on from that second.
We were married in Cali [in San Francisco] when it was legal, and we kept meaning to get married here but we never got around to it. We were going to get married in Big Sur but the only officiant we could find was a new-age Priestess named Soaring Stargazer.
SD: She sounded great, but I just thought “Oh, we’ll laugh.”
JA: That was the only one there. So we got a gay rabbi.
SD: No one was invited. At the last minute, he called his mom and his sister and they came. We didn’t think there was anything to invite anyone too! We were going there anyway, and thought, “Let’s run into City Hall!” I invited his mom and sister and we didn’t say anything about it, until I said, “They need to hear this from you,” so he invited them. People thought they were a lesbian couple.
JA: My family definitely prefers Simon to me!
SD: When he invited me home to meet the folks in New Jersey, a friend of mine said, “Aren’t you nervous?” and I said, “Why? I don’t care what they think of me.” I was already in my early 40s, you don’t sweat around worrying about what people think of you. When we got down there, his grandmother (who is fabulous) saw me and realized Johnny was a fageleh. This is when the penny dropped, and she locked herself in her room and wouldn’t come out.
JA: She was 94, and I thought, “Do I need to tell her?” I could’ve said, “He’s my friend, a window dresser!”
SD: I was wearing a huge fur hat and glasses!
JA: “This is my friend Simon, we’ll be sharing a room! How are you?’
SD: Eventually she came out, and I said, “What a fabulous suit you’re wearing! It’s such a great color, cobalt blue!”
JA: They bonded over flamboyance, and from that moment on, she preferred him to me.
I don’t remember what year we got married.
SD: Two guys are just two guys, so we’re not very sentimental. I don’t think either of us ever tried to adopt any kind of heterosexual attitudes to sentiment or things.
JA: The only thing is every once in a while, I’ll remember it and feel victorious, so I’ll give him a gift, like, “See, I remember this and now you have a gift!” It’s not out of sentiment, but pure competition.
SD: My parents were like that. They weren’t sentimental. My mom hated Mother’s Day. She was like, “You have to be nice to me all year round, I don’t need a stupid box of chocolates on one day!” She was right about that, we are nice to each other all year round. We don’t ever fight, really.
As men, we can say anything to each other. If I’m eating a dessert and he steals it, I can say, “You fat fucking pig, you greedy bitch, give me my pie!”
JA: And I can say, “You need to lose ten pounds!”
SD: Any hostility is out there in a jocular, fun way.
JA: And if he goes too far, it’s punch-him-in-the-arm.
SD: Things have meaning for girls.
JA: I was just talking to a straight friend of mine whose wife was really into The Secret, and he had to engage in conversation about it for two years. I was like, “Couldn’t you tell her to shut up?”
The honest truth, and this is sentimental, is that Shrimp over here is the sweetest man who ever lived. The only reason we’re together 19 years later is because he’s such an angel.
SD: Johnny’s sweet too.
JA: But you’re sweeter.
SD: As guys, we don’t see our lives with rom-com moments where you step back and things go into slo-mo. You’re just blundering along. We had a great rapport together, and were always “on.”
JA: Before Shrimp, I’d only dated upper-middle-class Jewish guys around my age. It was always very lateral. Then somebody completely beneath me blasted into my life! (Laughs) You were culturally very different, and I was like, “Oh.”
SD: You know, we have one really interesting thing in common that I think is a foundation of our relationship: both of us have very, very unconventional parents. My parents are so similar to yours in their worldview. They don’t have any normal expectations about anything, and I think there was some weird commonality. You were from this crap town, I was from this other dumpy town, we had these weird things in common that were the basis for our relationship.
Our parents are similarly unconventional but fully committed. They loved each other. There’s some weird thing there that’s made it possible for us to be very…we never had commitment problems. The second year we knew each other, we rented a place with some other people and were like, “Let’s get a place for next year!” and I look at these ratty old places and say, “Let’s buy one!” Not many people, 18 months into a relationship, buy a house together.
JA: I think we had a lingua franca. I was a full time potter and he understood exactly what I was perpetrating, because he was a window dresser, and I understood his whole thing. That’s unusual. It wasn’t like, “I married an accountant.” Our frame of reference and sensibilities were completely aligned.
SD: We laugh at the same things, so we were quickly best friends. And we’re very skeptical about everything.
JA: No beliefs in The Secret.
SD: We’re not conspiracy theorists.
We have something a lot of people don’t have: a great creative, humorous, physical rapport. We laugh at the same things, we both love me…(laughs)…no, we love each other. We are very, very lucky people. Some soldier on in their relationships and make compromises, but we didn’t have to do that. And we encourage each other. I did my column for the Observer for ten years, and he encouraged me so much. I would never have done that without him. Then I encourage him, because if you have a great relationship, you take risks and put yourself out there in a way you don’t when you’re on your own.
JA: Of course. I don’t know how much we’ve grown personally, but in our creative careers, we’ve both evolved unimaginably. When he met me, I was a potter, full-time.
SD: The only good advice I ever gave you was a year or two after we met. I’d go to his studio and he’d have an order for 20 decanters and 40 coffee mugs, and I said, “At some point, you’re going to have to think about outsourcing,” and he said, “No, nobody can throw like me,” And I thought, “How long before that penny drops?” That’s like Donna Karen selling every dress herself. Eventually, we went to Peru and you found someone.
SD: I never called my friends and discussed things.
JA: I have a rule: we can never talk about anything. When women are like, “Let’s have the talk,” If he said, “Let’s have a talk,” I’d punch him in the arm. That’s a non-starter.
SD: One of the leitmotifs in all my books is that women should be less self-critical, less masochistic, no matter how insecure you are, you don’t have to worry about what other people think of you. That’s something that’s always been important to me, and that’s from growing up in the 60s and from my family, because I grew up in such a weird household that I never thought, “Oh, I want to be normal!” I was glad we were the freaks on the street.
We were the Addams Family. We lived in a rooming house, and my grandmother, who’d had a lobotomy, lived on the bottom floor. My schizophrenic uncle Ken lived on the second floor when he wasn’t in the loony bin, and my blind auntie Phyllis lived on the top floor.
JA: I think some people can’t even believe the Dickens-ness of it.
SD: My grandfather shot himself. We could be here all day. It was a freaky scene. I do think creativity comes from having an unconventional way of looking at things.
I’d had a lot of relationships before I met Johnny, and if you can get to a point where you’re not obsessing and being self-critical, and can just be yourself, that’s hard to do because dating is fraught with anxiety. But if you can untie your mind from your behind and just relax, and go into a date with no expectations, then you can be yourself. And don’t call your friends to tell them what it was like, and don’t text everyone you’ve ever met. Sex and the City set everybody up for insanely over-determined experiences.
JA: Don’t be a rules girl.
SD: Don’t make a bar mitzvah out of every stupid date.
If you’re not self-critical and masochistic, and you go into dating not giving a flying fuck, then you can have a great date. Or not a great date. But if the person sees you being yourself, suddenly it’s less charged and neurotic. I see these girls on dates and they’ve been ironing their hair all afternoon.
JA: Don’t be a rules girl and don’t play games.
SD: Don’t think, “He’s this, so I should pretend to be that!” Don’t scheme.
We’re more laissez-faire, Lesley Faye! We’re very Lesley Faye about everything!
JA: You’re a weird one because we, as it turns out, never did scheme or play games, but I think you are an anomaly.
SD: Are you calling me a gnome?
JA: Yes, and I am a gnome-ally. But seriously, don’t play by the rules.