Couture and the common touch: A look at the life of Carrie Donovan

Carrie Donovan was one of the first expressive and formidable characters to inspire the world of Oscar Magnuson Spectacles. An instantly memorable woman, she was known for her statement style, being able to spot emerging fashion talent from a million miles away and her complete distaste for technology. Over the years of her influential career as a fashion journalist, she gained recognition as a style editor for Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and The New York Times Magazine, writing all her copy by hand. Years later she became a firm favourite with the public by featuring in hilarious TV commercials for Old Navy. In these ads, she played herself, a fun, flamboyant and eccentric lady of style wearing her trademark oversize spectacles, large pearls and elegant black clothing.

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At first glance, it seems peculiar that a high fashion journalist in semi retirement would deign to recommend, let alone become the face of a casual-wear company like Old Navy. However being able to flit between high society and the common masses was one of this remarkable woman’s best and most endearing qualities. Carrie was an anti snob, with pragmatism and an understanding of the everyman that strongly appealed to her readers. Coupling this with an eye for talent and a nose for news set her apart from the scrabble of fashion editors vying for the pedestal of success. As Vogue editor-in-chief Diana Vreeland told her: ‘‘My dear, you’ve got the common touch!”

It was Carrie who introduced jeweller Elsa Peretti, and her love of silver hearts, snakes and other organic shapes to Tiffany’s in the 1970’s. Peretti’s work opened the upmarket brand to a fresh demographic and started the company on a new path that would lead to its current status as a $250 million business. “The day Elsa Peretti became a part of Tiffany & Co. was the day we entered a new era in our history of design innovation,” said Michael J. Kowalski, chairman and CEO of Tiffany & Co. Carrie’s insight and natural eye helped many more of her friends reach fame and fortune. She’s credited with bringing Donna Karan and Perry Ellis to notice in the fashion world, and forged lifelong friendships with both.

Carrie’s beginnings were built on dreams, but it was hard graft and inner grit, combined with a rye sense of humour and a wonderful ability to network that helped her achieve her ambitions. Her lack of technological prowess not only meant an inability to drive or type, she was rather inept at anything practical including working with needle and thread. This wouldn’t stop her attempting a career in dressmaking and she struggled through a course at the Parsons School of Design, graduating in 1950. There she met and became friends with some of the world’s leading fashion designers including Norman Norell and Jacques Fath who would help her later career.

By 1955, Carrie had realised she wasn’t cut out for fashion design, but style was in her blood. She swapped a lacklustre job in the hat department at Saks for the enviable role of fashion reporter at The New York Times. And from there she moved up into the world of glossies, starting at Vogue under the renowned Diana Vreeland in 1963. At this infamous magazine she came into her own. Revelling in a newfound freedom of expression, she explored the exciting and extraordinary of the 1960’s New York scene. She met unknowns that would become the icons of their day, from Jim Morrison to Mr. Schumacher of the groundbreaking boutique, Paraphernalia and spread the word through her pages.

The firing of James Brady, the editor of Harpers’ Bazaar in 1971 heralded a new era for the magazine and a fresh round of appointments, including that of Carrie. Now titled Senior Fashion Editor, Carrie was more than ready to put her stamp on the job. “She was perfectly cast for a fashion editor,” said Karl Lagerfeld, the designer. “She was the leading lady of that role.” By then, Ms. Donovan had switched from wearing chaste Mainbocher to chic Halston, and like her friends, the decorators Chessy Rayner and Mica Ertegun, she had taken to covering her blond bob with a turban. This was her chance to revel in the fantastical, and she took it. In contrast to her black garb, her Upper East Side apartment was dressed with startling red walls and furnishings, with leopard print carpeting. Still she focused on what her readers, and advertisers, would want and put them at the centre of her work.

After a stint at Bloomingdale’s where she touched on the world of public relations, Carrie returned to The New York Times, as style editor of the magazine. An utter character full of fashion gossip and floating in a cloud of perfume, she could turn a routine meeting into a performance. Yet her flamboyance and eccentricity were perfectly tempered by a realist streak, her “common touch” that kept both readers and employers happy for 16 successful years. Always on the look out for new talent, it was during this time she introduced The New York Times Magazine’s audience to Donna Karan and Paloma Picasso. The opulence of the 1980’s complimented her strong sense of self and she much enjoyed documenting and working with it in the most creative ways. In a landmark article, she ushered in the next decade by photographing cutting edge clothes on people in their 90’s.

A doyenne of the New York fashion scene, Carrie Donovan never stopped surprising. From 1997 she starred in a total of 42 ads for Old Navy. Whereas previously she’d been an icon within the fashion sphere, now she was known in the day to day world, across every demographic. The people who she’d been writing for all her life, recognised and loved her. “She was tickled pink,” the director Joel Schumacher, a friend since the 60s, said of her new visibility. “It made her a celebrity.”

Carrie Donovan was a character utterly sure of her style and the worth of statement. She said, “Accessories are wildly important, a signature. Like the glasses.” And we, at Oscar Magnuson believe her