How the Fashion Industry Embraced Marriage Equality Before It Was Fashionable

Fashion Industry LGBT Rights Crusade
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The Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage may have sparked debate all over the country, but many in the fashion industry, long a platform for progressive gay rights, embraced such equality years ago.

In 2011, American for Marriage Equality USA was launched at Calvin Klein Collection’s Madison Avenue store, and hosted by the Human Rights Campaign. A year later, Nordstrom president Blake Nordstrom e-mailed staffers to say that gay and lesbian employees are entitled to the same rights and protections marriage provides under law to other employees. In terms of weddings, many couples in the fashion crowd waited for New York or California to legalize same-sex marriages before they made their unions official. Tom Ford, Michael Kors, Simon Doonan, Narciso Rodriguez, Isaac Mizrahi, Robert Duffy, Glen Senk, Dennis Basso and Arnold Scaasi are among the designers who have since wed their respective partners. While Basso went all-out in 2011 with a 450-person black-tie affair at the Pierre — the first gay wedding in the hotel’s more than 80-year history — others were decidedly more low-key.

Last year, when WWD asked Ford about how he had offered news of his marriage during a Q&A at the Apple store in London, and skipped the formal announcement, he said, “It didn’t occur to me that anyone would be interested.” Questioned as to whether it surprised him that to so many people, gay marriage was no more or less an event than straight marriage, the designer replied that it seemed apparent even in the way people noted their congratulations: “I ran into a business meeting, and people said it in a way that anyone would congratulate anyone.”

Simon Doonan’s wedding to Jonathan Adler in 2008 was more thorny. After making things official in San Francisco’s City Hall, the pair found themselves single again, so to speak, with the passage of Proposition 8 two years later. “We just sort of waited it out until it went through the Supreme Court,” Doonan says — and with good reason: “When I moved to the U.S. in the ’60s, you couldn’t get a green card if you were gay.”

As a sign of the fashion industry’s commitment to the gay community, Barneys New York held one of the first AIDS fundraisers with the opening of its downtown women’s store in 1986. Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, Peter Alan and a slew of other artists customized denim jackets that were modeled by Madonna, Iman and other VIPs. In the ’90s, Doonan once decked out Barneys Madison Avenue windows with wedding cakes, including one topped with two groom figures and another with two brides. “We didn’t think gay marriage was even a possibility then. It was just a fun idea for a gay window,” Doonan says.

Human Rights Campaign staffers, trailblazer Edie Windsor, civil rights lawyer Roberta Kaplan and other longtime supporters have made marriage equality a reality, Doonan says. And many in the fashion crowd have helped. “The fashion world is very progressive,” Doonan explains. “Historically, it’s been a great place for people to go to who wouldn’t fit into more conventional environments because they were gay, idiosyncratic or considered otherwise marginal.”

Citing how his former boss, Perry Ellis, had a daughter via artificial insemination, Mizrahi calls it “a real example of a forward-thinking gay moment.” But it wasn’t until more states started allowing same-sex marriages that his own view switched. “I come from a gay generation that did not put much store in marriage. Part of my coming of age was realizing that I probably never would get married or have a kid.” Mizrahi says. “As different states started allowing for it, Arnold (Germer) and I decided, ‘OK, when they approve it in New York, we’re going to do it.’ I think I saved a dollar on my taxes. I did it out of love and respect — there’s something emblematic about being a married couple.”

After receiving his MBA in 1980, Glen Senk, former CEO of Anthropologie, decided on a career in retail. “I was the only, if not the first, University of Chicago grad to go into retail. One of the reasons was because I felt the industry would be more accepting of my personal choices,” Senk says. “At Bloomingdale’s, being gay and being in a committed relationship was a non-issue.”

Fast-forward 35 years, and the same can be said of millennials and anyone under 30, Senk says. “For that group, gay marriage is a non-issue — gender identity, too. Caitlyn Jenner is not even news to them.”

Mara Urshel, owner of the Manhattan bridal store Kleinfeld, says same-sex wedding purchases have jumped 25% in the past year. Couples are much more open about their nuptials, booking appointments with two bridal consultants in adjoining rooms as opposed to shopping independently and being evasive about their plans. And more gay brides-to-be are bringing along their mothers and other relatives. “Now, there is more of an acceptance from the family, and from the world,” Urshel says, adding: More of the world, not all of the world.”