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Glenn O'Brien Taught Me That Style Is Survival

Mourning the loss of the cultural treasure, who touched my life with his writing, witticisms, and conviction that style was serious business.

by Antwaun Sargent
Apr 10 2017, 10:13pm

Photo by BILLY FARRELL/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images

After years of battling an undisclosed illness, Glenn O'Brien passed away last week at the age of 70 due to complications with pneumonia. Few cultural critics have had as enduring an influence on the intersections of art, music, fashion, and pop culture as the Renaissance man. He's especially important to me because his work helped shaped the way I view the world and my role as a writer.

Born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1947, O'Brien traveled east to Washington D.C. to study at our shared alma mater, Georgetown University, before moving to New York City and becoming an essential part of the downtown scene. In my life, I've followed a similar trajectory: Born in Chicago, another urban outpost in the Midwest, I studied in our nation's capital before finally settling in New York with the dream of writing for many of the publications that he once contributed to. In that sense, O'Brien's life has been my roadmap. 

Despite all of his years of schooling, O'Brien didn't have a day job, which is something I can relate to. Of course, it wasn't that common or accepted to be a wayward wordsmith in the last century. But the approach paid off, because it allowed him the flexibility to be at the center of the most vibrant cultural happenings, which he celebrated and highlighted throughout his career. 

In the 1970s, he was a member of the factory, and ultimately became the first editor of Andy Warhol's Interview Magazine—a publication I write for today. Later, he became the New York Bureau Chief for Rolling Stone. He even used to hang out with Madonna, for whom he co-authored and edited Sex, her 1992 tome. In the 80s, he wrote an important column on advertising for Artforum, served as Barney's creative director of advertising, and hosted TV Party. The television show featured legendary guests like David Byrne, Klaus Nomi, Fab 5 Freddy, Amos Poe, Blondie, and the Clash. TV Party will certainly go down as the coolest public-access program of all time (you can watch archival episodes of it on VICE.com). As its influence continues to be felt, it is likely to be the thing O'Brien will be remembered for the most.

But for me, the most impactful thing O'Brien ever did was his "Style Guy" column for Details and GQ. He shaped what I thought was possible with his words, which effortlessly mixed politics with art and exemplified the possibilities and the seriousness of fashion. With his columns for GQ, he proved again and again that style was a way of transforming the body into something new, more interesting and powerful. Each new entry gave me something to consider and make my own: He guided me in how to determine my personal scent. He schooled me on how to get a sharp suit on a budget. He informed me on what not to wear at Art Basel Miami Beach. And in a 2010 column titled, "Dressing Beyond Cool," focused on "foul weather pussies," he helped me recognize the importance of dressing chicly irregardless of the weather, which is to say all the time.

When I reflect on O'Brien's writing and it's impact on me, I think a lot about the first day I arrived at Georgetown. This was many decades after he had completed his studies there. Because it was 2007, I was wearing black skinny jeans and a yellow, deeply-cut V-neck T-shirt from American Apparel. I vividly remember my first walk along the red brick path from the University's front gates across Haley Lawn to Darnell Hall, my freshman year dorm. In that outfit, I was completely at odds with the rest of the student body's unspoken dress code.

My new classmates were preppy without any edge. I suspected they got dressed in the morning to blend in and communicate a collective wealth, a finishing-school seriousness, and the fact that they intended to gasp power just like their parents had done before them. At Georgetown, these kids are referred to as "Jack" and "Jane Hoya," and they are always draped from head to toe in Ralph Lauren or Vineyard Vines. The Janes accessorized their looks with it-bags to carry their books to class, while the Jacks favorited tan khakis and polo shirts.

I remember seeing the Jack and Janes of Georgetown gawking at me as I took that first stroll across campus. In that moment, I wondered if I had made a mistake by enrolling at the university altogether. Later, I would realize that clothes can be transformative. But on that first day, I only thought about the way clothes can oppress you as a visual representation of what you do and don't have. It's something that was painfully familiar to me, having grown up in a city where you can get a gun pulled on you for rocking a new pair of Jordans.

Photo by Steven A Henry/WireImage

I knew I needed to find a way to survive. I needed to find someone like myself who had made it out of Georgetown alive. I searched the internet for alumni who had attended the school and shared my interests in writing, art, fashion, and culture. When I finally discovered O'Brien and read his GQ style column, I used his work as a guide for the exciting ways you could blend the cultural and political education I was getting Georgetown with the style that I so fervently cared about.

In my head, O'Brien became a mentor. I took writing notes from him and joined The Hoya, the campus newspaper, editing several issues of the newspaper's bi-annual fashion issue. For one of the Spring issues, in a nod to his leather coat-cladded 80s look, I staged a shoot of friends wearing leather biker jackets and Ray-Bans. I had them walk around Red Square, protesting Vineyard Vines with a sign that appropriated the brand's logo and read, "Free the Whales." That's the power of the influence of Glenn O'Brien. 

In 2011, when I moved to New York and became a writer in the art and fashion world, I would see O'Brien on the scene at openings and parties. He was always adorned in sharply tailored suits, holding court in a corner with the artists and those people who appear to be endlessly interesting. I approached O'Brien at one of these events. It was a party thrown by Peter Brant, the publisher of Interview Magazine, at his estate's art foundation in Greenwich, Connecticut. There, on the polo greens, near the large scale silver, Urs Fischer "Big Clay" sculpture, I told him about his influence on me during college. And I thanked him for inspiring me to write and take fashion and art as serious as they are. Naturally, he was gracious. Walking away, I yelled our rallying cry in solidarity: HOYA SAXA!

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