Born and bred in the Midwest, Douglas Hannant has risen through the fashion ranks from assistant window dresser at Barneys New York under Simon Doonan to the runways of Bryant Park and now his first stand-alone boutique at the Shops at The Plaza. In just over a decade, the Hannant brand has grown from a small company to an internationally-known fashion house. Style author Jill Fairchild talks to the designer about his meteoric rise.
One day, not so very long ago, Douglas Hannant was running around the garment district picking up linings and other sundries for his bridal collection. He stopped in a little hole-in-the-wall fabric store just two doors down from his sample room on New York’s Seventh Avenue. His eyes darted up to a mezzanine used for storage. “My jaw dropped, my heart skipped a beat and I stopped dead in my tracks, “ the designer recounts. “There, standing proudly in a mound of rolls of fabric was ‘my girl.’ She came back to me.”
You might ask: Who was this goddess who caused the designer’s heart to flutter? She was the mannequin of his dreams from a display he had done years ago at Barneys New York downtown. He had never stopped thinking about her. What a sign from the heavens. A real “wow” on Seventh. She was definitely coming with him to The Plaza.
Restored to her original glory, she now stands regally in the window of the first stand-alone Douglas Hannant boutique at the Shops at The Plaza on Fifth Avenue.
It’s a charming tale, and perhaps an omen for the man who has sometimes been called fashion’s prince. Hannant’s story begins humbly enough in the farming belt of central Illinois where he grew up. However urbane and chic Douglas Hannant has become, his Midwestern roots have never entirely left him. “I think there’s a practicality to a Midwesterner that you never really lose,” Hannant tells me over lunch at Le Caprice in The Pierre. “It’s a genuineness that translates into the clothes, but at the same time we grew up as dreamers.”
He is not the first international fashion phenomenon to hale from the middle of the country; there was Bill Blass and Halston before him. And like them, Hannant has become known as the go-to designer for the Uppers East Siders, those women who live north of 60th Street, attend charity lunches or meet friends at Cipriani, Fred’s or Sant Ambroeus, and don Hannant gowns for black-tie soirees where they often see the designer himself.
So, given that kind of clientele, it is somewhat surprising to hear the designer talk how his upbringing has influenced his designs. “There is always a need for something that is genuine and not throw away,” Hannant says. “There is a practicality that enhances my collection, yet I don’t like it when clothes look practical. There should be comfort, but they can’t look comfortable,” he stresses, otherwise “the clothes tend to look frumpy.”
After studying fine art at Missouri State University, which Hannant says was the perfect platform for catapulting him into the world of fashion, he moved to New York in 1988 to attend the Fashion Institute of Technology.
While still a student, he worked first at Bloomingdales then at Barneys New York downtown as the women’s store display manager. Hannant looks back on his department store experience as vital and empowering for the road that lay ahead. “It gave me a valuable perspective on the fashion industry because I got to see who the customer was, how she bought and what she bought,” he reflects.
In 1996, Hannant decided to launch his own collection. “What I saw in fashion at the time was that everything was very trendy or traditional, but I wanted to do something classic with a cut that is young,” he recalls. “I wanted timeless and ageless with something new about it. I don’t see the point of classic clothing that looks exactly like it did in every interpretation before. There must be an element of surprise, some sort of detail, something fresh and new about it.”
Over the last 13 years, Hannant has refined his aesthetic from the purely minimalist, and he’s blossomed into a celebrated designer of modern classics. Meeting Geoffrey Beene -who has the type of career Hannant dreams of constructing- was no doubt an influence. Hannant’s first collection graced the windows of Bergdorf Goodman, and Beene, who was walking by one day, was captivated by the designs. He dispatched a congratulatory note the next day.
“Just as you think there is no hope, a beacon flashes,” the icon of American fashion wrote to the budding young designer. “What a career you have before you. Your clothes in Bergdorf’s windows were superb.”
Hannant assiduously cultivated his relationship with Beene, who became a mentor. He will always remember the advice Beene gave him: “A collection should never change, it should evolve. Always use the same navy blue so that the woman can add to her wardrobe later. Put your blinders on and do what you do and make beautiful clothes because people need them out there.”
It may appear to have been easy in the go-go ‘90s for a young designer to launch his own company, but that’s never the case. Hannant struggled early on, but knew from the start that he wanted to be on his own rather than join a large design company working for someone else’s label.
“I was so determined not to work for anyone, but you can’t do that today if you are an emerging designer,” he says. “I always tell this to budding FIT students when I am asked to speak. The mistake of many young designers is that they don’t know who their customer is. I really know my customer.” He poignantly adds, “I didn’t have her when I started. She found me. She is exactly who I wanted her to be.”
Well, who is she? “She loves fine things in every facet of her life. She loves luxury. She wants modern, fresh and new, yet it isn’t big news in the sense that she is never going to be wearing the splashiest, trendiest, most overexposed thing of the moment.”
Unlike other designers, Hannant doesn’t believe in a single muse- nor does he look for flash over substance. “I like understatement, humility as a base,” he says, describing his ideal woman. “It is the woman that you want to shine, and everything works together. After all, it has to be the woman who lives in the clothes.”
He prides himself on his prized Park Avenue socialites as his loyal client base, saying, “She is our customer and she always will be,” but points out that similar types of women live in every city in America. And like Bill Blass before him, Hannant and his partner Frederick Anderson go wherever their customer is. The duo hold countless trunk shows with the finest boutiques all over the country, including Saks Fifth Avenue, Stanley Korshak in Dallas, Gus Mayer in Nashville and Birmingham, Leigh’s in Michigan and Rodes in Louisville, where they also do an event for the Kentucky Derby.
And that is when the division of labor between the two men becomes most apparent. Hannant, with his chiseled, all-American good looks, can come across as shy, while Anderson is the perennial life of the party who keeps things ebullient and easy. But Hannant insists he isn’t shy, simply introverted.
“I spend a lot of time in my head, which I think many designers do,” he says. Still, he recognizes Anderson as a natural-born salesperson, a vital talent in growing their business and one the designer doesn’t possess.
“He’s somebody who can make things happen,” Hannant says simply. “He can pull together 200 people, raise money for charity. He’s a networker. I am the opposite. I am very understated whereas he is over-the-top; people are drawn to his energy. Frederick has 500 words to every one of mine. I can’t stand small talk- it drives me crazy.”
Such networking is imperative given Hannant’s clientele, who like to be fussed over and feted whenever possible. As for their age, Hannant hesitates at first, then admits his customers tend to range from their 30s to 55, yet adds that “age is no longer chronological and no longer relevant.” He strongly believes magazines have no business telling their readers how a 50-year-old woman should dress and furthermore finds it insulting. “I can’t stand the term “age-appropriate,” he barks, having long ago adopted some of the late Blass’ and Beene’s mannerisms. “It makes no sense to me whatsoever, not to mention that it is outdated. People just don’t sit in rocking chairs when they get old!
“Women know what they like and what they look good in,” he continues. “Fashion used to dictate to women where they should follow the trend of the season. We have passed that now and we see women wanting to be individuals.”
At the same time, Hannant believes all the hype about celebrity designers and what celebrities wear can confuse the customer- and is destroying the mystery that used to surround fashion. Clearly having a dress on the back of a star walking a red carpet isn’t his thing, and he dismisses celebrities as designers. “Just because celebrities put their names on things does not make them designers,” he says.
Perhaps that’s why the designer dismisses the idea of “glamour.” Insisting instead that he prefer the word “chic.” “Glamour, to me, is a little flashy and a little Hollywood. I have never used it in reference to my clothes. I think a woman can be glamorous. When she walks into a room and every head turns- that is my definition of glamour. But I don’t like things to be overstated.”
Ironically, though, he has two extremes when it comes to film stars he admires: Audrey Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor. “I love the understated modesty of Audrey, and I love Elizabeth Taylor for the opposite,” he says. “I don’t think that style is possible without a bit of modesty and humility.”
As he builds his successful business, including the new shop at The Plaza and a growing list of international clients, modesty and humility are two traits Hannant himself never wants to lose. He can mingle at black-tie dinners, party at The Standard Hotel’s red-hot club or create luxurious clothes for some of Manhattan’s leading socialites, but the designer himself never lets it go to his head. “I have two different lives,” he says as he finishes his lunch at Le Caprice. “When I am in New York, I am out every night. We work long hours. But on the weekends I have a country house in a wildlife preserve- the very opposite of my city life. I love to garden and have three water gardens, one of them filled with koi. I also love to go antique shopping and collecting.”
Even after more than a decade in fashion, Hannant still gets excited by a new collection, although it at times can be daunting to create a new one. That is, at least until it begins to gel and take on a life of its own. He’s proud of his new shop, designed by interior guru Geoffrey Bradfield, and would love one day to open more.
Now all he needs is to find a few more perfect mannequins. Knowing Hannant, he will.