Visit any book store with a “fashion” or “style” section, and you will quickly notice that many tomes follow a similar rubric. The books are essentially bound and published advice columns: how to wear Converse sneakers with a suit, and how to maintain your cuticles without looking like you got a manicure. It’s obvious that the authors of these style bibles are borrowing verses from one another.
Enter: David Coggins. He is certainly someone whose advice should be followed. But, what makes his book unique? For starters, his approach is less serious than the rest. Interviews revolve around less-than-flattering confessions (prom outfits, for example) and insightful anecdotes are the norm — not dapper dudes in various outfit options. It’s personal: snapshots come from Coggins’ family and circle of friends. We spoke to Coggins about how his career lead him to penning “Men and Style: Essays, Interviews, and Considerations”, and his advice to young authors.
- Did you always know you wanted to be a writer?
- I was always interested in writing and art and studied both in college. And for many years I wrote about art, for Art in America and other magazines. It was something that was always part of my life.
- What did your parents do? Do you have any siblings?
- Both my parents are creative and they were very influential in my life, and still are. My mother Wendy is an interior designer. My father, who’s also named David, is an artist, and he’s designed theater sets and written a book. My sister Sarah and I grew up traveling a lot, we went to museums and theaters and read a lot. We still travel to Paris together and do all those same things.
- You’ve crisscrossed the art and fashion industries quite a bit, can you please detail your employment history?
- My employment history, eh, that sounds so serious! Well I’ve written for many magazines over the years, art magazines, as I mentioned, but then I started to broaden my subjects and write about other things that interested me. That meant travel, tailoring, fly fishing, design, whisky.
Then I started to do some work for Partners & Spade. That was commercial and branding work and that had a big impact on me. I started to work with other creative agencies and I still do a lot of that. My brief experience in corporate life was with Bergdorf Goodman. I learned a great deal—I worked on their magazine, ad campaigns, their website, all sorts of things. It was a very dynamic experience. Though corporate life is definitely not for me. It was important to do that, but not something I would do again, unless it was on a freelance basis. I am very protective of my schedule.
As far as early jobs, I was an English teacher in Tokyo for a year after I left college. I was not a great teacher by any means, but I still love Japan and try to visit every year.
- What is your typical day like? Do you have a morning routine? What is it?
- Well, I am very possessive of my mornings. I get the New York Times delivered and try to read part of the paper. I like to write in the morning. It’s a good time when you think clearly. Then I have a meeting or lunch with people I’m working with. I travel a lot, so it never settles in to a proper routine. But I do try to keep some time to myself. More than three meetings a day and I just lose my bearings. I make a point to travel and go fly fishing in the summer. That keeps me balanced.
- Are there any writers whose style you admire?
- Oh so many! If you’re a writer then you love other writers. I love different writers for different things. If we’re talking about dead English novelists then Anthony Powell is a favorite. He observes society so carefully and I love reading him. If we’re talking about somebody who I read every day then Emily Nussbaum, the television critic for the New Yorker is just terrific. Even her Twitter is amazing—she can’t write a bad line, she just can’t. I love all sorts of writers: Henry James, Jane Austen, William Boyd, Sheila Heti, Elena Ferrante, A.J. Liebling, E.B. White.
- If I were to pick up “Men and Style” and read just one essay, which should it be?
- Oh, that’s a good question. I think the essay about beards. Bearded men need to stick together. Everybody is always trying to make us shave.
- Was writing “Men and Style” similar to writing a feature for a magazine? Or was it completely different?
- It was very different than a magazine. At a magazine you’re working with an editor who’s thinking about the house style and what makes sense for Bloomberg or the Financial Times, and what their readers expect. For the book that style is set by me working with an editor. I chose the images for the book, wrote the headlines. You’re trying to make something that reflects you and what you care about.
- Did Abrams give you a lot of freedom? Did you learn something about yourself while writing this book?
- Abrams was great. They gave me a lot of leeway. But they knew what I wanted to do from the beginning so there weren’t a lot of surprises. Rebecca Kaplan is a great editor and John Gall, their creative director, designed the book. He’s incredibly talented and I wanted to work with him and he really came through and gave the book its unique look. I learned that I am very specific about a lot of details but I knew that anyway. But I really obsess over certain things, like commas, and also design elements. At a certain point Rebecca said, “I don’t think we can make any more changes”—but she was very tolerant of my opinions.
- Which writing gig shaped your writing most?
- Well, when I started writing for Men’s Vogue my editor there was Owen Phillips. He had been at the New Yorker and he’s a really smart editor. At that time I had just written about art so I wrote in a very dry almost academic way. He helped me loosen up, which was really important. Then I met Glenn O’Brien, who edited me at Interview and other places. He’s the most influential person on my writing. He’s smart, funny, profane and unpredictable all at the same time. I was really happy that he wrote the foreword to “Men and Style” since he’s been such a pivotal figure for me.
- You’ve written for print and online publications. Do you ever feel as though you need to “pick a side”?
- I don’t think you have to choose at all. I think you just have to know what makes sense for a certain project. I’ve written for many sites and still do. A Continuous Lean is a great site and it allows you to be much more nimble, you can see something that excites you and write about it quickly, or react against something in a timely way. But if you’re doing something elaborate that’s more heavily researched and is well-photographed then of course a magazine is better. I think it’s a mistake to dismiss websites or to celebrate print. There are good sites and magazines and there are certainly bad ones.
- What is your advice to someone who is young and wants to write?
- Well read a lot, write a lot, and don’t worry about your style. Just make writing part of your life. And then you want to get a bit more targeted. Try to meet other young writers and editors and spend time with them and talk about everything that you’re doing and they’re doing. And then try to meet some older writers and let them buy you drinks and listen to what they say. Getting close to good people, whether you’re a writer or an artist or a designer, is always a good idea.
- What is next for you?
- I have travel plans—I’m going to Scotland for a piece next week. And I’m starting work on another book. Which is exciting and of course a little intimidating. I can’t believe I’m diving back in right away, but I think that’s the best idea right now. “Men and Style” is available on Amazon
Author: Sarah St. Lifer