Author Douglas Stuart on finding belonging in a foreign city
I never went to New York thinking I was going to stay. I had studied for a Masters in Fashion Design at the Royal College of Art in London and was about to graduate. It was a time when people from different fashion houses came to meet students and recruit junior designers; Gucci and Prada had already walked in and picked out theirs. My graduation show was based on the Shakers, a religious community living in New England. I’ve always been fascinated by their very minimal, stripped down aesthetic and the idea of modesty in clothing. There was an honest approach to textiles that I loved, as well as a Rodarte-esque power alongside a McQueen darkness.
My classmates’ work was so expressive and captivating compared to mine, which was incredibly quiet and made entirely of black, slate gray and snowy white. Those color choices alone made it stand out, because there was that lack of color. The head of design from Calvin Klein came to see all the student work. Something about how my work was reserved and minimalist made it linger on my collection. Afterwards, he turned to me and asked if I wanted to come and work in New York. I didn’t even have to think about it; I said yes right away. I was in student accommodation so I was on the verge of becoming homeless. Everything in my life had to change. And he did.
People often think that because I’ve achieved so much – both in fashion, where I worked as Senior Design Director for Banana Republic for 15 years, and in literature, since I won the Booker Prize with my first novel, Shuggie bath – I have this big project in life. But I’ve never been someone who believes too much in a plan. I think working with textiles gave me the patience of craftsmanship; I know if I put my head down and keep going, things will work out.
At 24, as a student, my whole thing was survival and safety. I needed to find a job, to not have to worry about rent on weekends. And so, if it was any other company that had come to offer me a job, if it had been based in Wigan or Milan or the Hebrides, I would have said yes. There was no family home to return to. I was an orphan and could not return home to Glasgow.
Part of not having a plan also means that you can get a little overwhelmed by the events that occur. I hated New York so much at first. I arrived over Labor Day weekend, late August. It’s symbolic in many ways for Americans, because it’s the end of their summer, all the fun is leaving and they’re ready to get back to work. I really hit the ground running that way. I found myself in the Calvin studio as a junior designer. I would start at 8am and would be lucky if we got out before 10pm. There were loads of times I would be there until 3am. I wasn’t afraid of hard work, but what didn’t sit well with me was that I didn’t feel like I belonged. I never had to be anywhere before three in the morning, and you couldn’t leave because your boss was always there; suddenly, I no longer had any autonomy over myself.
I also felt like a fish out of water working in the fashion industry. Every two weeks I threatened to go home. I would call my boyfriend – an American I had fallen madly in love with – and tell him I wasn’t staying. I complained that these people didn’t get me and I didn’t know why we made clothes that people couldn’t afford.
I was so unprepared to live in the city. By the time December rolled around, I couldn’t afford to buy a winter coat. It’s not like London, where you can get away with a denim jacket and a big sweater. New York winters are freezing. I had a friend who worked at Donna Karan, and she was so sick of seeing me shivering on the street that she stole a coat from work. It was this white puffer jacket that was supposed to hit mid-calf on a woman and it hit mid-thigh on me. It had these bracelet sleeves, so it didn’t quite cover my arms, but it was so warm, like a big white duvet. It was my winter coat for the first two years in New York, before I could afford my own.
I grew up in some of the more socialist corners of Glasgow where there was always a feeling that people knew you and understood you even before they had fully met you. There is such a sense of equality and fairness there. If you live in a council house they are all designed to be exactly the same. We all went to the same school; you knew when someone had new shoes or a new jacket. That’s a lot of what my book Shuggie bath explore: how your neighbors perceive you is who you are.
Even when I moved to London from Scotland as a student, there was a collective hive mentality. People hear your accent, or they kind of understand your story, and they rank you instantly. They think they know your potential, your level of education, and the things you’re supposed to like and dislike. I always felt embarrassed by that, especially when I went to America and could look back to see how weird it was.
Conversely, what I immediately loved in New York was the anonymity, the ability to blend into the city. At first, no one understood where I was coming from. No one could find Scotland on a map and no one could understand what I was saying in my Glasgow accent. It was nice to be outside of their perceptions for a while. I loved it. I liked that people were unable to define me.
But what changed everything for me in the city was changing jobs. A little over a year after starting at Calvin Klein, I quit and took a role at Banana Republic, which was part of The Gap. It was the early 2000s and the business was booming all over the world. During this time, I used my talent as a designer to create clothes that anyone could buy. The socialist little boy and the creative in me have finally merged. I wasn’t going to make amazing clothes that we would just make three of them and sell to incredibly rich people. Suddenly I was doing something that meant my whole being was truly aligned.
I don’t think anyone feels out of place in New York, because I don’t think the city demands it. The feeling of belonging is difficult, because the place is constantly refreshing. You belong in Glasgow, or whatever city you come from. It is your home, spiritually, and it is where your people are. But New York is constantly changing, so a sense of “I belong here” is a hard thing to pin down: the city doesn’t care whether you’re here or not.
But I don’t think I could have written Shuggie bath, the story of a young boy growing up in a working-class family in Glasgow, if I had stayed on the west coast of Scotland, because working-class men aren’t supposed to express themselves that way. They are not supposed to talk about their hurt, their vulnerability or their trauma. We are also not encouraged to think of ourselves as exceptional, and that can mean exceptionally great or exceptionally difficult. You are just one of many, and we are united by a sense of solidarity.
New Yorkers are the antithesis of that. You meet someone, and his mom looked at him weird when he was seven and he had a terrible afternoon with his dad and he’ll tell you all about it. There is no real trauma, but they will find the trauma there. This emotional openness fascinated me: this ability to share stories, but also to feel the value of one’s own story and of oneself.
I am still, however, tempted to leave all the time. New York is a city that is never easy on you. It’s expensive and bustling, and if you really want to live in the city, you need to make sure you get everything you want from its culture: the art, the museums, the restaurants. There comes a time when you think maybe you’re getting too old for that and a little too poor. You are still negotiating with the city. I certainly have been, since I arrived on Labor Day weekend with my two red suitcases and very little else.
Young Mungo is published in hardback by Picador on April 14.
This feature originally appeared in the May issue of ELLE UK