At Mortimer’s With Carrie Donovan, the Old Navy Lady

From the oversized frames of her eyeglasses to her roaring pronouncements, the heroic fashion editor in Isaac Mizrahi’s comic book, “The Adventures of Sandee the Supermodel,” is so unmistakably Carrie Donovan that Simon & Schuster sent her the galleys to review before it published the book this fall.

Anna Sui, recently seen shopping the Upper East Side for a possible new boutique location, thinks Ms. Donovan is so amusing and clever she should become the permanent host of the Council of Fashion Designers of America’s award ceremony held in February. But when the drag artist known as “The Baroness”-a.k.a. Joseph Viggiani, manager of the David Barton Gyms-asked me what Carrie Donovan, who retired as deputy editor for style at The New York Times in 1993, is really like, I figured it was time to ask the icon to lunch. As Andy Warhol once observed, you’re only “really up there” in this town when drag queens start paying attention.

Thanks to her appearances in television commercials for Old Navy, Carrie Donovan, a fashion world icon cut from the Diana Vreeland mold, is now a national star. “They call it fleece. I call it chic,” Ms. Donovan caroled through the Christmas season in an ensemble cast that included Morgan Fairchild, the Smothers Brothers and Magic, the Old Navy mascot.

The wit and twinkle of it all amuses Ms. Donovan. It also helps pay the rent, as does the advertisement she pens in column format for Old Navy. It runs in The Times on Fridays.

“I have no idea what the fashionable people or the rag trade thinks of all this,” Ms. Donovan said when we lunched at Mortimer’s on Jan. 9. “And I don’t care. That’s my past life. ‘Been there, done that,’ as they say.” From 1977 until her retirement, Ms. Donovan supervised the publication of half a dozen style supplements and 52 style sections every year for The New York Times Magazine . “But it does get one noticed,” she continued. “People stop me on the street all the time. They smile and wave and ask how Magic is. It’s a hoot.” (Magic and his stand-in, Pebbles, she allowed, are coming to town next month to film new Old Navy ads with Ms. Donovan and crew.)

Ms. Donovan ordered Mortimer’s twinburgers with cheese and mineral water. She wore black trousers, her trademark eyeglasses and almost all her favorite Chanel accessories: the gold and black leather watch she bought a few years ago and the almost pearl earrings Karl Lagerfeld gave her a while back. She wasn’t wearing her favorite Chanel lacquer bracelets, those huge cuffs. “Because the cuffs are old and falling apart now,” she sighed.

“Accessories are wildly important,” she said with a certainty that could convince any disbeliever. “A signature. Like the glasses. The cuffs. Develop a uniform for yourself that works,” she said, “but don’t worry about making mistakes, We all make mistakes. I once had red hair.”

The meal arrived. “Such naughty things to eat,” Ms. Donovan laughed. She removed her spectacles and raised her fork like a bangle. With her stylish ways, everything, even the silver, becomes the perfect accessory.

“I never planned my life,” she said, beginning to tell the tale that led her from a genteel girlhood in Lake Placid, to the Parsons School of Design where she graduated in the class of 1950 along with interior designer Albert Hadley, to The New York Times first in 1955, then to Vogue during the Vreeland days, to Bloomingdale’s, back to The Times again and, now, Old Navy. “Whoever plans my life, somewhere,” she said, her fork encircling an imaginary angel’s wings, “well, my life just keeps moving along.”

Is Ms. Donovan spiritual?

“Oh, dear God, no,” she said. Considered it. “I just think one should be open and ready for adventure. I do remember something Bernard Baruch said in an interview after the War when asked to advise people on how to get on with their lives in peacetime. Mr. Baruch said: ‘Do the job at hand as best one can. The rest will follow.’ I tell young people this all the time when they ask how to become somebody. I tell them to get any job, even getting the coffee, just do it the best you can. I mean, what do you think Punch Sulzberger did first at The Times ? He got the coffee. Of course, his family owned the paper.

“Do the best you can,” Ms. Donovan repeated. “I always thought I’d become the world’s greatest dress designer. I have no idea why. There I was living with my grandparents in Lake Placid because my parents were divorced-I never met my father, he was out the door and gone before I was born-but we didn’t have Vogue or fashion magazines. We didn’t go to the movies.” Somehow, her interest in fashion took hold and got her to Parsons. After graduating, after an enlightening term in Paris, she tried dress designing. A black rayon crepe sheath with a black-and-white houndstooth bolero actually appeared in Ladies’ Home Journal , where Chessy Rayner edited the fashion pages. “But soon after, when I ended up at The Times ,” Ms. Donovan said, “I realized my real thing is reporting.”

In 1963, Diana Vreeland hired her at Vogue . She taught Ms. Donovan to trust her imagination and develop her visual skills. “I miss her all the time,” Ms. Donovan said. “She was an immensely visual person who made herself up. I don’t know why, because I didn’t know her as a young woman, but I suspect it was as a kind of protection. Everything she said made sense because of her way of saying it. Even, as Liz Smith recently reminded me, when she told Lizzie and myself one day at some party that ‘All the troubles of the world, you know, come from the Balkans and the gin bottle,”‘ Ms. Donovan said, laughing as she imitated Mrs. Vreeland.

Ms. Donovan didn’t want to see Full Gallop , the play about Vreeland, but writer Hal Rubenstein escorted her to it before it left town last year. “I’d been avoiding it. S.I. [Newhouse Jr.] told me it had spooked him. But it was just wonderful, and it’s given her a whole new life with young people.”

As Old Navy has done for Ms. Donovan. But it works both ways. It was Ms. Donovan who contacted the folks at Old Navy after its Manhattan store opened more than a year ago. She marveled at the merchandise, affordable yet stylish, and offered them some free marketing advice. They hired her. When I admired her shirt, a stretchy black sweater, she immediately hailed it: Old Navy. “About $30. Fabulous prices! Thirty dollars is a lot of money at Old Navy.”

“Everything about style is suitability,” Ms. Donovan said, spooning raspberries from a dish. “Proportion. Fit! The future of fashion is comfort. I’ve been saying this forever.”

Were she to design a dress today, “it wouldn’t be a dress, you see. It would be a wonderful sweater, pants and a jacket. That’s all you need in life. A jacket with a high armhole,” she said.

“I drive people crazy with this, but you can’t imagine the importance of a high armhole. The moment the armhole goes, there goes the look,” she laughed.

At Mortimer’s With Carrie Donovan, the Old Navy Lady