Simon Doonan discusses his extraordinary path from poverty in England to a life of fabulosity among the windows of Barneys New York.
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Simon Doonan is many things to many people—himself included.
Take, for example, his official bio: “writer, bon-vivant, media personality, famous window dresser, creative ambassador for Barneys New York.”
As for how the world at large regards him:
“Iconoclastic, irreverent, humorous and startling.” (Urban Agenda Magazine)
“A legend in the fashion world.” (The Denver Post)
“The diminutive doyenne of display.” (WWD)
“Unbearably efficient”; “trenchant cultural critic”; “Shrimp.” (Jonathan Adler, Doonan’s husband)
“Narcissist.” (Doonan, who notes, “My narcissism wears Spanx. I can control and contain it.”)
Which is the most apt description? Which is real in an industry often characterized by facade, by illusion, a show carefully choreographed by men and women behind curtains?
As with most of us, perhaps the answers can be found in the past.
Often described as “Dickensian,” Doonan’s childhood resembles what might be found littered about the ground in the wake of a brawl between Wes Anderson and Tim Burton. Growing up in Reading outside London, Doonan lived in a two-bedroom apartment sans kitchen or bathroom, alongside a lobotomized grandmother, a schizophrenic uncle and a blind aunt. Doonan’s parents, both runaways, met in a Royal Air Force soup kitchen after World War II. His father brewed wine from rose petals and potato peels. His mom, a health fanatic, burned through two packs of cigarettes a day. When his parents went to work, they dropped Doonan and his sister off for day care … at an orphanage.
His obsession with fashion—which he has described as “a lifelong antidepressant”—began at age 6, when his mom took him to the circus. He became transfixed by a girl riding an elephant: “She was wearing this lemon yellow chiffon outfit with a huge feather headdress and spangly tights with big silver boots.” In Elle, he has said that his favorite childhood memory is “Watching my mum get all gussied up and transform herself from Irish peasant into Lana Turner. That’s the magic of style.”
He grew up glamour-struck in the “graphic madness” of the ’60s futurist aesthetic, obsessed with escaping Reading. “The world of fashion shimmered on the horizon and I was determined to reach out and touch it,” he writes in his memoir The Asylum.
At 11, Doonan failed a standardized test meant to help one determine what exactly they were going to do with their life, and thus he went to a technical school while his friends happily ventured on to greener pastures. He eventually rose above his predetermined path and battled his way to Manchester University to study psychology and art history.
“It was good for me to fail,” he told The Days of Yore. “I learned that nothing is that big a fucking deal, you just learn to figure it out. … [Failing] made me take responsibility for myself. Most people don’t get around to that until much later on.”
Moreover, “I came from the perspective of thinking I would never conquer anything and then I was thrilled to conquer a few little things. Everything is a delightful surprise. Like I was just on Conan the other night, and Jack Black was the other guest, and this is national television. I thought, this is so beyond! This is so fab!”
Around 16, Doonan became fixated on buying clothes—but he needed money. So he took a job in a cork factory. After college, he had no plan for what was next—so he took on a random array of jobs, like the gig he had demolishing public toilets with a sledgehammer.
What happened next is perhaps less Dickens and more Horatio Alger.
After moving to London with a friend, Doonan got a job selling clothes near Savile Row. He met people who specialized in window display—a craft that intrigued Doonan, who was growing bored hawking items in-store all day. He began doing freelance window displays for the likes of Shirley Russell and the hip tailor Tommy Nutter. One of those proved to be a seminal turning point: a display featuring posh suits … and garbage cans and taxidermied rats wearing bejeweled collars. Tommy Perse, founder of the iconic Maxfield boutique in the U.S., happened upon the scene—and offered 25-year-old Doonan a job in L.A. Without knowing where L.A. was, Doonan went.
Eight years of brilliance (and a bit of controversy) passed. Doonan then ventured to New York City, and did a stint working on the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute’s Costumes of Royal India exhibit. At the opening reception in 1985, he met the owner of Barneys, Gene Pressman—who knew his displays. He offered Doonan the job of elevating his store’s windows to a destination.
And with that, New York’s streets—and the role, perception and art of window displays at large—would change forever. He made 7th Avenue and 17th his own. And he liked the job so much that he continued doing it until 2010, when he stepped back to take on the role of Creative Ambassador-at-Large at Barneys. The years of stunning creative output in between proved delightful, fruitful and wildly brilliant. Week after week, each new set of displays was conceptual; surreal; hilarious; thought-provoking; often filled with allusion to celebrity or scandal. And as Doonan wrote in WWD, “Everything was made out of something else. During my time at Barneys I have made wallpaper out of Twinings English Breakfast tea-bag wrappers (40,000 of them), light fixtures out of Amex Cards, Christmas trees out of 700 Eva Gabor wigs and furniture out of 300 pounds of Colavita pasta. I’ve made holiday wreaths out of millions of copper pot scrubbers. I’ve crushed up CDs and made them into jumbo glitter, I’ve turned 100 Barbie dolls into high-kicking Rockettes.”
Later, as he worked on the introduction to a book of his window displays, a funny thing happened: He accidentally became a writer. His editor thought the intro was hilarious, and encouraged him to write more. Confessions of a Window Dresser was born. He got a column in the New York Observer. More books followed, as did a column in Slate. (And one thanks that editor, as Doonan’s prose is indeed hilarious. Consider this passage from a Slate column written during the most recent presidential election: “Rand Paul sounds like the name of a horny Beverly Hills hairdresser from the 1970s. And, come to think of it, his hair looks just like the hair of a horny Beverly Hills hairdresser from the 1970s. That boyish arrangement of moist curls—Betty Grable’s poodle fringe meets Caligula—raises a million questions.”)
His turn to writing, while perhaps initially surprising, is not at all surprising upon reflection. Doonan has said that doing a weekly column is akin to doing a weekly window display. The challenges are cross-disciplinary. And moreover, his style is, too. “I didn’t go to writing school so I didn’t have anyone telling me I should strip everything back to blank minimalism. In a window, if you want it to be more interesting, you can make it more dense,” he told The Days of Yore. “That’s what makes a good holiday window. I think the same applies to writing. With stripped-down prose, sometimes less is less.”
Alongside his writing career, he’s also become a bit of a TV guest-spot star, appearing on VH1’s I Love The … series, America’s Next Top Model, Fashion Hunters, Iron Chef, Gossip Girl. The BBC even produced a series, Beautiful People, based on his memoir.
Doonan’s collective pursuits and identities aside, in seeking to understand who a person is, there’s merit in exploring who they are not:
He has said that people want him to be “a disdainful, haughty person,” and approach him for commentary about what’s awful in fashion today. He doesn’t take part. (“To me, there’s nothing more off-putting than a disdainful queen.”)
His professed narcissism doesn’t make him immune to self-deprecating barbs; when asked to decorate the Obamas’ White House at Christmas, he dubbed himself the “First Elf.” (Doonan stands around 5’4”.)
When set up for a first date, Jonathan Adler thought he “was getting a fancy shmancy gay. … He is about 87 more times bohemian than I am.”
When Adler and Doonan decided to get married in 2008, some might have expected a massive formal affair; instead, it was a low-key, casual, laissez-faire affair with a couple family members. (After all, Doonan’s parents never marked occasions; they got so drunk at a pub after their wedding that they lost their marriage certificate and couldn’t remember exactly when they got hitched.)
Some might think Doonan, with his loud floral shirts that sometimes seem to resemble color-blindness tests, fancies himself a king of style. (“I have always looked like a wanker.”)
Or that his past would have destroyed him. (“I’m a fun-loving creative dude because of my backstory.”)
Doonan is, indeed, many things to many people. So which element of his character is most authentic? In an industry where what you see is never seemingly what you actually get, for Doonan, the opposite is true.
Or perhaps we’re just overanalyzing it all.
“I never understood why anybody would want to be an artist when they could be a window dresser,” he told Variety. “If you’re an artist, you’re stuck in some gallery somewhere. When you’re a window dresser, you’re on the street. It’s democratic. Everyone gets to see what you do. Dogs, children, homeless people.
“I’m ultimately more of a carnie.”
Books By Doonan:
Soccer Style: The Magic and Madness
The Asylum: True Tales of Madness From a Life in Fashion
Gay Men Don’t Get Fat
Eccentric Glamour: Creating an Insanely More Fabulous You
Beautiful People: My Family and Other Glamorous Varmints
Wacky Chicks: Life Lessons from Fearlessly Inappropriate and Fabulously Eccentric Women
And remember, we can talk about making a difference, we can make a difference, or we can do both. — Debbie Millman