Monday, March 31, 2014

Simon Doonan, Professional Window Dresser + Role Model

Good afternoon!

I got a TON of stuff at Goodwill this weekend, but danged if I didn't take any pictures of it for your viewing pleasure. I know, I know, slap my wrist...I'll try and snap some tonight and have a veritable Ali Baba's cave of treasures waiting for you to see tomorrow. In the meantime though, let me tell you about the book I read. I finished Asylum by Simon Doonan over the past weekend, and let me tell you-- a pleasure! Cover to cover, just a fun read. It doesn't take much more than the subject line of "fashion" and the image of a straightjacket on the front of a book to convince me to read it...but to keep me reading it, that was nurtured along by Doonan's colorful reminisces of a social and professional life mixed up in the arts, and specifically, clothes.

Simon Doonan begins the book with an essay on trading vocational notes with a friend in the mental health care business. Unsurprisingly, there are parallels between his work in the fashion industry and hers in psychiatric wards. Doonan mentions certain colors as being "on trend"; his friend remarks that "finding patterns where patterns don't exist" is a sign of schizophrenia. Doonan makes a reference to the Maysles' documentary Grey Gardens and Little Edie Beale's fabulous fashion sense (I am myself nuts about that movie); his friend watches it and lays into Doonan about the exploitative nature of filming these obviously troubled women, seeing nothing glamorous about wearing a sweater as a turban while living in a falling down house with thirty cats in the Hamptons. It does seem to be all in the eye of the beholder...and in this case, I definitely buy into the madness that's so so exciting for Doonan and his crowd. I've been reading so many books lately from the sociology and psychology section of our library that I assumed it was a book specifically about the areas where fashion overlap with mental illness (think of how many great examples of crazy, mad, bad, style mavens there are out there), but I was delighted to find that the book is mainly just a collection of short essays by Doonan about...just whatever this witty, fabulous man found interesting. I felt like I was listening to really good gossip told by a very interesting person for three hours, pretty much my ideal situation plus wine, vegan pizza, and Nina Simone music (all these conditions were met this weekend). Bravo, Mister Doonan, for making my Sunday afternoon more vibrant!

With husband, designer Jonathan Adler (not shown: their dog, Liberace...I DIE....)

I'm always almost a little embarrassingly interested in how so-and-so got to be such-and-such in these books about highly successful people in creative fields. How did Joni Mitchell get to be Joni Mitchell? What did Gene Tierney have to do to become Gene Tierney? As fun as the "super famous, hanging out with Warren Beatty" chapter of any memoir and biography is, I love the Horatio Alger portions of these books best in my heart of hearts. Because, dagnabbit, wouldn't yours truly love to find herself ensconced in a first class seat on a midnight flight to Madrid, sipping champagne, ignoring phone calls from a French beau, and thrilled down to her tasseled gold loafers to be there? TELL ME HOW, BOOK. I'm reconstructing this from what I remember reading, but I think Doonan writes of his near desperation, post-school job of selling clocks and suitcases in a department story in some dreary corner of the British Isles, before landing a job as a window dresser in London through a friend-of-a-friend. He did a bunch of fantastic, punk rock style windows, which drew the attention of a store owner visiting from California, which in turn lead to a gig dressing windows at Maxfield's in Los Angeles. While he spent time unsuccessfully screen printing and selling t-shirts out of the back of his car, eventually Doonan's career trajectory took him to Barney's in New York City, the world famous department store, where he spent the next twenty some odd years creating some of the more memorable displays the company has known. While this sounds very a to b to c in summation, there were probably plenty of times where SD was sitting around, gluing eyelashes to fake rats and thinking, "What am I doing?! Where am I going?" which is, of course, something that interests me tremendously.

A very interesting essay towards the end of the book (most of which you can read in an excerpt here) recaps this vocational path along with a side note about the controversy he created when he called supermodel Kate Moss, who, at the time, was launching her Topshop ready to wear line through Barney's, "a working-class slag from a crap town, just like me" was his misfortune to be quoted without the benefit of the "just like me" ending of that sentence. The sound byte was supposed to support his belief that some of the wildest, strongest senses of style come from people who come from unstylish Kate's native Croydon and his own Reading. He talks, at length, about how many strong, creative types come out of the primordial ooze of otherwise nondescript, working class environments. Eventually, this marketing snafu is straightened out and Simon and Kate kiss and makeup, but he caps the essay with a thought about how, sitting next to interns at a fashion show, he realizes those glamorous lifesavers out of otherwise dull existences might not exist as much for us "commoners" anymore. From the essay:
In order to ascertain [the interns'] names, I peek at their place cards. Those surnames sound hauntingly familiar. They are boldface last names, the names of movie stars and Fortune 500 megamoguls.
“Are you by any chance related to X?” I ask one young lass who is wearing a $4,000 Alexander McQueen outfit.
“Yes. He’s my dad.”
“And are you the daughter of Y?” I ask another gal.
“Yes. But please don’t ask me to get you an autograph.”
As I survey these lucky-sperm-club members, my heart sinks.
If the kids of the famous start nabbing all the plum creative jobs, then what about all the marginalized freaks? What about all the outsiders, the kids of the unfamous, the working-class slags from bumf--k? What are they supposed to do? Who will offer them shelter? And, most important of all, what will be the effect on fashion?

Isn't that a downer? While I think talented people can come from any walk of life, I can't lie and say I don't feel a pang of unhappiness for the misfortune of fate that DIDN'T have me born as the progeny of a Swiss banking scion and former seventies' soap actress's happy union...because wouldn't I rather have had checked-out parents and a charge account with Bergdorf Goodman's than checked-out parents and five bucks on my person if I'm lucky during my formative years?  If I can't have the Alexander McQueen outfit, could I at least have as good a shot at a place at the table of the high and mighty as those who were already born there? He ends the chapter with a cheeky little open letter to fashion, pleading with it to "keep the door open to the self-invented superfreaks from the crap towns. This is the only way to keep fashion vital and creative", and don't you feel like getting up on a chair and applauding him.

So you could definitely say I found things to relate to in this kooky cultural gadabout's collection of essays-- and guess what? Mssr. Doonan has another five books for me to read sitting on my desk as we speak! Ah, the wonders of your public library system. Confessions of a Window Dresser, Nasty, Wacky Chicks, Gay Men Don't Get Fat, and Eccentric Glamour (the latter of which I tried to read a while back and never got enough into...second chance!) sounds like a welcome opportunity to wade in the water of his brashly outloud and above all STYLISH lifestyle. I'm looking forward to it.

What have you been reading lately? Seen anything in a book that particularly resonated with you? What do you look for in book covers and subject matters that really lure you in as a reader? Let's talk!

A video of my new best friend on decades of fashion here (do you remember him from I Love the Eighties' on VH-1?) :


That's all for today, but we'll talk again tomorrow with weekend finds all over the place. Have a great rest of your Monday evening! I will see you then. :)


  1. OK. I am obsessed with Simon and think he and jonathan adler are my favorite power couple! I saw a tour of their home on TV once and it was seriously the most decadent and amazing thing I had ever witnessed. In their entryway they have a huge weird headshot of some 5 year old toddler in tiara type child making a crazy wide eyed beauty queen face. It is literally the first thing you see when you open the front door. I am so jealous that I didn't think of that idea.

  2. i can't wait to read this!!!!!! i want to name my next dog liberace!!



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