NEW YORK — As world events go, there are probably more important ones than Donatella Versace’s appearance in the windows at Barneys New York. But here are the photographers, at least 20 of them, lined up along the sidewalk for a shot of one of fashion’s most over-the-top designers, standing in a window doing absolutely nothing. It’s just too campy, a tongue-in-cheek play off her Janice-from-the-Muppet-show persona.
“I told her it would be like an aquarium,” says Simon Doonan, the creative director of Barneys, before stepping into the frame to primp and pose with her. “It’s good protection for a girl in 10-inch-high heels.”
This story first appeared in the April 10, 2008 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
So for 10 minutes he and Versace smile and wave as a crowd of design majors from Iowa State University look on. The students may have come to see her, but they all know who her 5-foot, 4-inch, floral-shirt-wearing companion is. Says one: “I’ve seen him on E.” Says another: “TMZ.”
“I love Simon,” Versace says a few minutes later, as the strap from her cocktail dress slides off her shoulder. “He loves to dare. He is never afraid, he doesn’t think about commercial opinions.”
The more accurate way to put it is that Doonan, 55, has very shrewdly and very calculatingly built a business off of his eccentricities. In the last decade, he’s become an in-demand fashion commentator, a columnist for the New York Observer, a frequent contributor to Elle and a fairly well-received author. His memoir, “Nasty,” is being developed as a TV show for the BBC. And this week, Doonan’s new book, “Eccentric Glamour,” hits shelves. It’s a self-help guide about developing your own style, written by a man who seems way too ironic to ever find himself in that section of the bookstore. But desperate times call for desperate measures, and the sea of stylists in Hollywood has had a pernicious effect on fashion, according to Doonan.
“I want people to go back to the period where there are surprises and diversity,” he says over lunch a few days later. “This deranged idea that everything should conform to some glamorous archetype is sucking the life out of fashion. It’s a bad trend.”
Written as a kind of fashion manifesto — a call to quirkiness, if you will — it’s a 200-plus-page romp, chock-full of interviews with glamorous eccentrics such as Tilda Swinton and Isabel Toledo, who help him dole out advice on rethinking a wardrobe, learning to express the inner you and embracing the fact that the world doesn’t always approve.
Which is really what Doonan is all about. When he was growing up in Reading, England, his schizophrenic grandmother moved in with him and his parents following a lobotomy. Then came his uncle, Ken, who was afflicted with the same disorder. Doonan and his sister, Shelagh, called their grandmother “Narg” (Gran spelled backwards), a fitting metaphor for the upside down, topsy-turvy way young Simon came to see the world. “Freaky” and “demented,” became “fabulous” and “original.” “Simple” and “understated,” became “dull as a Dead Sea Scroll.”
After fifth grade, Doonan failed his 11-plus, a standardized test in England that determined where you went to school. “It was an exam which decided whether you’re going to get a first-class ticket in life or a job in the factory, and I managed to fail it,” he recalls. “So all my friends went off to the good school, and I went to a place where the girls became typists and the boys became sheet metal workers. The day I failed it, my parents didn’t say anything. In a way, it was very sweet and diplomatic of them, but it almost made it worse, because it was so terrible they weren’t even talking about it. And it also made me very resilient, and eager to claw my way towards some glamour and fabulousness.”
Though he practically crawled out of the womb totally, obviously gay — “I was flitting around the house like a Russian ballerina” — no one seemed to care. “I think my parents were just glad I wasn’t a schizophrenic,” he says.
At age 21, Doonan and a friend moved to London, and he got his first window-dressing job — at the decidedly untrendy, fusty store Aquascutum on Regent Street. It wasn’t thrilling work, he says. “That’s where the queen got her Balmoral tweedy looks.”
One day, he got a freelance job designing a window for Tommy Nutter, the only “groovy” tailor on Savile Row. Nutter advised Doonan to let it rip, which he did, with a display featuring taxidermy rats in tuxedos. Among those who noticed was Tommy Perse, the owner of Maxfield in Los Angeles, who convinced Doonan to fly across the Atlantic and come work for him.
One time, he did a restroom scene with a Marcel Duchamp urinal and a bunch of Yohji Yamamoto outfits. Another time, he stuck colostomy bags all over the walls. In 1982, he and the store stirred up a controversy with a window display that caricatured the real-life story of an infant who’d recently been abducted by a coyote.
“I would never do that today,” says Doonan. “But I thought it was cheeky then. It was my punk-rock phase.”
At any rate, the right people became fans. “His windows violated every rule that stores had,” says the filmmaker John Waters, who was an early influence on Doonan and has since become a friend. “And then, because of that, everyone started imitating him. That’s how it happens.”
In 1985, Diana Vreeland hired Doonan to do the displays for her “Costumes of Royal India” event at the Costume Institute.
Gene Pressman brought Doonan to work at Barneys soon after. “I wanted someone outlandish and provocative, and Simon had put rats in the window,” Pressman says. “He had a sense of humor.”
Or, as Julie Gilhart, Barneys’ fashion director, puts it: “He’s just f–king funny.”
Religious groups haven’t always agreed.
The most famous incident was in 1994, when Tom Sachs did a display for the holiday season called “Hello Kitty Nativity.” Though it was intended as a “sardonic commentary on the commercialization of Christmas,” the folks at the Catholic League were not amused. After they began to make noise in the tabloids, Barneys received bomb threats, prompting it to pull the display and apologize to offended parties in a full-page ad in The New York Times. “We didn’t want to be editors of art,” Pressman says. “We didn’t want to decide what is right and what isn’t right. But they got bent out of shape, so we obliged and took that particular scene out of the window.”
“I think I learned to be more anal retentive after that,” says Doonan, whose most remarkable skill today is making irony fit into the corporate ethos of his company. “I don’t really like controversy,” he says. “Retail is about seducing people and amusing them, not annoying them.”
Ronnie Cooke Newhouse, who worked at Barneys through much of the Eighties and Nineties, says Doonan’s kooky world view shouldn’t obscure his fine business acumen. “A lot of the time, irreverent, funny people are incredibly flaky,” she says. “But he could be the general in a gay army. He’s incredibly disciplined.”
Doonan’s friend, Susanne Bartsch, the nightlife queen, puts it similarly: “Simon’s a corporate Connie. He’s a business girl.”
“It’s true,” responds Doonan, who hasn’t had a drink or a drug since 1986. “I’m a Goody Two Shoes masquerading as a loosey-goosey eccentric.”
For almost a decade, he’s lived in a state of domestic bliss with his partner, Jonathan Adler, who might be described as the Simon Doonan of interior design. They reside near Union Square with their Norwich Terrier named Liberace, and play ping-pong on a table that’s covered in brocade wallpaper. The couple’s biggest shared vice is a totally consuming and totally shameless addiction to their own press. “I’ll do a Polish Web site, if they call,” says Doonan. “The idea of overexposure is totally ridiculous to me.”
Doonan and Adler’s habit is supported by various cable networks, who turn to them for sound bites. The former is a frequent commentator on VH1 and the latter serves as a judge on the Bravo reality competition “Top Design.”
Here’s how the conversation goes when Adler calls Doonan up on his cell phone.
To Adler: “Hey, Johnny, I’m here with a reporter doing our WWD profile. Can I call you back?”
To me: “He said, ‘Oh, smell you, you fat little bitch.'”
To him: “Darling, maybe you should say, ‘Smell you, you fat little dwarf.’ It sounds less hostile. Otherwise, they’ll think you’re just nasty and misogynistic and they’ll never buy your ceramics again. Career over…. Exactly. Mmm hmm. Bye bye. See you later, you aging little piglet.”
If the folks at Barneys don’t seem perturbed by Doonan’s outsize persona, that might be because he is their own personal André Leon Talley, a witty gay guy who serves as their public face, a perfect brand extension of their seemingly anticorporate corporate philosophy. And though Elle editor in chief Robbie Myers calls Doonan “a brutal truth teller,” it’s also true that he uses his soapbox as a means by which to relentlessly promote the store. Since he began his Observer column in 2000, Doonan has managed to plug Barneys over a hundred times while waxing sarcastic on a seemingly endless array of topics.
Here are some of his current opinions, delivered over lunch, plugs for Barneys included….
On the porno-chic trend, which is the subject of a chapter in the book called “Say No to Ho”: My problem with it isn’t that it’s vulgar. It’s that it’s become an act of conformity. There’s so much flash and cleavage in the world. That’s why I always want Barneys to be perceived as an intriguing place. That’s why at Barneys, we’re always very focused on the people who have a story, rather than the people who are red-carpet divas. We’re interested in people who are practicing the craft of fashion.”
On Hillary Clinton and her penchant for all things yellow: “She looks entirely appropriate. I don’t want a politician who is going to wear a backless Dior gown. I don’t want a politician who’s thinking about fashion for even one millisecond. It’s the same as medical professionals. The idea of a person in a Comme des Garçons humpback dress giving me a colonoscopy is just not groovy.” (For the record, both Dior and Comme des Garçons are carried by Barneys.)
On plastic surgery: “I am completely opposed to it. I understand it with performers who might want to extend their careers, but the whole concept of being antiaging is very questionable to me. Regular people torturing their faces, it’s nasty. Learn to glue on false eyelashes. Don’t become Jocelyn Wildenstein when you can be Louise Nevelson.”
As for what Doonan plans to do as an old man, he says: “Maybe I’ll become Amy Winehouse. I want to take back the night for senior citizens.”