Asylum. The word means variously nuthouse and refuge, depending upon usage. Its dual purpose makes it an apt synonym for fashion, at least in the delightfully off-beat thought process of Simon Doonan, whose latest book, his fifth, “The Asylum: A Collage of Couture Reminiscences…and Hysteria,” is set for publication by Blue Rider Press on Sept. 3.
The legendary former creative director and current creative ambassador at large of Barneys New York, Doonan considers himself “a carney” at heart, his sole lifelong professional raison d’être, the amusement of others. Few who know him would disagree, although most would add multiple handles: raconteur, sage, devilish wit. Doonan is one of fashion’s great characters, capable of vibrant two-pronged storytelling, visually and, as in “The Asylum,” in words.
Doonan also proclaims to be a retailer, which is to say a salesman, dedicated to wrapping product into feel-good packages, the harder to resist my dear. His is a salesmanship that delights so enchantingly, you don’t even know you’re being sold. Our recent chat centered on the book, filled from the first page to the last with witty observations, quips and some intriguing insights, but he went off-topic breezily, according to the turns of conversation.
The first two chapters establish the basic ruse of “The Asylum,” that fashion and madness are “strange bedfellows. Or are they?” Doonan references his family’s history of mental illness (Grandmother, he tells me, had a lobotomy; an uncle, electric shock treatment) and recounts various exchanges between himself and “let’s call her Lizzie,” a psychiatrist. Through their long friendship, the fashion guy and shrink have identified “eerie similarities” between their two worlds. One such parallel — “what seems like madness to Lizzie — seeing patterns where there are none” — is to Doonan (and you and me) trend identification: “Look, here’s an orange skirt at Céline. And look, an orange purse at Prada. Hold the presses! I’m seeing a pattern here…” The two disagree about the legendary, turban-wearing Edies — Big and Little — whom Lizzie suggests were likely women “at the end of their rope [who] are trying to muffle the voices in their heads.” She saw signs of schizophrenia; Doonan saw styling do’s.
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The fashion craziness-motif thus established, it’s then bye-bye Lizzie, as Doonan goes on to a series of self-contained stories about a person, an episode, or a motif in fashion that resonate with him in some way. Some include first-hand anecdotes (at Diana Vreeland’s memorial, he overheard Pat Buckley’s remark that “Jackie always cries at funerals because she wasn’t allowed to cry at Jack’s”) and some “borrowed” or retold tales into which he inserts himself (a young model on a shoot who, with the hairdresser doing his best to recall Marie Antoinette with her coiffure, inquired, “Is she new? Which agency is she with?”)
Most of the wickedness is either self-mocking or blatantly faux; Doonan’s admiration and love for the people and events he describes, and for the industry that spawned them, is obvious. Along with the asylum motif, a thread of then-and-now runs through. Few who know the industry would argue that fashion has changed dramatically over the last 25 years or so, as exemplified by, but certainly not limited to, the explosion of the show process from insider intimacy to live-streamed, tweeted, open-to-all mayhem. For the record, Doonan loves the showgoer preening for paparazzi, theorizing that such personal expressions are an essential part of what drives fashion today. “Today, everything exists concurrently, which makes this a fantastic time for fashion because everything is about self-expression. The ownership shifts to the consumer. It’s about having your own look, crafting your own creative identity. Instead of looking to these dictatorial divas, you’re looking inwards and saying, ‘I’m an existentialist. I’m going to dress like a girl who’s at the store in 1950. Or I’m very sensual. I want to dress like a Russ Meyer Supervixen.”
Yet such freedom comes at a price. Doonan deems himself privileged to have been “involved in fashion when it was all about ideas. When [Jean Paul] Gaultier was doing his post-modern mash-ups. When Yohji [Yamamoto] was doing those great riding coats. When [Azzedine] Alaïa came along. When Romeo Gigli reinvented color. When [Christian] Lacroix came along and looked at folklore and embellishment. They were ideas whose time had come, and they hit you in the face. Maybe you cried because they felt like they had real meaning.”
Perhaps they indeed “had real meaning,” but that did not ensure inclusion in “The Asylum.” Of the above “privileges,” only crying is so honored.
“Unless I could make a story with a beginning, a middle and an end, I didn’t put it in,” Doonan says. “These have to be complete stories, interesting to somebody even if they knew nothing about fashion. So there’s not much esoterica there.” Case in point, his chapter on Rei Kawakubo. “It’s in there because I thought it was an interesting story, and I thought the only way I can get inside this woman’s head is by sending her to Frederick’s of Hollywood.” Yes, as accounted in the chapter “Rei Kawakubo’s Pasties,” during a chance meeting in L.A., Kawakubo’s publicist Miki Higasa asked for suggestions on where to take the designer during a few hours of down time, and Doonan suggested the racy cheese factory as well as Playmates. About Kawakubo, he writes, “nobody knows if she’s a bitch or an angel or a psycho.”
Back to the tears.…Crying at fashion shows is something most sane people of the nonfashion persuasion would find bonkers. Not atypically, Doonan got into this chapter laterally, with a description of his toothless, penniless, hard-drinking though non-lobotomized Irish grandfather, who referred to an easy crier as having a bladder “way too near her eyeballs.” Gramps may have been pithy himself, but he also took from local public domain. Faced with what she considered a child’s unwarranted tears, my off-the-boat Irish grandmother too would note, “a bladder close to your eyes.” After a quick Google search for the origin of the expression that turned up too much cystitis and too little Irish wit, I gave up.
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But, like Simon, I digress. He writes that pre-fashion, he cried only rarely, as when he first saw Doris Day sing “Secret Love” in “Calamity Jane.” Yes, Doris Day; Calamity Jane. “Looking for all intents and purposes like an extremely attractive butch lesbian — singing her heart out about a secret love which ‘became impatient to be free.’” Otherwise, tears came infrequently. Then, at one Giorgio Armani show in the Eighties, he found himself staring across the runway at Elsa Klensch, with a tear rolling down her cheek, and realized that he too was welling up, a condition he labels “fashion verklempt.”
The book is both tightly constructed and delightfully rambly. He tackles “fat porn” and why parents of NYU students would pay for a course about it; the chic vs. sexy juxtaposition at a Barneys event in Phoenix between the Olsens and “a group of exotic birds” who are the wives of the Phoenix Suns. He recalls Miguel Adrover’s odd-even-for-fashion runway escapade with a goat, and wonders, when it comes to a waiter’s lips, exactly how moist is too moist for Tom Ford? He weaves asides throughout, about the appeal of one-room living, about his own great legs that were even better in his twenties, and about the underappreciated glories of paying clients, “the fashion equivalent of angel investors.”
Mostly, Doonan talks about personalities. Thom Browne, or more exactly, Thom Browne’s ankles. The magical collaboration between Kate Moss and Corinne Day that resulted in that antiglamazon creation that rocked fashion, “The Waif.” One chapter deals with a well-known, still-active publicist who fell in love with a randy, hard-living charmer who wound up in jail. The publicist wanted to attend his boyfriend’s parole hearing but had to petition for a change of date to avoid conflict with the Paris couture, at which he had a client. When asked off the record the man’s identity (come on, you’re wondering, too) Doonan doesn’t budge. He asked for and received the man’s permission to use the story, but only anonymously. Doonan admits to tweaking some facts in the interests of anonymity.
Tweaks, manipulations and exaggerations run throughout the book, as do blatant generalizations. “Oh, God!” he boasts. “I love sweeping generalizations. It’s the cornerstone to all my writing.”
Exhibits A and B: He loves lesbians (for one thing, they loathe generalizations about lesbians) and Jews. Apparently completely and without exception. Yet asked for the book’s most hyperbolic position, he offers, “Probably that all models are stupid. Obviously, that’s clearly an insane, sweeping generalization. Lots of models go to college. Lily Cole went to Oxford.” But he adds, for what they make at a young age, they should be able to stand a little ribbing.
In the chapter “Manischewitz? J’Adore!,” Doonan runs through a litany of Jews, both fashion-famous and not, who have helped him throughout his career: “a glamorous Jewish couple Shelley and Tony,” proprietors of Sheltone Fashions, where he worked in the Seventies; Maxfield’s Tommy Perse; Barneys’ Gene Pressman; Peter Kaplan, now editorial director here at Fairchild Fashion Media, who in 1998 enlisted Doonan to write a column for the New York Observer. Doonan uses this general affection for Jews including clients (“WASPs don’t shop!”) to discuss John Galliano. He writes that he’d like so see Galliano walk sober into a synagogue, perhaps on Yom Kippur, and explain “in his own words how he fell into the abyss.…John is a poet, an artist, a bloke with a certain vision, and Jews like that.” A too simplistic explanation for a shocking incident? Not to Doonan. “I feel tremendous solidarity with John, who I regard as a true poetic soul,” he says. “I also lived in Battersea, so I understand his early struggles. As a sober gay man, I am rooting wildly for him. But I also feel tremendous solidarity with the Jewish people. These two things do not feel mutually exclusive.”
Discussion of that chapter leads to thoughts of someone unnamed in the book: Donna Karan, whom Doonan cites as an idol who “created something magical” for women. “Just as Chanel released women from the bondage of corsetry, Donna released them from the bondage of Dacron and the corporate, gnarly business attire of the Eighties.”
Such gentleness emerges through the biting wit, one with mass appeal written all over it. There’s a chapter on Anna Wintour that includes a hilarious — and Doonan swears, true — account of being called to read for the role of Nigel in “The Devil Wears Prada.” On the way out of the audition, he bumped into Phillip Bloch, also there to read, and the next day, Robert Verdi, who had also gotten a call.
“I think it was a bit of unpaid research,” Doonan says. “My dad said, ‘They’re scraping the bottom of the barrel if they’re going to hire you.’” Though he “got swept along with the idea, rejection ultimately meant relief. To take someone like me, with no acting experience, and put them in scenes with Meryl Streep — that was always a crappy idea.”
As for the primary subject of the chapter titled “Anna’s Wondering Why We Haven’t Started Yet,” without again mentioning her well-known preference for punctuality Doonan calls Wintour “a magnificent phenomenon.” He writes that he has Anna dreams, as he assumes everyone else in the industry does, and that she “grabbed the chariot reins of her fashion editorship and drove a steady ascending course toward deification.” Asked if that’s a bit of a shot, wrapped in the conclusion of a remarkably positive impact on global fashion, he begs to differ. “I definitely see Anna as a heroic figure who has assumed a complicated leadership role in the ever-expanding fashion universe….I am in awe.”
Doonan devotes a chapter to Suzy Menkes, specifically to a day no one who was there will ever forget: The day Michael Kors’ ceiling fell on Suzy Menkes. “Suzy is one of the great, glamorous eccentrics of fashion,” he says. “She’s also a damned good fashion writer. As a retail person for 40 years, I love product. When you read Suzy’s reviews, you can tell she loves product. For her, it’s not an abstraction. She inhabits fashion herself.”
Another entry addresses the Queen’s look and why it has remained basically unchanged since Hardy Amies created it for her decades ago. In a Nest magazine interview Doonan did with the 90-plus designer shortly before his death, Amies explained that “Her Majesty must never appear to be chic.” Chic projects unfriendly.
“I do think there’s an unkindness to chic,” Doonan decodes the message. “You have to understand that to be good at fashion. Styling a shoot or having a vision in fashion is not about making people look cozy and communicative. There’s an hauteur which is an essential part of great style. A Nancy Cunard, a Daphne Guinness, a Millicent Rogers, a Tilda Swinton. They’re not going to bake you some muffins. Once you understand that, you understand that the Queen couldn’t be severe and ultrachic. That’s the mistake the Duchess of Windsor made and people despised her for it.”
Not so the lovely Duchess of Cambridge, who has “skillfully avoided being too chic. Imagine her with her hair scraped into some asymmetrical bob and a Rick Owens shrug and a Gareth Pugh-Daphne Guinness dress. It’s not right for someone in her position. She’s off and running because she’s a tall, skinny girl who always looks stylish in her conventional clothes. If she looked like Raisa Gorbacheva, we wouldn’t be so focused on her. She’s cursed by actually looking like a princess.”
Doonan devotes a chapter to taking many young fashion aspirants down a peg in the self-esteem category. Casting himself in the role of “dream crusher,” he writes, “I am obliged to divest the kids of today of their grandiosity.” Conversely, he notes that some exceptions — “the Proenza Schoulers, the Lims, the Thakoons, the Prabals and the Altuzarras — are a delightfully, splendidly competent bunch, likable and hard-working, too.” But, perhaps longing to achieve Margiela-esque mystery, they’re too “self-effacing” — and they dress, if not like hell, then like college students.
People who love and know fashion will find multiple lines per page to dissect philosophically and decode for unnamed subjects. All readers will find tons of humor through which runs a discreet strain of melancholy. While not at all reactionary, Doonan believes that in its current globalization-obsessed state, fashion lost some intrinsic eccentricity. More personally, in the brief chapter on AIDS, he recalls the early years when “All my friends died.” It’s clear that he feels it’s his duty to champion the memory of those lost in a world in which “today’s peacock is tomorrow’s feather duster.”
Perhaps his only real startling opinion is the one closing his chapter on Alexander McQueen. It opens with Doonan settling in to watch the royal wedding. Kate’s dress by Sarah Burton — “pure poetry” — triggered thoughts of McQueen himself. He recalls a shocking moment when, in the lead-up to a McQueen event at Barneys, he says a friend of the designer requested a room “where [McQueen] can do his drugs.” That Barneys declined proved moot; McQueen was a no-show. Doonan theorizes about McQueen’s life and tragic end, while considering that “introspection and psychotherapy are not part of British culture.” His walk-off is startling: “Designers today are too happy and too well adjusted to produce great art,” he writes. “I’m happy that they are happy, but I cannot help missing the blood and the mayhem and the rage and the broken heels.”
A little cold? “Not at all,” Doonan tells me. “I’m always trying to understand what things mean culturally.” He later clarifies via e-mail that while “great creativity is often the product of psychological turmoil and angst,” he didn’t mean to minimize the price of that turmoil. “You cannot hear the applause…if you are dead.” Nor does he think today’s younger designers are creative victims of their own happiness. “I think they will each find a way to make their mark over the course of their careers,” Doonan says. “But it will be more of a gentler, slower, sweeter thing, rather than an orgasmic, electrifying Johnny Rotten punk-rock explosion.”