Simon Doonan on Bette Davis, Miley Cyrus, and Life in The Asylum
“I usually have a lesbian salad,” says Simon Doonan. We’re at Fred’s on the ninth floor of Barneys department store during the frenetic lunch hour to discuss his new book, The Asylum. Doonan is sitting calmly in one of his signature floral shirts and twinkling his eyes intensely. It makes the fashion legend appear more intimidating than a diminutive man in a paisley print shirt should. I am also the only one browsing the menu, since he’s been working at Barney’s for longer than I’ve been alive. “I’m going to get a half order, because the portions in America… I’ve been here since the ’70s and I still can’t get used to it.”
There is a chapter in The Asylum that talks about “informal modeling” — former beauty queens or ex-weather girls hired to glide between tables at bijou lunch spots advertising a store’s latest contemporary separates. I wonder why they don’t hire informal models at Fred’s to take advantage of the crowded tables of middle-aged women with disposable incomes and large martinis. They could hold placards with clothing descriptions to circumvent the noise of chatter and clanging glassware. As it happens, Doonan doesn’t actually eat here that often these days. Barneys’ corporate offices are now located more than 10 blocks south, and since he now has more job titles than floral shirts, he no longer spends his days squirreled away in the department store basement stringing together empty Illy coffee tins and stuffing dead rats for his infamous Barneys window displays. “For years my title was Creative Director, now my title is Creative Ambassador at Large, which I’m pretty sure is a dig at my lack of height… I haven’t got a sash yet. I was thinking of getting Riccardo Tisci to make me one.”
At 61, Doonan’s celebrity is no longer restricted to fashion circles. His other recent roles have included guest appearances on America’s Next Top Model, Bravo’s Fashion Hunters and Iron Chef America. He is also a style columnist for Slate (and previously The New York Observer) and has appeared in a video advertisement for Alexander Wang alongside viral Burger King staffer Bon Qui Qui. On top of all this, he’s grappling with the ropes of social media. “I just started an Instagram account about two weeks ago. For years I struggled with Twitter because I didn’t know what to write. I can only write when I know who my audience is. Twitter it’s like, what do you say? Instagram I found fun and easy because you’re reacting to an image.”
Already hip to the code of non-annoying Instagramming, he does not photograph his lunch. “Well I do hold myself to certain staaandards! I would if there was a dead rat in it.” A dead rat in a lesbian salad (which has turned out to be chicken and avocado) would no doubt appeal to Doonan’s outré style. While working for Nutters of Saville Row in his youth, he decided to do a punk theme where he juxtaposed tuxedos with trash cans and taxidermy rats, resulting in the birth of his “window-dressing epiphany” and him being whisked away to dress the windows of Maxfield in Los Angeles. He lived in L.A. for eight years, at first near Michele Lamy in Downtown and then opposite Bette Davis (“I would see her coming and going and yelling on the phone on her balcony”) before joining the staff of Barneys in 1986.
His windows, like his Instagrams, are monuments of perception, personality, and eccentricity that require no nostalgia-hued filters. “I don’t understand that thing of instagramming things when there’s no narrative, nothing noteworthy about it. I just think it gets a bit sad.” Unless, of course, you’re very famous. “If I was following Britney Spears — who I love, by the way — I wouldn’t care if it was just a cheeseburger, because it makes it that much more magical that it’s Britney’s cheeseburger.”
Doonan attributes his maverick aesthetic to growing up in a “crap town.” He spent his childhood in Reading, England before moving to London with a friend “like a couple of low-rent Madame Bovarys” and landing his first window dressing job at Aquascutum, where he worked before Nutters. Crap town pride is something he expounds upon heavily in The Asylum, most memorably in a chapter where he almost painfully (for the reader, perhaps for him) recounts praising Kate Moss as a “working-class slag from a crap town, just like me.” (The New York Post did not construe it as a compliment, omitting the “just like me.” Headline: “Barneys creative director disses Kate, calling her ‘a working-class slag from a crap town.’”)
Like Moss, Doonan’s slagginess is revealed in his deeds rather than his demeanor. It’s the obsession with dead rats, the failure to fawn over the preciously arranged cookie plate that arrives once our salads have been taken away (“it’s a bit mental”). Maybe pastry chefs are just as insane as fashion people and schizophrenics, the two groups Doonan seeks to compare in Asylum (“Whose world is more demented?” he asks in the first chapter). Maybe it’s just another symptom of crap town humility. “I went to get a green tea yesterday and the lady said, oh our green tea is made with pineapple. They dick around with everything.” He tells me I should stuff the leftover cookies into my handbag.
Considering he came of age watching Bette Davis yelling on the phone on her balcony and Vivienne Westwood walking to work in full-on bondage leathers, Doonan ’s not overly nostalgic about the shrinking of ideas and the expansion of the fashion universe. “In the past making something was creative, now there’s this thing that buying things makes you a creative connoisseur. Women are proud of their purchases. They Instagram them, they put them online, they show what they’re wearing. That’s good, there’s no downside to this.” He’s particularly impressed by the sartorial curation skills of Rihanna (“there’s something very lazy about it but also glamorous and decadent and sort-of throwaway — even when it’s contrived it doesn’t feel contrived) and Miley Cyrus (“she’s got a sort of innate chic-ness to her. She’s super-skinny, got a great haircut. Her face, which looked goofy before, has now got this sharpness to it that makes her look very stylish.”)
For someone who has schmoozed with everyone from Kate Moss to Michelle Obama, and has masterminded one of New York’s most luxurious stores for over two decades, Doonan is the personification of an appealing truth. You don’t have to be born rich, well-connected, or leggy to make it in fashion. But it certainly helps to have a taste for the demented.