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Fashion Stylemaker: Simon Doonan : A Look at the man
behind the windows.

Panes and Pleasures

Simon Doonan's Offbeat Store Windows, Which Have Been Stopping Traffic Since the '70s, Are Now the Subject of His Irreverent Memoir

November 13, 1998|MIMI AVINS | TIMES FASHION WRITER

Wait a minute! Is that a stuffed coyote in Maxfield's window, about to pounce on a baby whose unaware mother is hosing the lawn wearing a really cute jumpsuit? Omigod! Cars are screeching to a stop on Santa Monica Boulevard just to look at the frozen drama taking place in the window of a clothing store.

What twisted, bizarrely inventive mind would think to entice shoppers by depicting coyote abductions, Malibu landslides, wacko caricatures of the Carter family and superbly costumed smog alerts?

Simon Doonan, of course. Simon Doonan? Why, every dummy knows he's the emperor of window dressers, Michelangelo with a glue gun, a wizard able to make mannequins look smart. As creative director of Barneys New York, the Energizer Bunny of a store that just keeps chicly going and going through Chapter 11, fashion slumps and Dow Jones funks, he has made a career of deftly straddling the worlds of art and commerce, then adding shock value, comedy and a connoisseur's understanding of fashion to his presentations.

But before he helped cement the Barneys image as a temple of style, Doonan spent eight years in Los Angeles creating diabolical dioramas for Maxfield's, which from its inception in 1969 managed to project an invincible image of cool. The Doonan windows, both here and in New York, were so memorable that Penguin Books asked him to compile his photographs of them into a book. It was to be a coffee table-worthy retrospective of dummies wearing bloated happy-face heads, alligators crawling out of toilets and a phantasmagoric Octopus Barbie, all in the presence and the service of fabulous clothes. The editors were so taken with an early draft of his introduction that they realized Simon had a story to tell, and the book became this year's "Confessions of a Window Dresser: Tales From a Life in Fashion (Penguin Studio)," an irreverent memoir chronicling Doonan's adventures in front of and behind glass.

"They saw that it wasn't just about windows," Doonan says. "It was about this gay Irish half-wit who grew up in a gritty, black-and-white social-realist movie surrounded by insane relatives who, miraculously, found his metier."

Although hyperbole and self-deprecatory humor are part of Doonan's charm, he is more like a wit and a half. His take on fashion is so perspicacious that he has become a sought-after pundit. If proof of his celebrity were needed, the Absolut ad created in his honor would suffice: "Absolut Doonan" features an assemblage of dummy heads and body parts in the shape of a vodka bottle.

"People call me for quotes, and it's flattering that they're interested in my opinion about things," he says. "Fashion needs handles, interpretation and explanation. You need to have someone say, 'It's all front and no back.' And people will hear that and say, 'Right. That's exactly what it is.' I think I have a sound-bitey mind. Even if I can't think of anything to say, I can always think of something to say."

William Norwich, editor at large of House & Garden and an arbiter of style himself, says, "Simon gets the joke. He understands the comedy of fashion, and in a funny sort of way, he's made some clothes that could be considered arty more accessible to people."

Stumbled Into

Window Dressing

After studying art history and psychology at Manchester University and contemplating suicide at a succession of dreary jobs in Reading, the dreary English town of his birth, he stumbled into window dressing while working at the local department store. He moved to London in 1973, where he "schlepped, szhooshed and whomped up" displays in windows from Savile Row to Regent Street. By the late '70s, punk reigned, and Doonan embraced it for the first window he did for Nutters, an avant garde shop freethinking enough to feature tuxedos sitting amid trash cans with taxidermied rats sporting diamond chokers scampering over them.

Tommy Perse, who traveled from L.A. to London on buying trips for his Maxfield's store, admired the psyche that could employ bejeweled rodents.

"My newly developed penchant for infantile, offensive window displays meshed with Tommy's subversive aesthetic," Doonan writes. Perse offered him a job, sponsored his green card, so at 26, Simon settled in Los Angeles.

"I was just so blown away by the way L.A. looked," Doonan remembers. "In 1978 it had a rattiness to it that was incredible--telephone poles everywhere and train tracks going down the middle of Santa Monica Boulevard. It was good ratty. There was something so grim about London, and L.A. was the antithesis of that. I lived above Dukes, the coffee shop at the Tropicana Motel, where all the punk bands used to stay. And I had a car! I thought, 'God, I actually have a life.' "

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