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A wicked wit's wacky chicks

Simon Doonan's new book is about women who've taken the road less traveled.

May 30, 2003|Bettijane Levine | Times Staff Writer

Simon Doonan is drowning in famous labels, but to look at him you'd never know it: Liberty print shirt, Miu Miu suede jacket, Gucci belt, Dolce & Gabbana pants, Prada shoes. All are so gently worn, so nonchalantly haphazard in combination, that he looks just the opposite of the fans in newly minted outfits who've come to his book signing at Barneys New York in Beverly Hills.

Doonan's shabby chic is the code of the ultimate fashion aristocrat, detectable only to others in the club. And Doonan, who is the world's high priest of high-fashion window design at Barneys, is a charter member. That said, he's had more than enough of the intoxicating fizz that is fashion. At 50 he has settled into a more mature, if no less enthusiastic, approach to both clothing and life.

His new book, "Wacky Chicks," for example, is a postfeminist romp describing unusual women who've hacked out unusual lives, often in daunting circumstances -- a subject new to Doonan's repertoire.

The book is an outgrowth of his entertaining weekly fashion and lifestyle column in the New York Observer, where he often takes the imperious dictatorial tone of those 1950s fashion magazines that demanded women to "think pink" or "never go out this season without your mantilla." (Doonan worked briefly, in his youth, for the legendary fashioneuse Diana Vreeland, who was archduchess of such incongruous edicts.)

Doonan's updated version of the genre, however, is directed at both sexes. In a recent Observer column on men's raincoats, for example, he exhorted gents to choose "the pervert's impermeable ... the archetypal flasher raincoat -- a simple, single-breasted bone-colored garment that's ... the preferred style of men about town and flashers the world over."

Doonan's column also takes occasional leaps into lunatic trends on both coasts. In fact, he says during a break from signing books, many of his most outlandish scoops emanate from Los Angeles. He says he was first to publish news of the shop in Hancock Park now doing blockbuster business in a skin cream made from the foreskin of newborn boys. And to discover that certain Angelenos have taken to bleaching unmentionable body parts in their ongoing attempts at total body aesthetics.

Doonan's literary detour into the world of wacky women is as much a surprise to him as it is to those who've followed his career, which was hilariously detailed in his first book, "Confessions of a Window Dresser." It's a memoir that begins with growing up gay in Reading, England, where the men went off to work each day at the biscuit factory and where little Simon's tendencies to flit around "trailing a length of diaphanous fabric in the manner of the Ballet Russe" were deemed odd.

Doonan never intended to write a book about women until he realized he was meeting a different kind of female than he'd ever met before -- women who are not only intelligent and accomplished but also "free birds, recklessly individual, uninhibited and possessed of great humor and the ability to have great fun." Much more interesting than movie stars, he decided.

"Shouldn't we expect a bit more from our cultural icons than good looks, the ability to keep their weight down and a talent for showing up on a movie set on time?" Doonan writes.

He uses the phrase "wacky chicks" as a compliment and as the kind of sociological subspecies that Gail Sheehy was so fond of inventing in her books -- with two indispensable differences: Doonan doesn't take himself seriously, and he writes with wicked wit. Of course, he's chosen subjects about whom it's easy to be witty. Women such as Spider Fawke, who used to be a designer in Paris for Claude Montana and who is now a park ranger living in a Tarzana apartment with 44 pet reptiles. Many of Doonan's other subjects are also from Los Angeles, among them:

Janet Charlton

Charlton, the Star tabloid's Hollywood gossip queen, takes her mongering so seriously that she wears disguises to get in where she's not wanted so she can overhear what she's not meant to know. A strong proponent of checkbook journalism, Charlton says she's "delighted to pay" those who dash up to her in malls or phone her home office with juicy tidbits, tales she says they'd never tell unless there was a cash incentive. "You get what you pay for," she says.

Charlton, who won't reveal her age, has good bones, distinctive chrome-color hair and a fashion model's physique -- but when she's "under cover" you'd never know it. She says she knew at age 10 that she wanted to stay single and become successful all on her own. She achieved a good part of her goal five years ago when she was able to buy an exquisitely proportioned 1961 Hancock Park house, originally built for a real estate agent who gave huge parties. "It's very Austin Powers, isn't it?" she asks as she glides through the glass-walled, high-ceilinged 4,300-square-foot house, which she maintains in meticulously authentic 1960s style, right down to the landscape design and dinner dishes.

Pearl Harbour

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