Simon Doonan is many things to many people—himself included.
Take, for example, his official bio: “writer, bon-vivant, media personality, famous window dresser, creative ambassador for Barneys New York.”
As for how the world at large regards him:
“Iconoclastic, irreverent, humorous and startling.” (Urban Agenda Magazine)
“A legend in the fashion world.” (The Denver Post)
“The diminutive doyenne of display.” (WWD)
“Unbearably efficient”; “trenchant cultural critic”; “Shrimp.” (Jonathan Adler, Doonan’s husband)
“Narcissist.” (Doonan, who notes, “My narcissism wears Spanx. I can control and contain it.”)
Which is the most apt description? Which is real in an industry often characterized by facade, by illusion, a show carefully choreographed by men and women behind curtains?
As with most of us, perhaps the answers can be found in the past.
Often described as “Dickensian,” Doonan’s childhood resembles what might be found littered about the ground in the wake of a brawl between Wes Anderson and Tim Burton. Growing up in Reading outside London, Doonan lived in a two-bedroom apartment sans kitchen or bathroom, alongside a lobotomized grandmother, a schizophrenic uncle and a blind aunt. Doonan’s parents, both runaways, met in a Royal Air Force soup kitchen after World War II. His father brewed wine from rose petals and potato peels. His mom, a health fanatic, burned through two packs of cigarettes a day. When his parents went to work, they dropped Doonan and his sister off for day care … at an orphanage.
His obsession with fashion—which he has described as “a lifelong antidepressant”—began at age 6, when his mom took him to the circus. He became transfixed by a girl riding an elephant: “She was wearing this lemon yellow chiffon outfit with a huge feather headdress and spangly tights with big silver boots.” In Elle, he has said that his favorite childhood memory is “Watching my mum get all gussied up and transform herself from Irish peasant into Lana Turner. That’s the magic of style.”
He grew up glamour-struck in the “graphic madness” of the ’60s futurist aesthetic, obsessed with escaping Reading. “The world of fashion shimmered on the horizon and I was determined to reach out and touch it,” he writes in his memoir The Asylum.
At 11, Doonan failed a standardized test meant to help one determine what exactly they were going to do with their life, and thus he went to a technical school while his friends happily ventured on to greener pastures. He eventually rose above his predetermined path and battled his way to Manchester University to study psychology and art history.
“It was good for me to fail,” he told The Days of Yore. “I learned that nothing is that big a fucking deal, you just learn to figure it out. … [Failing] made me take responsibility for myself. Most people don’t get around to that until much later on.”
Moreover, “I came from the perspective of thinking I would never conquer anything and then I was thrilled to conquer a few little things. Everything is a delightful surprise. Like I was just on Conan the other night, and Jack Black was the other guest, and this is national television. I thought, this is so beyond! This is so fab!”
Around 16, Doonan became fixated on buying clothes—but he needed money. So he took a job in a cork factory. After college, he had no plan for what was next—so he took on a random array of jobs, like the gig he had demolishing public toilets with a sledgehammer.
What happened next is perhaps less Dickens and more Horatio Alger.
After moving to London with a friend, Doonan got a job selling clothes near Savile Row. He met people who specialized in window display—a craft that intrigued Doonan, who was growing bored hawking items in-store all day. He began doing freelance window displays for the likes of Shirley Russell and the hip tailor Tommy Nutter. One of those proved to be a seminal turning point: a display featuring posh suits … and garbage cans and taxidermied rats wearing bejeweled collars. Tommy Perse, founder of the iconic Maxfield boutique in the U.S., happened upon the scene—and offered 25-year-old Doonan a job in L.A. Without knowing where L.A. was, Doonan went.
Eight years of brilliance (and a bit of controversy) passed. Doonan then ventured to New York City, and did a stint working on the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute’s Costumes of Royal India exhibit. At the opening reception in 1985, he met the owner of Barneys, Gene Pressman—who knew his displays. He offered Doonan the job of elevating his store’s windows to a destination.
And with that, New York’s streets—and the role, perception and art of window displays at large—would change forever. He made 7th Avenue and 17th his own. And he liked the job so much that he continued doing it until 2010, when he stepped back to take on the role of Creative Ambassador-at-Large at Barneys. The years of stunning creative output in between proved delightful, fruitful and wildly brilliant. Week after week, each new set of displays was conceptual; surreal; hilarious; thought-provoking; often filled with allusion to celebrity or scandal. And as Doonan wrote in WWD, “Everything was made out of something else. During my time at Barneys I have made wallpaper out of Twinings English Breakfast tea-bag wrappers (40,000 of them), light fixtures out of Amex Cards, Christmas trees out of 700 Eva Gabor wigs and furniture out of 300 pounds of Colavita pasta. I’ve made holiday wreaths out of millions of copper pot scrubbers. I’ve crushed up CDs and made them into jumbo glitter, I’ve turned 100 Barbie dolls into high-kicking Rockettes.”
Later, as he worked on the introduction to a book of his window displays, a funny thing happened: He accidentally became a writer. His editor thought the intro was hilarious, and encouraged him to write more. Confessions of a Window Dresser was born. He got a column in the New York Observer. More books followed, as did a column in Slate. (And one thanks that editor, as Doonan’s prose is indeed hilarious. Consider this passage from a Slate column written during the most recent presidential election: “Rand Paul sounds like the name of a horny Beverly Hills hairdresser from the 1970s. And, come to think of it, his hair looks just like the hair of a horny Beverly Hills hairdresser from the 1970s. That boyish arrangement of moist curls—Betty Grable’s poodle fringe meets Caligula—raises a million questions.”)
His turn to writing, while perhaps initially surprising, is not at all surprising upon reflection. Doonan has said that doing a weekly column is akin to doing a weekly window display. The challenges are cross-disciplinary. And moreover, his style is, too. “I didn’t go to writing school so I didn’t have anyone telling me I should strip everything back to blank minimalism. In a window, if you want it to be more interesting, you can make it more dense,” he told The Days of Yore. “That’s what makes a good holiday window. I think the same applies to writing. With stripped-down prose, sometimes less is less.”
Alongside his writing career, he’s also become a bit of a TV guest-spot star, appearing on VH1’s I Love The… series, America’s Next Top Model, Fashion Hunters, Iron Chef, Gossip Girl. The BBC even produced a series, Beautiful People, based on his memoir.
Doonan’s collective pursuits and identities aside, in seeking to understand who a person is, there’s merit in exploring who they are not:
He has said that people want him to be “a disdainful, haughty person,” and approach him for commentary about what’s awful in fashion today. He doesn’t take part. (“To me, there’s nothing more off-putting than a disdainful queen.”)
His professed narcissism doesn’t make him immune to self-deprecating barbs; when asked to decorate the Obamas’ White House at Christmas, he dubbed himself the “First Elf.” (Doonan stands around 5’4”.)
When set up for a first date, Jonathan Adler thought he “was getting a fancy shmancy gay. … He is about 87 more times bohemian than I am.”
When Adler and Doonan decided to get married in 2008, some might have expected a massive formal affair; instead, it was a low-key, casual, laissez-faire affair with a couple family members. (After all, Doonan’s parents never marked occasions; they got so drunk at a pub after their wedding that they lost their marriage certificate and couldn’t remember exactly when they got hitched.)
Some might think Doonan, with his loud floral shirts that sometimes seem to resemble color-blindness tests, fancies himself a king of style. (“I have always looked like a wanker.”)
Or that his past would have destroyed him. (“I’m a fun-loving creative dude because of my backstory.”)
Doonan is, indeed, many things to many people. So which element of his character is most authentic? In an industry where what you see is never seemingly what you actually get, for Doonan, the opposite is true.
Or perhaps we’re just overanalyzing it all.
“I never understood why anybody would want to be an artist when they could be a window dresser,” he told Variety. “If you’re an artist, you’re stuck in some gallery somewhere. When you’re a window dresser, you’re on the street. It’s democratic. Everyone gets to see what you do. Dogs, children, homeless people.
“I’m ultimately more of a carnie.”
Design Matters Media, Editor-in-Chief
Debbie Millman: Simon Doonan is a true polymath. He's written seven books, including one that has been produced for TV by the BBC. He's been a guest star on "America's Top Model." He used to impersonate Queen Elizabeth in public appearances. He has appeared more than once on "The Moth."
For decades, he designed the windows for Barneys, where his title is Creative Ambassador at Large. He's here today to talk with me about his multifaceted career and how he manages to do so much so well. Simon Doonan, welcome to "Design Matters."
Simon Doonan: Thank you for having me.
Debbie: Simon, you've said that you have no recollection of your 21st birthday or what you did last Christmas, but, as long as you live, you will never forget how, when you were six years old, your mother sneezed.
Her dentures fell out of her mouth, hit the kitchen floor with a sharp clack, rattled sideways across the linoleum floor, while your mother, in her tight skirt and white stilettos, chased them down. Would you say this epitomizes your childhood?
Simon: In a way, it does. I think the point that I was trying to make when I wrote that anecdote was that, for me, I remember the jarring things more clearly than I do the pleasant things. The day at the beach, which was perfect, I don't really remember it very clearly.
When things go horribly wrong, or when they're very jarring, or dissonant, or theatrical, or melodramatic, those are the things that I remember most clearly. That's not necessarily a nice thing. That's just the way it works in my head.
Debbie: She was in her 30s when she had all of her teeth pulled to get her dentures. Why did she do that?
Simon: Back then, after the war, postwar England, it was very squalid and deprived. The 1950s, after the war, was not an abundant time. I think a lot of the reparation money was going to Germany, to countries in Europe. In England, we still had rationing.
My recollection is that most adults over the age of 25 had dentures. There were dentures everywhere, soaking in glasses everywhere. We lived in a two‑room flat with no kitchen and bathroom. My parents had cardboard in their shoes. I'm not complaining. I'm just saying I've seen things go from that grim, postwar thing...I think that's why the '60s was such a sharp contrast.
I was actually interviewing Paul Smith the other day. I said to him, "Why do you think the '60s had that look, the Carnaby Street thing? Why did that happen?" He said, "Well, after the war, everybody was very threadbare." The Mod kids, it was a way to rebel, was to wear these very persnickety, tidy...
If you look at those early pictures of David Bowie when he was a Mod, it's just so neat because everything seemed so threadbare and chaotic.
Debbie: You were born in what you've referred to as a grotty, gritty postwar industrial town called Reading, which is just outside of London, the same year that Queen Elizabeth II ascended the throne. As you've mentioned, you lived on the top floor of a dilapidated rooming house in a two‑room flat.
Your father made furniture out of orange crates, I believe. You've said that poverty is vastly underrated. Why is that?
Simon: My parents always looked upon that time, when we lived in that little garret, as...They always said, "Oh, that was a really happy time. We were very happy then." They both fought in the Second World War. They were happy just to have a pack of cigarettes and some boiled potatoes and just to be free at the end of the war.
Not having anything is a little bit easier than wanting loads and loads of things. There was something very elemental about that level of just not having a lot of stuff.
Debbie: You've stated that your mom kind of looked like Bette Davis, with the upswept rolled hair and the overpainted lips. She always wore a long‑line girdle, even though she was really skinny, and she smoked. You've referred to her as a very film noir chick.
Both your mother and father worked for the BBC. Your mom was a clerk in the news department and your father monitored foreign broadcasts. While your parents both worked, they placed you and your sister, Sheila, in an orphanage. I believe it was a real Dickensian, "Lord of the Flies" type orphanage. [laughs] Why did they do that?
Simon: My dad was actually unemployed for the first three, four years of our childhood. He looked after us. He couldn't get a job because he hadn't been to college. He'd left school at 15. He was trying to learn Latin and my mum went out and worked every day. She was 10 years older than him, smart.
Debbie: That's pretty progressive ‑‑ 10 years older than her husband.
Simon: People didn't think about stuff...They met in a soup kitchen at the end of the war and they got married two months later. I think it was like they'd both run away from home. It was a very unconventional, free kind of time, but he didn't work. Then, somehow, he talked his way into this job in the BBC where he was monitoring propaganda from Radio Moscow.
He presented very well, my dad, even though he had left school at 15, 16. He got this job and they had to figure out what to do about childcare. There was this local orphanage where they dropped us off every day. I'm laughing, but it was very grim and my sister and I still talk about it, how horrifying it was because these are war orphans and kids with Down syndrome.
Debbie: Porridge and just awful things.
Simon: A lot of them were very angry kids.
Debbie: I'm sorry.
Simon: Yeah, but I think these things are very character‑building. You learn early on that life is hard. My sister and I still talk about it. She still gets a bit teary. I guess, being a guy, I don't react that way. Is that sexist? I didn't mean it to be. [laughs]
Debbie: I didn't take it that way. As you were growing up you worried that you were doomed to a life of deranged misery and imagined that your future would be a grim montage of hallucinations, electric shock treatments, and nicotine. This was furthered when you failed the entry exam to get into grammar school.
Why were you so worried about this and what did you do after you failed the entry exam to grammar school?
Simon: As I got older, I started to see the circumstances around me were quite grim. We eventually moved out of the two‑room flat into a house with my grandmother.
Simon: [laughs] My grandmother Narg, who'd had a lobotomy, and my paranoid schizophrenic uncle. I thought, "Oh, God. Is that all there is?" What saved me, I think, was discovering fashion and style.
I looked at my mom and she would get up every day and we wouldn't see her for an hour or two. She'd get herself all done up. I never saw her without makeup, hair done, outfit pulled together because she had this vanity that was a very life‑affirming kind of vanity. It was like, every day she had to go out, work a couple of jobs, come home, cook food for the lodgers.
She worked her ass off, but she always looked good. She always pulled her look together. She could have become very downtrodden and depressed‑looking, but she didn't. She resisted it. She always fixed herself up. That kind of vanity is a very life‑affirming force and I think about it.
Debbie: As you got older, you stated that you were excessively focused on obtaining freedom, which comes with having a bit of extra cash in your pocket, and you were prepared to do whatever it took to get it.
At that time, you were washing dishes at the Mars bar factory canteen. You were working at a local cork and bottle top factory. You thought at one point you might get a job at the Huntley & Palmers biscuit factory, where you would work until you fell into some heavy machinery, went mad, or both. What were you thinking that you might want to do with your life at that point?
Simon: It was more about what didn't I want to do with my life. I was becoming increasingly focused on the idea of style, and celebrities, and fashion. The '60s were happening and the Beatles. These people seemed to be having fun, and looking good, and it seemed to be the antithesis of what I was seeing in front of me, which was a fairly dismal postwar scenario.
I did fail the 11‑plus. That meant that when I went to secondary modern school and then at the age of 16 we were all kicked out into the world. That summer, my mother got me a job at the bottle top factory. I worked there for the summer and I thought, "I have to get my ass in gear."
It was actually very motivating to me to be in these dismal circumstances and I motivated myself.
Debbie: You could have gone the other way, given within what you were growing up with.
Simon: Yeah, I think being gay was a big advantage, which sounds weird because, back then, being gay was illegal. Homosexuality was only legalized in 1967. It was like you were really a marginal person if you were gay. My dad used to say to me, "Oh, gay people, they get arrested, blackmailed, put in institutions." I just thought oh yeah, but I'm one of them blah, blah, blah, too.
Debbie: Did he know that at that time?
Simon: Probably. I'm guessing, but none of that was talked about. It made me very self‑motivating. I felt I have to get to college and then I can, and then I can, and then I can, so I became quite driven at a young age.
I went to Manchester University and purely bootstrapping it myself. I couldn't understand why the other kids at the grammar school were not paying attention. How are you going to pass your A Levels and go to college? You could be stuck in this town forever if you...I was very goal‑oriented simply because of having been to the bottle top factory.
Debbie: Before you got to Manchester, you had a bit of an epiphany while crawling around the floor of your parents' bedroom in search of your missing cat. You happened upon what you refer to as the very meaning of life, or so you thought at the time. Can you tell us what you found?
Simon: Yes, I found a copy of "Nova Magazine." Actually, my mother subscribed to Nova Magazine. Nova Magazine was a progressive, groovy, switched‑on fashion magazine that had articles by Kenneth Tynan and Harold Pinter and great fashion editorials that were very fashion‑forward and avant‑garde.
We're talking 1967, '68. Here was this other world that was half an hour away by train where these people were leading these glamorous, trendy, fabulous lives. Being trendy, to me, seemed like the antithesis of being dismal and locked up in a lunatic asylum or working in a bottle top factory.
I was looking for this alternative universe that was all pristine, and [French] , and [French], and fun, and glamorous. I thought, "Those people are happy."
Debbie: You went to Manchester after that, but you studied psychology and art history. Why not fashion or something a bit more creative?
Simon: It never occurred to me. Back then, going to art college, which I considered was considered beneath going to university. If you could get into university, you went. It was purely, "Oh, if you can get into Manchester University, go because it's good."
Debbie: After college, you worked at a department store in a town called John Lewis with a friend who looked like Ziggy Stardust. Was that James Biddlecombe?
Simon: Actually, I went home after college and actually got a job in demolition because it paid more money. I did that for a while and it was just horrible. We were demolishing public toilets. It was one of the most grossest jobs.
Debbie: Wow. With a sledgehammer? You were pounding things and breaking things?
Simon: Yeah. One day I remember thinking, "This is just not moi. I don't mind if I take a pay cut. I'm going to work in the local hokey little department store." There was a John Lewis store in Reading, so I got a job at John Lewis in the department store. My best friend, who I'm still in touch with, he went on to become a big drag performer in London and then now he's a cabaret performer.
Debbie: That is James. James Biddlecombe?
Simon: Yeah, his name's James Biddlecombe. Everyone knew him as Biddy. He became quite well‑known in the '70s, '80s and he still performs. He and I actually went to Butlins, which is an extraordinary experience that not many people seems to have had unless they're very working‑class.
It was what working‑class people, if they were going on holiday, they would go to Butlins. There were these weird Butlins holiday camps.
Debbie: What did you do in Butlins? Sounds kind of dirty.
Simon: I guess the only equivalent thing would be those washed out places like the Neverlea. They would have plastic parrots and plastic flowers hanging from the ceiling over the swimming pool.
I think that's where I got interested in display. It was extremely tacky, lowbrow, kitsch, not ironically. That's where I think I got interested in display, was going to Butlins with Biddy. Anyway, flash‑forward, early '70s.
We're both working in this department store. We just basically got on the train and went to live in London and lived in a squalid bedsit, which is like a studio apartment minus any amenities. It's basically a room. We just had a great time.
Back then, we didn't worry about our careers so much. We were worried about if we could get in this place or that place, or who we knew, or what clothes we could buy. It had tremendous emphasis on exhibitionistic fun. Glam rock was the big thing back then. It was sort of after the hippy thing came the glam rock thing with Bowie, and Marc Bolan, and Roxy Music.
We were very into that ‑‑ getting done up, and going out, and raging on the town. Tremendous emphasis on social life and not thinking much about career. Then, bit by bit, I got interested in the window displays. I got to know the guys who change the window. They introduced me to other people and that's how I got into window display.
It was like, "Being a salesperson is fine. Anybody can do it really, if you've got an interest in fashion," but the window display thing was a little more interesting, there was more to do, I liked being busy. Bit by bit, I began getting sucked into the wonderful world of window display.
Debbie: Is it true that you started doing window dressing just by going into stores and asking who does your windows?
Simon: My first window job was at Aquascutum, which was like Burberry. It was a heritage company, very sort of frumpy, conservative and that's where aristocratic people bought their raincoats. The Queen would wear Aquascutum twinset sweater set and a tweed skirt when she was off walking the corgis in the heather.
I worked at an Aquascutum and it was interesting. I learned a lot, especially about men's display, putting suits on bust forms, carding shirts. There's a lot of technical stuff with men's display in particular. I wasn't designing the windows. I was what was called a trimmer.
After that, I went to work at Turnbull & Asser, which was a very heritage‑oriented company. I used to do the windows, but I was also the shirt delivery person. I used to deliver shirts to hotels for rich clients. By then, I started doing freelance jobs.
I would be walking down the street and I'd see a little boutique, the way you would in Brooklyn or the East Village. You see a small shop and I would just go in and say, "Yo, who does your window? I'll do it for five pounds," or something like that. I built up this little repertoire of window freelance jobs, in addition to my main income from Turnbull & Asser.
I had a couple of really great freelance jobs. A lot of them were very lower‑level dress shops in shopping malls. Then I had these two great ones. One was Tommy Nutter, who is the first trendy tailor on Savile Row. He's the one who designed Mick Jagger's wedding suit when Mick Jagger got married to Bianca Jagger.
Debbie: Bianca, yeah.
Simon: She was wearing a white Saint Laurent suit with a big hat. The famous pictures of them online. Still, people look at those pictures and say, "God! They look great."
Debbie: The most glamorous couple of all time.
Simon: So glamorous. Tommy Nutter made Mick's suit. All these rock stars and people used to come into Tommy Nutter's. I would change the window there. The other one was Shirley Russell, who was the wife of Ken Russell.
Ken, back then, was an extremely important filmmaker, influential filmmaker who made "Women in Love," "The Devils," "The Boy Friend," a great number of films. They were all sumptuous and beautiful films with amazing costumes and incredible visuals. A lot of that came from Shirley Russell, his wife.
She had this store on Portobello Road that would sell vintage clothes that they've used in the films. They would rent things. It was a high‑end vintage shop called The Last Picture Frock. I used to do their windows. That was really fun because the clientele were these super‑groovy rock chicks, who would come in and buy a vintage Poiret dress.
Then, from the Savile Row freelance job, I was in there one day and this guy came in. He said, "Oh, did you do the window?" I said, "Yes." He said, "It's really cool. It's so great." He was American. The window was actually these tuxedos with stuffed rats.
Debbie: The trash cans.
Simon: Real stuffed rats with little wing collars and trash cans. It was like the idea of trash and rats, but with these super‑swanky tuxedos with these stuffed rats and little wing collars like on "Downton Abbey" on the rats. He said, "That's a really twisted window. You should come work for me."
I went home to Biddy, my roommate. He was getting ready to go do his drag act. I said, "Oh, some guy offered me a job in LA." He said, "Where's that?" I said, "I don't know." That gives you some window into how feral I was and how feral my roommate was.
We just vaguely knew, because in those days, if somebody flew to LA, they didn't come back. If somebody flew to Australia, you didn't see them again. It wasn't like now, fly here, fly there. It was a really long way away.
Anyway, I thought, "God! Maybe I should go." I just packed a bag and went to live in LA when I was 25, on my own, with a promise of this job. I got there. It was just a tiny, little store with these two little windows.
Debbie: That was Maxfield's?
Simon: That was Maxfield.
Debbie: Was it Tommy Perse who actually came and found you at your store in London?
Simon: Yeah. Tommy Perse is one of the most creative retailers in America. He's a real visionary. He was in LA. He had this little storefront near the Troubadour. He brought in the most interesting designer clothes. He had this great clientele and this funny, quirky little shop.
He's a real retail visionary who should be celebrated for that. The first person to bring in Japanese designers, AlaÔa, Armani. He brought all that stuff to the West Coast. He had the most incredible clientele. It was everybody from Cher to...
Debbie: Cher, Fleetwood Mac.
Simon: ...Fleetwood Mac.
Debbie: Natalie Wood.
Simon: Natalie Wood, I remember her coming in.
Debbie: You also had a T‑shirt business at this point in your life, which you now say had a huge role in all aspects of your personal growth.
Simon: My mother always had lots of jobs, two or three jobs. She'd have a Saturday job. On Saturday, she'd go work at the local newspaper. She'd sit by the phone, writing down the soccer scores. They were all called in as they happened.
I was like that same mentality. Every day, I had a different job. Myself and a friend, Jackie Terrell, she started this T‑shirt business and then I helped her with it. Then we did more, more, more and it grew. She went off to work with one of the people we were selling T‑shirts to.
Then this other girl, Beverly Klein, who has a great clothing line in LA, she and I carried on silk‑screening, hand‑painting, making dresses out of T‑shirts. We'd buy T‑shirts in Chinatown and paint them and embellish them. We're talking early '80s, embellished T‑shirts. I learned how to silk‑screen, and hand‑paint, and which inks to use, and how to wholesale.
I always say I learned a lot of practical experience because of...We were so excited to get our first order from Judy's, a chain store in LA. We shipped it off. Then we were wondering, "When are those people going to pay us? This isn't fair. "
I finally plucked up the courage to call. I said, "You haven't paid us." They said, "Are you the people that didn't send an invoice or any return address?"
Simon: You learn a lot of practical experience having a T‑shirt business, how to make drying racks out of clothespins and elastic.
Debbie: You said that you don't know why people bothered to go to fancy colleges. Everything you need to know about life and work could be learned through the operation of a T‑shirt business.
Simon: Yeah. That is 100 percent true. I think of the practical stuff that I learned ‑‑ how to get things done in the right order, how to get things done quickly, anticipating problems ‑‑ all the things that serve you really well in life, I learned having that T‑shirt business. I think it set me up well for my job at Barneys.
Debbie: You stayed at Maxfield for eight years. What made you decide to move to New York City?
Simon: I would probably still be there. I stay at places a really long time. I'm inert once I get comfortable. I love Maxfield, but a friend of mine said, "Let's go to New York and volunteer at the Costume Institute because, every year, Diana Vreeland has these big Costume Institute shows at the Met."
I said, "Yeah, I've been to the exhibits, but I never thought about working on them, but I'm not volunteering. Hello? I'm a professional display person. I would take a job. I'm not volunteering. Hello."
I should say, at this point, it was the middle of the AIDS epidemic, just really getting going. A lot of our friends were dying. It was a really grim time that is hard to describe to people who weren't there. It was horrible. Just imagine...
Debbie: I lived in New York City in Manhattan during the '80s. It was horrendous.
Simon: All of a sudden, all of your friends are dying. It's terrible. We went to New York. I talked my way into a job at the Costume Institute with Diana Vreeland, working on an exhibit called "Costumes of Royal India" in 1985 and, for four months, worked at the Met.
She wasn't there a lot. She came in, watched what we were doing at the exhibit. She would make hilarious comments on the way the mannequins were being positioned.
Debbie: Like what? Give us one little tidbit of Diana Vreeland.
Simon: I remember she was looking at the...My job on Costumes of Royal India was display designer. I had to figure out what mannequins were going where, which their own positions would be, try and create vignettes and tableaus with these endless arrays of mannequins all wearing bejeweled saris, turbans.
Diana Vreeland would come whooshing into the room. She would say, "They look like they're waiting in line at the A&P," something like that. You'd think, "Oh, God! Is that a good thing or a bad thing?"
Simon: She kept making all the painters repaint the walls of the exhibit. I remember they kept repainting the gift shop, which she wanted painted gray. All the rooms were painted these vibrant Indian colors ‑‑ magenta, cobalt blue, blah, blah, blah. The gift shop was going to be gray. They couldn't get it right. She'd go in and say, "Not that gray. I want the gray of Quakers."
Simon: Made me think, "Hmm," because she didn't use Pantone Chips. She was a very inspirational figure. You've got to remember, this is a woman that Irving Penn, Avedon, Brodovitch, Veruschka, Twiggy, she discovered, made, created the eye, the fashion vision, what things should look like in those Harper's Bazaar and Vogue, when she was the editor there, with incredible bravado and panache.
She was an unconventional person, an unconventional thinker, who worked in a conventional place. She was in the Met, in a museum. She was this very unconventional visionary. That was a thrill to be around her.
Debbie: How did you get your job at Barneys?
Simon: At the opening party. They did have an opening gala back then, but it was a small dinner. There were socialites and people like Paloma Picasso or Pat Buckley, whoever the socialites were back then. We're talking mid‑'80s.
Then there would be this disco afterwards on the Temple of Dendur that the hoi polloi could buy a ticket to. I didn't go to the dinner. Just this very chi chi group of people went. I thought, "I'm going to splurge and spend $100 on a ticket for the after‑party." People didn't call it that then.
I went with Susanne Bartsch ‑‑ I remember, she was my date ‑‑ and John Badham, who was a fantastic fashion personality who created that line, "Go Silk." They were my dates. We had a great time. John introduced me to Gene Pressman, who was one of the owners of Barneys. He said, "Oh, I know your windows. You do those unconventional crazy windows at Maxfield," because that was my reputation.
I had done these rule‑breaking, unconventional, punky, edgy...That was my thing. There was enough people doing conventional, glamorous, stylish windows. I wanted to do crazy things that hadn't been done in window displays before.
That's how I got my job. He said, "Come work for me." I came beginning of 1986 and started working at Barneys. It was an all‑consuming job. The store was just about to expand, opening a big new women's store on 17th Street.
It became my life. I'm still involved 32 years later, however many years it is. It's been a very, very interesting growth experience for me. It was like a family experience. It was everything, really, because I was always involved in the windows.
Over time, I got more responsibilities ‑‑ advertising, publicity, store design. I worked on other areas in the company and always enjoyed it, even when it was very challenging. It seemed very interesting. I was always learning. There was always something new. I didn't have a safety net. I had to make a living.
I would say my main interests in life were being financially solvent. I'd put that at number one. Number two is being creatively stimulated. Barneys checked both boxes. Barneys has always been a creatively fascinating, interesting company. I had 20 minutes to kill before I came to meet you.
I just went in the store and walked around the handbag area. I just want to see what's new, look who's doing what colors. It's been never not interesting to me.
Debbie: I'll never forget my first experience of your window, Simon. It was the late 1980s. Barneys was in the flagship on 7th Avenue between 16th and 17th Street. I was living in a fourth floor tenement walk‑up on 16th Street between 8th and 9th Avenue. I would go to Barneys every Sunday to window shop and fantasize. I couldn't afford anything in the store. I was really into Isaac Mizrahi.
One of the most memorable experiences I had ‑‑ I really have to tell you that I think that this was life‑changing for me ‑‑ was when you did all the Christmas windows as the swanky bathrooms with the seven swans and filled bathtubs full of products and vanities full of makeup. I never considered that life could be that glamorous.
It changed my aesthetic immediately. I suddenly needed to have at least one or two beautiful things around me. It's always been that way ever since.
Simon: I remember those windows vividly. What I did was I had a friend in London who used to do these loose, sloppy paintings of Biedermeier patterns from ‑‑ I don't know whenever that is ‑‑ early 19th century. His name was Mick Heard. He painted all those backgrounds. We made giant swans out of papier‑m‚chÈ.
Debbie: I had never seen so much product before.
Simon: I'll always love the idea that Barneys was this high‑end, glamorous store where you could buy Hermes, or Jil Sander, or Prada, but the windows were going to be hokey, crafty, a bit of Coney Island, a lot of papier‑m‚chÈ, a lot of found objects, a lot of repurposed things.
It wasn't like, "Oh. Well, this is a swanky expensive store. The windows have to be swanky." If anything, I pushed them in the other direction where the windows should be crafty, more like a side show in a carny, kind of hokey. Then there was this luxurious product in these and luxurious...
Debbie: There is a wit to everything that you've done. There's always been a sense of cheek.
Simon: One of things I learned from Diana Vreeland was that it wasn't really fashion unless there was an unconventional, unexpected component. It wasn't enough that just you have a sleek gorgeous girl, in a sleek gorgeous dress, in a sleek gorgeous room, with a sleek gorgeous makeup and, and, and.
It's much more interesting to take a girl in a sleek gorgeous dress and put her in a building site, or in a fruit market, or...
Debbie: The A&P. [laughs]
Simon: ...on a pile of trash, or in the A&P. In other words, context. That's, to me, what creativity is. It's just looking at things from different angles, not doing what's expected, trying to think what other people aren't doing.
One of things that Linda Fargo at Bergdorf's, she always says to me, "You know, you invented the messy window." I think she's right. I did invent the messy window. I used to look at windows and think, "God, it's kind of a pain in the ass that windows have to be so perfect. The floor has to be freshly painted. All the signage is to be straight. You're measuring with a spirit level."
I thought, "What if it was a complete hell hole and a mess beyond anything?" I would do these windows not all the time, but occasionally, where there was just this inordinate amount of detritus, and cigarette butts, and ripped up magazines, and furniture crashing down, and chaos as opposed to what you would typically expect in a window, which is this pristine vibe.
To me, that's what I think creativity is ‑‑ looking for things that other people aren't doing, looking at things in fresh ways, taking things out of context. It's almost formulaic if you're working in advertising or display. Try things that other people aren't doing and they'll automatically have some kind of impact.
Debbie: Your first book, "Confessions of a Window Dresser," came out in 1998 and jumpstarted your career as a writer. You wrote columns for the "New York Observer" for 10 years, a column at "Slate" titled "Getting it Right." You've written six more books. You have a new book coming out in June.
One of your books has been turned into a television show on BBC. Yet you never thought or fantasized about being a writer. How did it first come about? You are such a good writer. I've been laughing out loud while reading your books over the last couple of weeks.
Simon: [laughs] It was very unexpected to me. I put together all my imagery for this book, Confessions of a Window Dresser. This wonderful guy, Nicholas Callaway, who owns Callaway Publishing...
Debbie: He did Madonna's "Sex" book?
Simon: Yes, Nicholas Callaway. He did Madonna's Sex book. He said, "Oh, you should write an introduction." I wrote it and sent it. He said, "Oh my, God. You're hilarious," and, "Write more, more, more." It became text‑driven. Then I sold the rights to Madonna. Then I got my column from the Observer, as you said.
It was unexpected to me but it was very fun and like learning a new language or something like that. I enjoyed it. It made me actually very appreciative of my retail work. I love my job at Barneys. I appreciated it. You get out of the house. You work in collaboration with other people. Writing's very solitary.
It actually had a very generalizing positive effect on my life, my involvement in writing. It's good because "Beautiful People" was originally called "Nasty." Simon & Schuster published it. They said, "This is gonna be huge. It's gonna be great."
I persuaded myself it was going to be a big book. I thought, "This is it. This is when I become the next Muriel Spark, or David Sedaris, or something." I saw my name in lights. They published it, and it was a complete flop.
It was a big dud. The "New York Times" gave it a horrible review and said I was foppish and superficial because I wrote a column about that in the Observer, talking about how great it is to be foppish and superficial. I interviewed people like Boy George and Michael Musto.
It was disappointing and painful. Those are good experiences to go through if you want to be a writer. It's not all going to be plaudits. Then one day, I got a phone call. It was this guy, Jon Plowman.
He had produced "Ab Fab," "Little Britain," all these incredible iconic British TV shows. He said, "Oh, I wanna make a TV show out of your book, Nasty, but we wanna change the title to Beautiful People." That gave that book a whole other life.
Debbie: The reason that book didn't do well was because of the cover, Simon, the dentures.
Simon: Yeah, sure.
Debbie: The story is hysterical, but the image is not beautiful. I think people got scared looking at it.
Simon: I know. To me, I thought it was just funny, but I think it freaked people out. The other reason, I think, is because a lot of people take their lives and put them out as a misery memoir, look at the sadness I endured and the trauma. They lay it all out.
I was telling these gruesome stories with panache and humor. People couldn't relate to it. They didn't know whether to feel sad or laugh. Not everybody has my exaggerated punk rock sensibility. I'd written it as a survivor humor book. Whereas if I'd written it as like...
Debbie: Woe is me.
Simon: "Finally. Here, I'm telling the story of my background and the really dark moments," and package it that way, it might've been different. It's good to go through those things. You have to learn to be resilient.
I think resilience, persistence, they're the only thing that matters, really. If you're persistent, you can get stuff done. I've never really had those Malcolm Gladwell years on the bestseller list or anything like, but I've always enjoyed writing. I just finished this book on footballers, English soccer players, European soccer players.
Debbie: Tell us the name.
Simon: In England, it's called "Saturday Night Fever Pitch," which is a reference to Nick Hornby's classic book on soccer, "Fever Pitch." Then in America, it's called "Soccer Style ‑‑ The Madness and Magic."
It's a celebration of the culture around soccer globally. What happens when a 22‑year‑old guy is making $650,000 a week? He's buying Lamborghinis, and having fun, and being crazy, and under the kind of pressure that a sports person is in.
I'm fascinated by that. It's a very visual book. Lots of tattoos, haircuts, cars. It's something I've been working on for four or five years. It comes out in time for the World Cup, June 12th.
Debbie: Very exciting. June 12. Everybody listening can pre‑order it right now.
Simon: Yes. Soccer Style ‑‑ The Madness and Magic.
Debbie: Absolutely. I have a few more questions for you. You've been in this business for 40 years now. It's a business that's highly fickle, very promiscuous. When asked about it, you said that the key to your success is that you've always approached everything with an immense sense of gratitude. I really love that. How do you maintain that?
Simon: I am grateful to anybody who's ever paid me. I had this job, before I moved to America, working for this couple called Shelley and Tony. They had these fashion stores and shopping malls around the south of England.
They were just high street dress shops. They were so sweet. I would go and I'd change the windows. They'd pay me. It was decent money. I managed to save some of it before I came to America.
I'm just hugely grateful to anybody who's been willing to pay me, even when I really didn't have a huge amount to offer. I found people were very benevolent and willing to take me on even when I didn't have proven skills. Someone like Tommy Perse taking me on for that job, he didn't really know me. He just threw up that offer, and I accepted it.
Same with Gene Pressman, offering me that incredible job at Barneys. I'm eternally grateful for that because I was quite feral. I didn't know very much. I wasn't bringing a lot to the table. They were taking a leap of faith. I've been hugely grateful to be taken seriously, given a job. Andy Warhol said ‑‑ actually, Andy Warhol didn't say it but he quoted it constantly ‑‑ "Success is a job in New York City."
Debbie: That works for me.
Simon: Yes, I know. It doesn't matter if you're working in a juice bar, or in Starbucks, or in a magazine, or whatever you're doing. You've got a foothold somewhere, somehow.
Debbie: Simon, I'm so grateful that you came on the show today. I have been a fan of yours for over 30 years. It is just such an extraordinary experience to be able to have this conversation with you.
Simon: Thank you, darling. I have one more thing to add.
Simon: As if I haven't done enough self‑promotion about my soccer book, I filmed this incredible NBC TV show, which is going to air beginning July 31 on NBC. It's called "Making It." I am a judge along with Dayna Isom Johnson. The hosts are...drum roll.
Debbie: Drum roll.
Simon: Amy Poehler and Nick Offerman are the hosts. It's a show about crafting. It's about put down your phone, make something gorgeous. An incredible competition show within a whole new format. Making It. NBC. You're going to love it.
Debbie: Of course, we are. Of course, we are. You can find out everything that Simon Doonan is up to ‑‑ what he's written about, what TV shows he's on ‑‑ by going to his website simondoonan.com.
His book, Soccer Style ‑‑ The Magic and Madness, is coming from Chronicle June 12th. His brand new show, "Making It," is coming on NBC in July. Thank you for being on Design Matters today, Simon.
Simon: Oh my God, thank you for having me. I hope it wasn't too dismal.
Debbie: It was divine, divine. This is the 14th year I've been doing Design Matters and I'd like to thank you for listening. Remember, we can talk about making a difference, we can make a difference, or we can do both. I'm Debbie Millman and I look forward to talking with you again soon.