Simon Doonan: New York's favourite gay man

Simon Doonan's caustic social commentary has made him the city's favourite gay man. Not bad for a window dresser from Reading

Since discovering his second vocation a decade ago, at 49, Simon Doonan has become a fixture on the New York scene. His books of wry, bitchy social observation are bestsellers. He writes a column for Slate.com. He delivers caustic one-liners on sheeny TV shows like Gossip Girl and America's Next Top Model. Madonna is a fan. So is Joan Rivers. And Malcolm Gladwell, the wiggy genius author of The Tipping Point. Simon has a day job at Barneys New York, the ritzy department store, of which more later. Run his name on Google Images and you'll find snaps of him sharing jokes with the cream of Manhattan's exhibitionists, in a seemingly inexhaustible succession of explosive floral chemises. Not bad, on the whole, for a British window dresser from Reading.

It's amazing but true. The petite (5ft 4ins) pontifical, ubiquitous, party-haunting Doonan, who once topped a Time Out list of "the gayest people in New York City," is a chap from Berkshire, whose father worked for the BBC, monitoring Radio Moscow through the Cold War, and who talks with a nostalgic sigh about Radio 4, Marc Bolan and gay high jinks with Mancunian taxi drivers circa 1972.

This double identity gives his new book, Gay Men Don't Get Fat, a fascinating tone: a camp and twittery New York monologue, full of the dropped names of Greenwich Village scenesters, interspersed by frightfully English references to the Wolfenden Report, the gay polare of Round the Horne, elderly synonyms for "homosexual" (poofter, queer, mo) and phrases such as "I waited for her to bugger off" that you'd never hear on an echt Manhattanite's lips. His literary predecessor is an Anglo-Irishman who died 112 years ago and prompts reflections such as: "There was a time when we gays lived in the shadows. We were, to quote Oscar Wilde's boyfriend, 'the love that dare not speak its name'. Now times have changed and we are no longer the love that dare not speak its name; rather we are the love that won't shut the fuck up."

The book's 18 essays cover many aspects of the gay world (fag hags, liposuction, "bears") and gay aspects of the world that you hadn't realised were gay. Like food. According to Doonan, there aren't four food groups, as popularly supposed: just gay food and straight food. Slabs of wild boar are straight. Fillets of sole meunière are gay. Mexican burritos are straight as Tarzan, while sushi is the gayest food on earth. And, he points out, the gayest dishes are invariably prepared by the toughest heteros. "Scratch a butch chef and you'll find a bitch," says Doonan in his typically swishy way.

By now you'll have a sense of the book's USP, which is to describe the world in ridiculous generalisations, then make the reader laugh by backing them up. Wasn't it too outrageous, I asked, to suggest that environmentalist culture is essentially lesbian? "As far as I'm concerned, they invented it," said Doonan. "The organic food movement started with all those oatmeal dykes in San Francisco in the early 1970s, those community tables where you share lumps of crusty bread – all that hearty Sapphic stuff produced a new sensibility about food, about how honest and organic the ingredients should be. To me it's so screechingly obvious."

A constant theme in Doonan's writing is that gay people lead better, healthier, more dramatic, honest and emotionally fulfilling lives. At a (straight) barbecue party, he examines the hetero guests with an anthropologist's eye. He clocks "the backslapping, the goofy badinage," the men's sunburnt flesh, their dull conversation ("Nobody Gagas, or Ke$has or Beyoncés or slags anyone off. And nobody shares a beauty tip.") their Bahama shirts and surfer shorts, their feeding frenzy at the chips'n'guacamole table. Meeting a bitchy Frenchwoman, Doonan realises they have much in common – about accessories, taste, colour sense, attitudes to men, calorific intake – and has "a deep and profound realisation. Gay men are French women... with penises".

That's all very well, Simon, I say, but you describe yourself as going to the party in orange-and-yellow, daisy-print Caprese shorts, twinned with a Liberty print shirt "dripping with lilies" and a cowboy hat. Who on earth would take you for a fashion guru? "For me, style is about mayhem and eccentricity and being over the top," says Doonan, a little hurt. "My primary interest is unconventional style. I don't really have the gay-helpful gene, the guys who rush around on makeover shows, making everyone look 'appropriate'. I'm interested in making people look completely insane. It comes from living in London during the punk era, when people broke all the rules and had no sense of decorum, people like Leigh Bowery, Zandra Rhodes, Andrew Logan."

He lives in Greenwich Village with his civil partner Jonathan Adler, a top interior designer. Its palate of acid greens, orange and blues, its beautiful mishmash of styles, objets trouvé, glass figurines and gold-tap bidets, have featured in magazines. How much was his input? "I'd say 90 per cent is Jonnie's and the 10 per cent insanity component is me from 40 years of window displays, which has given me an irrational approach to home décor. The head of Prince, and the Michael Jackson bust came from a Barneys window. The Gothic mirror, I found in a junk shop in Miami years ago. When I look at our pad, I often think of The Avengers – the groovy, moderne style of Emma Peel and the clubby, farty eccentricity of John Steed."

So is he "An Englishman in New York", like in the Sting song? He sighs. "I'm not one of those people who eat tea and scones, and buy Smarties and Cadbury's Flakes. There are people in New York who can't live unless they have a Bounty to munch on. I don't fetishise those aspects of England. Once in a while I hack into the BBC website and listen to Desert Island Discs, for a trip down Memory Lane."

Doonan came to live in America in 1978, when he was 26. He's been a window dresser all his life, first at Heelas, a Reading department store, then Aquascutum in London and Tommy Nutter's groovy shop in Savile Row. His witty designs were spotted by the owner of Maxfield, the LA department store, who invited Doonan to come and do his shop. Eight years later he was signed up by Barneys, and has remained there ever since. After a quarter-century of adjusting mannequins and playing with fenestral special effects, of which was he proudest? "One that got a lot of pick-up was the "Iron Lady" window in 1989 – I did her as a dominatrix in this kinky dress. She was ironing while listening to Iron Maiden, and there was a genuine iron maiden [the Tudor torture machine] in the display, with a strong suggestion that her husband was stuffed inside it."

His second life as a writer came about when a New York publisher suggested he did a book of all his window designs. "He asked me to write an introduction and when I did he said, 'This is hilarious, we must make the book text-driven'. So I wrote the whole thing, and from that I got the job as columnist on the New York Observer. Then Madonna bought the rights to Confessions of Window Dresser, and it all took off." He pauses, reflectively. "Nobody was more surprised than I. Because I failed my 11-plus and for 45 years, I thought I must be very stupid. At 12 you're off to the technical school, where all the girls are learning to be typists and you're kicked out at 16. But being a resilient homo, I went to a nearby grammar school and did my A levels and managed to get into Manchester University. But I wasn't concentrating. It was bang in the middle of David Bowie and Roxy Music. I was focused on getting tarted up to go out and have fun."

Exactly one year ago, a small cloud appeared on the horizon of this ceaselessly buoyant and amusing man. Mark Lee, the new chief executive at Barneys, changed Doonan's job from Creative Director to Creative Ambassador-at-Large. This was seen as a demotion. "Nobody gets promoted to anything with 'at-large;' in the title," said an insider. So what does he actually do? "Oh, I love my new job at Barneys," said Doonan with a convincing show of enthusiasm. "I have the job everybody wants. I get to wear a sash – metaphorically, of course. It's more relating to publicity and special events and being a Face of the Company, that kinda stuff. Its not as, ah, task-oriented as my previous job. But I love it and I'm very happy."

Will he offer advice to his successor? Will he steer the faltering steps of his window-design replacement? "Oh no, no, I'm applauding wildly from the sidelines." And abruptly, the unsinkable Mr D's voice changed into camp Cockney sparrow: "I mean, I don't want to piss on me chips..."

Gay Men Don't Get Fat (Blue Rider Press)

Arts & Entertainment
Don (John Hamm) and Megan (Jessica Paré) Draper are going their separate ways in the final series of ‘Mad Men’
tvReview: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Arts & Entertainment
art

By opportunistic local hoping to exhibit the work

Arts & Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio will star in an adaptation of Michael Punke's thriller 'The Revenant'
film

Fans will be hoping the role finally wins him an Oscar

Arts & Entertainment
Cody and Paul Walker pictured in 2003.
film

VIDEO
Arts & Entertainment
Down to earth: Fern Britton presents 'The Big Allotment Challenge'
TV

Arts & Entertainment
The London Mozart Players is the longest-running chamber orchestra in the UK
musicThreatened orchestra plays on, managed by its own members
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
Seeing red: James Dean with Sal Mineo in 'Rebel without a Cause'
film

Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
Heads up: Andy Scott's The Kelpies in Falkirk
art

What do gigantic horse heads tell us about Falkirk?

Arts & Entertainment
artGraffiti legend posts picture of work – but no one knows where it is
Arts & Entertainment
A close-up of Tom of Finland's new Finnish stamp
art

Finnish Postal Service praises the 'self irony and humour' of the drawings

Arts & Entertainment
Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in 2002's Die Another Day
film

The actor has confessed to his own insecurities

Life & Style
Green fingers: a plot in East London
TV

Allotments are the focus of a new reality show

Arts & Entertainment
Myleene Klass attends the Olivier awards 2014

Oliviers 2014Theatre stars arrive at Britain's most prestigious theatre awards
Arts & Entertainment
Stars of The Book of Mormon by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park

Oliviers 2014Blockbuster picked up Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical
Arts & Entertainment
Lesley Manville with her Olivier for Best Actress for her role in 'Ghosts'

Oliviers 2014Actress thanked director Richard Eyre for a stunning production
Arts & Entertainment
Rory Kinnear in his Olivier-winning role as Iago in Othello

Oliviers 2014Actor beat Jude Law and Tom Hiddleston to take the award
Arts & Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch is best known for this roles in Sherlock and Star Trek
TV

Arts & Entertainment
theatreAll hail the temporary venue that has shaken things up at the National Theatre
Arts & Entertainment
musicShe is candid, comic and coming our way
Arts & Entertainment
booksHer new novel is about people seeking where they belong
Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
tvGrace Dent on The Crimson Field
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

    As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
    Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

    Mad Men returns for a final fling

    The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

    Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit
    Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics

    Is sexual harassment a fact of gay life?

    Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics
    Moshi Monster creator Michael Acton Smith: The man behind a British success story

    Moshi Monster creator Michael Acton Smith

    Acton Smith launched a world of virtual creatures who took the real world by storm
    Kim Jong-un's haircut: The Independent heads to Ealing to try out the dictator's do

    Our journalist tries out Kim Jong-un's haircut

    The North Korean embassy in London complained when M&M Hair Academy used Kim Jong-un's image in the window. Curious, Guy Pewsey heads to the hair salon and surrenders to the clippers
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A forgotten naval victory in which even Nature played a part

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A forgotten naval victory in which even Nature played a part
    Vespa rides on with launch of Primavera: Iconic Italian scooter still revving up millions of sales

    Vespa rides on with launch of the Primavera

    The Vespa has been a style icon since the 1950s and the release this month of its latest model confirms it has lost little of its lustre
    Record Store Day: Independent music shops can offer a tempting alternative to downloads

    Record Store Day celebrates independent music shops

    This Saturday sees a host of events around the country to champion the sellers of well-grooved wax
    Taunton's policy of putting philosophy at heart of its curriculum is one of secrets of its success

    Education: Secret of Taunton's success

    Taunton School, in Somerset, is one of the country's leading independent schools, says Richard Garner
    10 best smartphones

    10 best smartphones

    With a number of new smartphones on the market, we round up the best around, including some more established models
    Mickey Arthur: Aussie tells ECB to stick with Ashley Giles

    Mickey Arthur: Aussie tells ECB to stick with Ashley Giles

    The former Australia coach on why England must keep to Plan A, about his shock at their collapse Down Under, why he sent players home from India and the agonies of losing his job
    Homelessness: Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

    Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

    Zubairi Sentongo swapped poverty in Uganda for homelessness in Britain. But a YMCA scheme connected him with a couple offering warmth and shelter
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park
    The pain of IVF

    The pain of IVF

    As an Italian woman vows to keep the babies from someone else’s eggs, Julian Baggini ponders how the reality of childbirth is often messier than the natural ideal