Fashion: He's a star, and he's no dummy

The man who makes the shoppers stop and stare on New York's Fifth Avenue started out on the other side of the glass - with his nose pressed up against the windows of John Lewis. There's fame in store for Simon Doonan, says Tamsin Blanchard
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
A Hollywood movie about a window dresser? Have you ever heard of anything so ridiculous? Well, Confessions of a Window Dresser, based on the life of one of fashion's campest and most influential figures, may break box office records after all. (Warren Beatty did it for hairdressers in Shampoo.) And Simon Doonan, the window dresser in question, is no ordinary display person. At the November launch of his book, Confessions of a Window Dresser, to be published here next year, Doonan, the 47-year- old British ex-pat and creative director of New York's chic store, Barneys, was mobbed. All New York was there, including an Yves Saint Laurent lookalike. If Yves could have been there in person, no doubt he would have been.

Simon Doonan knows everyone, and everyone knows him. Even those who don't know him know of his windows. And Christmas is the time when his creative juices overflow on to the sidewalks of Madison Avenue. New Yorkers make a point of going to Barneys to see the Christmas windows, just as Doonan himself used to stand and gawp at the displays at his local John Lewis in Reading as a boy.

While those windows usually involved lengths of gold lame and velvet, draped artfully around a mannequin, Doonan's efforts are an altogether more splendid affair. He caused controversy when he put Magic Johnson alongside a Christmas tree dripping with golden condoms ("it was all very tasteful," says Doonan); he dressed Madonna as the Virgin Mary and Margaret Thatcher as a dominatrix in bondage. He makes a point of creating secular windows every year, and at a time when American sentimentality is in overdrive, Doonan's windows are as dark and spooky as a Tim Burton Hallowe'en. He has a penchant for coffins in his displays - he says they guarantee interest. As you might expect, he brushes off the odd complaint (and a few death threats) without a care.

Iain R Webb, fashion director of British Elle, is a fan. "He's one of those people who doesn't mind taking risks," says Webb. "It's his British eccentricity that the Americans adore, because they haven't got that themselves. He's much more about selling an idea than selling a product. He understands the power of iconography."

Doonan also has his finger on the pulse: his windows are invariably predictions of trends to come. This Christmas, he has gone for scenes of debauchery and decadence with a hallucinogenic 1930s Cabaret theme - light fixtures made of hair, an 8ft-tall saxophone of papier mache being played by a naked, marabou feather-draped Nadja Auermann mannequin, oversized Martini glasses and olives, lampshades made of tick-tacks, and a beaded curtain made of Reese's peanut butter cups. "The windows reflect the slightly decadent tinge New York has," says Doonan, in his more-English-than-the- Queen's-English drawl. He is after all, the Oscar Wilde of window dressing.

"My updated Cabaret compares the New York of the Nineties with the Berlin of the Thirties. The self-indulgence and glamour of New York is all there." His windows break all the rules. "I like to include lots of detritus and dirt," he says. If he could get away with it, he'd quite like to have no clothes at all in the windows.

Strangely enough, Simon Doonan, who is known affectionately as "Mummy" to those who work for him, began his rise to fashion fabulousness working at Heelas of Reading, his local branch of John Lewis. In the early Seventies, he escaped to London to reinvent himself as a glam-rocker in glitter and jumble-sale finds. He found a job working at Yves Saint Laurent for pounds 18 a week, moved on to the windows at Aquascutum and ended up at Tommy Nutter in Savile Row, where he quickly found his forte for making windows that would stop people in their tracks. "I did rats with rhinestones," says Doonan. "The more theatrical and nutty, the better."

His nutty ideas soon landed him a job in LA, and in 1976 he went to work for the designer store Maxfield. From there, he found himself in New York's Metropolitan Museum Costume Institute, working as display designer with the mother of all fashion legends, Diana Vreeland.

In the 1986, Doonan was offered the plum job: window dresser at Barneys. Since then, he has risen to creative director and a six-figure salary (rumoured to be more than half a million dollars) and is as much an institution as the store itself. His first Christmas windows portrayed a deserted, decaying palace with mice scurrying amid the merchandise. In 1994, he portrayed the Baby Jesus using a Japanese Hello Kitty doll. The public was not amused and the window was withdrawn. Since then, he has avoided religious themes.

At times, Doonan displays a Monty Python-style humour that is peculiarly British, and that most New Yorkers are not quite tuned in to. Movie-goers, however, will find his sense of fun and irony as entertaining as his windows.

Hollywood is said to be fighting over the rights to Doonan's book, with Rupert Everett (who else?) tipped for the starring role. "You'd have to saw off his legs first," says Iain R Webb (Doonan is an elfin 5ft 5in). But Simon Doonan has enough front to carry off the role himself.