Dirty, Pretty Things

An interview with Simon Doonan about his nastiest, favorite memories

Not only the creative director of Barneys known for his ingenious, unconventional window installations, Simon Doonan is also a sly humorist and social commentator, with two previous bestsellers (Wacky Chicks and Confessions of a Window Dresser), and a regular column in The New York Observer. In addition to guest appearances on VH1 and America's Next Top Model Doonan has just published his latest book, Nasty: My Family and Other Glamorous Varmints, a recollection of his own kooky upbringing that made him who he is today: one of the fashion world's most beloved eccentrics and creative minds.

How's your book tour going? Oh, I love it. I made one mistake though. I retouched my author photo so much so I don't look anything like it. One guy said to me, "You should have picked a photo that was less than 20 years old." And I said, "It's actually a recent photo, I just got carried away." I had to get up very early on the book tour to look even remotely like my author photo.

I know you wrote about your mother in Wacky Chicks, and about your life as a window dresser for your first book. What prompted this memoir? When I turned 50 I thought, what are the clearest memories I have of my first half-century? And the first thing that came to mind was my mum sneezing and her dentures flying out and hitting the refrigerator. And I realized, oh my God, you only remember the nasty things. You only remember the sort of public humiliation and kamikaze outfits, and the sort of jarring occurrences, like when I fractured my Aunt Phyllis's skull. So it's a montage of jarring reflections.

The author, who looks a bit like this
photo: Danny Evans
The author, who looks a bit like this

When you talk about how your family shaped the person you are, do you think you owe them a debt, or vice-versa? Oh, I owe them a huge debt. My mom left school when she was 13, she ran away from home. My dad ran away from home when he was 16. They were sort of self-invented, very unconventional people who couldn't remember when they got married, so they never celebrated a wedding anniversary. It gave me a carte blanche to be as insane and gay and whatever I wanted to be, I could be. So when I told my dad I was going to sell my body on the Left Bank in Paris to make a living, he didn't even bat an eyelid, because in our house there were so many nutcases that those kind of pronouncements were quite common.

Did you have any problem with writing about yours or [your husband] Jonathan Adler's family? Well, my gay sister made me change a few things, because she accused me of glamorizing myself at the expense of her. She sort of resents that characterization of lesbians as fanny pack-wearing social workers. Even though she is a fanny pack-wearing social worker. She said, "There you go again, it's like Will & Grace, where they say all the dykes look like Huey Lewis."


An homage to Mom's dentures: Doonan's new book
photo: Courtesy of Simon & Schuster

Do you ever try to give her any style tips? No. I'm not big on style tips. I think people should look like who they are. If people love beautiful clothes, then they should go buy them and shut up about it. The idea that there's some gold standard that everyone has to achieve, increasingly, as I get older, it really annoys me. And I think that's a big theme in my book, because my sort of demented quest to find the beautiful people is like Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz. In the end, the beautiful people were my grandmother with the lobotomy, and my blind aunt Phyllis.

I've read some of your articles in fashion magazines, and I always feel like they really stand out amid a formula that people have been going on for quite a while. What would you like to see more of in these publications? People being guided toward expressing themselves, rather than looking more like somebody they're not. Personal expression, I think, is the key in terms of style. That's why all those fashion articles are so fucking boring. If I get one more phone call to talk about how Mrs. Bush is becoming more fashionable, it just makes me want to scream. I mean, she is a public servant, a president's wife, and that's how she should look. She shouldn't start wearing Juicy Couture. Leave her alone, for chrissakes.

You do kind of comment on people's personal style on the second season of America's Next Top Model. What happened with that girl Catie? What I said to her is, clothes are nonverbal communication. If you're going on a go-see, you dress different than if you're going to see Larry Flynt than if you're going to see Anna Wintour. And I said to her, "If you want to dress like a tart, that's fine with me—but that's not necessarily what fashion is about." And then she got upset, and I said, "Why are you crying?" And she said, "Because you called me a ho on national television." Which I thought she kind of missed the point. The point is, if you have a lot of gratuitous flesh exposure, people aren't going to think you're some academic existentialist chick. They're going to think you're a stripper.

What do you enjoy about writing? It's solitary and it's a nice antidote to the Barneys stuff. Because most of the time at Barneys, I'm working on advertising, I'm working on window stuff, publicity stuff, and it's highly interactive. So it's fun to lock myself away, and obsess about my prose, and lash myself into a frenzy over it . . . I think all writers should get jobs in retail. They should do their writing, and then maybe on the weekend, go work on the pantyhose counter at Bloomingdale's or maybe the MAC counter, 'cause it would make them less pompous, and they would interact with people.

So retail, eh? You know, one of the best conversations I ever heard was on the subway between two beauty students. It was one of those articles you wish you could record. I always fantasized about becoming a manicurist, because I thought it would be very chic. Like Catherine Deneuve in Repulsion.

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