Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Have Glue Gun, Will Travel

DECEMBER 7, 1998: 

Confessions of a Window Dresser, By Simon Doonan, Penguin Studio, 239 pp., $40

What Quentin Crisp did some 50 years ago in the nude, Simon Doonan does today before pedestrians on lower Seventh Avenue. It’s called display – self-display as artists’ model in the case of Crisp, who produced a minor classic, The Naked Civil Servant, and self-display as “window burner” in the case of Doonan’s new Confessions of a Window Dresser. I make the comparison because both authors are English, which means they can write. Both are the first to meet with mock-seriousness the very thing they’re writing about, which means they are smart. And both admit to being utterly unfit for any other line of employment, which means they are certainly right.

“The paradox of my window-dressing career,” Doonan says in his prologue, “is that success came to me by pursuing, with gusto, a reviled and effeminate trade,” one “that involved cavorting and skipping around a store window arranging merchandise and props in full view of the rest of humanity.”

What he doesn’t mention, at the outset, is that the merchandise was rather high-end (Prada, Armani, and Comme des Garcons) and the “cavorting” didn’t come cheap. But it was encouraged. When the redoubtable Pressmans of New York City, owners of Barney’s, wanted the most talked-about fashion windows on the island of Manhattan, they called on the bad boy of display, Simon Doonan. And what they wanted, they got. The short-term goal? The quick sale. The long-term goal? Store image. The means to achieving both? The creation of desire. And the road? Spectacular but bumpy, especially in 1996 when Barney’s declared bankruptcy.

How, you may ask, did someone as unapologetically limp-wristed as Doonan survive in the first place and flourish in the second? By being born, he says, into a family that understood him as far as their pre- and post-lobotomy states would allow. By apprenticing to Michael “Dolly” Southgate, “an innovative, kind, and thoroughly charismatic window-dressing megaforce and, of course, a drag queen.” By zeroing in on “the sleazy goings-on, and endless stream of unsavory aberrations” of late-’70s Los Angeles (and becoming that city’s “Joan Didion of Display”). By catching the eye of Diana Vreeland, “the hippest and most exotic 80-year-old on the planet.” And by meeting Gene Pressman, who invited Doonan to indulge his “window-dressing bad self” and help him “reinvent luxury retailing.” It was, still is a match made in retail heaven, though even heaven, in case you don’t know, has its limits.

Doonan’s first window for Barney’s showcased the spring 1986 Chanel collection with a campy send-up of the famed designer’s Paris digs, in an illustrative style borrowed from Christian Berard and weighed down in gauze. Gene Pressman loved it, and Doonan was “amazed that someone so butch could be so totally enthusiastic and effusive about something so nelly.” This led immediately to borrowing an image from the 1950s of an anorexic model dressed in a ball gown and photographed on a bomb site. The store’s buyer was horrified, Pressman said go for it, and Doonan’s stock skyrocketed. (The prevailing attitude among Barney’s staff didn’t hurt either. At weekly planning sessions, “it was not uncommon for someone to grab a display wig and wear it to the meeting without eliciting any reaction.”)

The problem with shock tactics such as Doonan’s, as Doonan will tell you, is one-upping oneself with each go-round. So if you too aspire to a life in windows, here are some pointers, cut carelessly to size but in the spirit of Simon Doonan’s particular brand of anarchy:

First and foremost, do not call yourself an artist (those who do should be “forced to become artists so that they can see what a drag it is”). Do do “situation windows” (“inter-mannequin hostilities” have “more impact”), and do do them up in outmoded materials (“J’adore wicker”). Do not go in for high-tech (“An old broken TV sitting in the window with white noise on the screen is more compelling than a video wall”). Do look at liquor-store and supermarket windows for the “power of obsessive repetition.” Do not avoid death (“Other window dressers find it...‘a breach of basic decorum.’ What a timid bunch of losers!”). Do change your windows in full view of the public (a drawn shade is “retarded” and “assumes that something really wondrous is going on”). Do not underestimate America’s heartland (e.g., Sledge’s Stylish Stout Shop in Dallas). Do not, in fact, travel outside the U.S. at all (“Europe is depressing”). And, for my own part, do have a look at Confessions of a Window Dresser. The book’s top-notch graphic design by Jennifer Wagner brings order to the chaos that is Simon Doonan.

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