Op-Ed Visual Merchandising

Simon Doonan: Still Witty After all These Years

Simon Doonan, creative ambassador-at-large of Barneys, has written yet another wildly witty book: Gay Men Don’t Get Fat

LOS ANGELES, Feb 22, 2012/ — My first introduction to Simon Doonan was through a Nikon camera lens. Every week I would drive by the display windows he designed for the hip-boutique Maxfield Bleu in West Hollywood. The display windows he designed had a tongue-in-cheek approach. They always put a smile on my face. These windows sported display figures purchased by owner Tommy Perse from the 1920s-1940s. This was catnip to a budding mannequin historian, such as myself. Eventually I met Doonan in person. He claims to be short or elfin in stature, but in my eyes he is a creative giant—he towers above the average and pedestrian window dressers.

In 1981 Doonan and Mundo Meza designed the “Mannequin Madness” exhibit at the downtown Security Pacific National Bank art gallery space. It dealt with the history of the display mannequin and its use in fine art. I was the curator. Mannequins were loaned from manufacturers throughout the US and Europe. Rather than dress the mannequins, Doonan simply draped them in a sheer fabric printed with newspaper headlines. It was a classy presentation with the emphasis of Doonan’s humorous panache. Designer Rudi Gernreich attended the opening.

I have followed Doonan’s career as a window dresser, from the edge of punk at Maxfield Bleu to über-chic at Barneys. For more than twenty years he was the creative director for Barneys New York. He now holds the title of creative ambassador-at-large; nothing diminutive about that title. Over the years he has managed to pen some of his witticisms which have been published in a bevy of books: Eccentric Glamour and Wacky Chicks, Confessions of a Window Dresser, and
Nasty. The later was adapted for television under the title Beautiful People.

Doonan’s book Gay Men Don’t Get Fat was offered for public consumption in February 2012. He had me laughing from the get-go—the title and the chapter headings. It is a sociological study of gays, male and female, small and large. However, it should have a warning label, “Not for the Consumption of Right-Turn- Conservatives.” For those of conservative leanings there is a little bit TMI (too much information). But for those who want to be in the know, it gives hysterical glimpses into worlds that were heretofore hidden in the gayest of closets…

I zeroed in on the chapter “The Bitter Tears of Jackie O” which points to the lack of knowledge of today’s youth regarding historical events, cultural icons, and the world of style and glamour. He tells us, “If you are straight and considering a career in a groovy visual field, or any f***ing field, do not even think about proceeding until you have gayed up your imagination with a glittering and enriching foray into this wonderland archive of style, culture and glamour (83).” He gives lists of legendary people along with must see movies. He calls this the gay canon. This is one of my fave chapters. It should be researched and memorized by those going into the visual arts.

It has been more than thirty years since I first photographed display windows produced by the eclectic imagination of Simon Doonan. He has taken on the mantle of “The First Elf” with much dignity and aplomb. He has taken his visual humor and evolved into an insightful social commentator and author of books. Take a gander at Doonan’s latest book if you want to find out how (some) gay men don’t get fat. In my mind’s eye he is still witty after all these years…

[MARSHA BENTLEY HALE]

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