Good Crazy

8.27.2013

By Aaron Hicklin

With his new book, 'The Asylum,' Simon Doonan dishes on Gore Vidal, Tom Ford, Diana Vreeland, and the problem with toe fungus.

Photography by Jeaneen Lund

Touring the home of Simon Doonan and Jonathan Adler is a little like being in an episode of the long-running British TV show Through the Keyhole, in which a panel of guests attempt to identify, by means of assorted furnishings and tchotchkes, the celebrity whose home is being invaded. Inevitably, the host will practice some pop-psychology on the contents of the fridge or wardrobe, toss off hackneyed observations about the mystery celebrity’s lifestyle, and… Ta-da! All is revealed.

What might the panel make of Doonan’s Liberace triptych on the living room wall, I wonder, or the large brass banana (partially peeled) on the coffee table, alongside a bowl of Ben Wa balls, the female sex toy recently popularized by 50 Shades of Grey. What would they deduce from the full-size ping-pong table upholstered in paisley? Doonan, looking spiffy in a trademark floral shirt, gestures towards a large papier-mâché head of Prince sitting on the floor. “That was actually made by Martha King for one of our Barneys windows in the late ’80s,” he says. “I didn’t keep many mementos from my window career, but I have my Prince head.” By good fortune he has also found a Michael Jackson head with which to pair it. “That’s from the flea market — 10 bucks,” says Doonan. “People think it’s a Jeff Koons.” The two heads loll unceremoniously on the floor.

Journalists must love interviewing Doonan. He is chatty and witty and disarmingly honest. Although he rose to fame as a window dresser at Barneys, where his punk aesthetic and deadpan wit turned the store’s windows into high art, he has pivoted gracefully into a second career as a writer, contributing a regular column for Slate, as well as a slew of confessional books, including Beautiful People, a sublimely witty meditation on his scrappy adolescence that spawned an equally excellent TV series.

He calls his childhood grim, but that’s an understatement. The two-bedroom apartment in which he grew up, in Reading, England, had neither a kitchen nor a bathroom, and he is the only person I’ve met who can’t recall ever having had a birthday party. His unconventional parents, high-school dropouts, clearly loved him, but were not the most practical people. When his father secured a job, young Simon and his sister were deposited each day at a local orphanage. Unsurprisingly, he is a great believer in psychotherapy.

“I always think, If my grandfather had had psychotherapy, would he have killed himself? If my grandmother had had it, would she have had to have a lobotomy? If my uncle David would have had it, would he have poisoned himself?” Unlike his grandparents, though, Doonan found a haven from the family pattern of despair and dysfunction in fashion and America. “I had the benefit of coming to L.A. in the ’70s, where everyone was having therapy,” he says. “They didn’t give green cards to gay people back then, so you had to pretend to be straight. They would ask, ‘What’s your sexual orientation?’ and someone like me, who was more obviously gay, would be accused of lying, and you’d have to say, ‘No, I’m straight — I like birds, don’t I?’ ”

He does like birds, of course, but preferably when they are called Anna Wintour and Coco Chanel. In 2008 he and his partner, the potter and homeware designer Jonathan Adler, were married in San Francisco. Doonan, who lost three lovers to AIDS, considers himself very lucky to have got this far unscathed, and his new book The Asylum — “a collage of couture reminiscences” — is, in many ways, a testimonial to the industry that gave him shelter. For Doonan, fashion is “a place where unemployable crazy people are always welcome.” Or as he puts it on page 189 of The Asylum, “If you kidnapped Thom Browne from his home in New York City and plonked him down outside a convenience store in Kentucky, people would assume that he had escaped from the local mental health facility.”

The Asylum is full of snappy one-liners like this. Doonan, now 61, has had a chair at the high table of fashion for more years than he may care to count and can reminisce (and name-drop) with the best of them. He dispenses nuggets of wisdom from Diana Vreeland (“A little bad taste is like a nice splash of paprika”) to Gore Vidal (“Never decline invitations to have sex or to be on TV”), and appears to have twirled his way through one fabulous experience after another. He is very good at conjuring the majesty of fashion’s deities, only to puncture any hint of pretension by spiraling into a meditation on his own very mortal foibles. Take, for example, an essay that begins, “Tom Ford is the only person I know who has successfully integrated the word ‘cunt’ into a memorial speech,” before transitioning swiftly into a wry, very amusing anecdote about Doonan’s toe fungus.

“I wanted the stories to be funny because they were funny, not because I was dropping a lot of fashion names,” says Doonan, whose general good nature and enthusiasm suffuses the book. “People want me to be a disdainful, haughty person, and I’m not. I get a million requests a day from people wanting quotes about what I hate, what’s horrible in fashion, and I just say, ‘I love it — it’s so mad and out of control.’ To me there’s nothing more off-putting than a disdainful queen.”

And with that, the very undisdainful Simon Doonan jumps up to show me the rest of the apartment—a pot made for him by Adler early in their relationship, a tapestry made by his mother based on Warhol’s painting of Liz Taylor, and three Liberace charm bracelets he found at the Liberace museum. Doonan has recently seen Behind the Candelabra and bats away critics who complain that it shows gay relationships in a negative light. “Gay people need to get rid of that need to appear noble all the time,” he says. “He was a flawed human being — I came away from it loving Liberace more.” Well, of course.

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