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Barneys Creative Ambassador-at-Large Simon Doonan has made a name for himself in what he describes as his “jarring and punky and intentionally shocking” window displays. In his new book The Asylum, a collection of fashion-related autobiographical essays, Doonan also continues to make a name for himself as a writer. A few years back, I particularly enjoyed his memoir Nasty (also published under the title Beautiful People) which offered a glimpse of his escape from Reading to London in the swinging 60s. Like that book, The Asylum lovingly embraces eccentricity with cheekiness and sharp, observant descriptions. I wouldn’t jump to call his books warm, but there is a warmth to them and Doonan’s writing—a “wave of solidarity,” an understanding of outsiders and an appreciation for kookiness.
In the beginning of The Asylum he attempts to compare the fashion world to the mental facility where his friend works. It’s a bit of a stretch though Doonan pulls it off with wry humor and pathos. After recommending the iconic documentary Grey Gardens to his doctor friend she disarmingly responds: “I see women like Little Edie wearing sweaters wrapped around their heads all day long. It usually indicates that they’re at the end of their rope and are trying to muffle the voices in their heads… I saw potential symptoms of schizophrenia and suffering, and all you can see are styling tips. You fashion people are just as twisted as any of my patients.” And here Doonan sets the irreverent tone of his pithy and entertaining chronicles. He also establishes a nice rapport with the reader: sure this tome is a goldmine for fashionistas but it also has appeal to the reader who may, like his friend, just have only a little bit of interest.
He has a unique perspective. He’s watched the change in shapes and styles (for example the shift from the blowsy, billowing menswear attire of the 80s—something he particularly hates on his slight frame—to the more sharply defined Thom Browne-inspired looks of today) and also the changes within the industry itself—from perhaps its more earnest, exclusive and intimate beginnings to the whirlwind global machine it is today.“Long before the arrival of the Bryant Park tents…” he notes,“fashion designers were still showing their collections in their hot, stuffy, carpeted showrooms. Another option: if you didn’t have a large enough showroom then you went off-site.” Doonan then launches into an amusing story where the ceiling of an industrial warehouse began to fall on the runway and front row of a Michael Kors show.
Those gleefully looking for dirt on Anna Wintour and company will be let down. Throughout, Doonan is gossipy but not really malicious—despite the tartness of his persona and writing. Instead he offers up deep respect and admiration for the creativity and passion of many of fashion’s icons including Wintour, Tom Ford, Rei Kawakubo, and the incomparable Diana Vreeland for whom he once worked. At times, fashion is derided as slight but Doonan shows how surviving the industry takes fierceness, hard work, and ingenuity. He is even OK with the Olsen twins despite the austere conservatism of their line the Row: “As much as I love and appreciate the Row and the other designers who inhabit the codified world of nuance and sophistication, I fear I just might be a burlesque bitch at heart.”
What seems to draw Doonan’s ire and disappointment are all the distractions the industry and media can bring; the burgeoning of Twitter and Facebook—which he dislikes—has led to many misconstrued statements and one-sided, incomplete portraits. He’s more invested, interested and in awe of the work itself and the zaniness of personalities. One of the juiciest sections turns out to be Doonan’s audition as the “helpful gay” for The Devil Wears Prada. The book and movie was a huge hit and painted Vogue and Wintour in a specific, memorable way for mainstream audiences but Doonan finds it all a sham and his audition merely an attempt to gather “unpaid research.” He slams the bland vision of the book while showing his more complex and big-hearted view of the industry: “the groovy, idiosyncratic fashion people I know and love were entirely missing from the landscape conjured by the author. Where were all the freaks and funsters?”
There is also moving elegy to Alexander McQueen (“I miss his explosive creativity. Where are the torment and the drama today? They are simply not there…. I cannot help missing the blood and the mayhem and the rage and the broken heels”). Doonan is particularly perceptive here, perhaps seeing a little bit of his own autobiography in McQueen but also sensing the tragedy of the designer’s death as a culmination of many different pressures, including the British class system. This book ends up being a bit saucy, grandiose and sometimes bruised like McQueen’s designs. It’s also like an ensemble from workroom detritus (fabric and “broken heels”) stitched together and presented memorably and insightfully by Doonan.
By Simon Doonan
Blue Rider Press
Hardcover, 9780399161896, 288 pp.