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Asylum. The word means variously nuthouse and refuge, depending upon usage. Its dual purpose makes it an apt synonym for fashion, at least in the delightfully off-beat thought process of Simon Doonan, whose latest book, his fifth, “The Asylum: A Collage of Couture Reminiscences…and Hysteria,” is set for publication by Blue Rider Press on Sept. 3.
The legendary former creative director and current creative ambassador at large of Barneys New York, Doonan considers himself “a carney” at heart, his sole lifelong professional raison d’être, the amusement of others. Few who know him would disagree, although most would add multiple handles: raconteur, sage, devilish wit. Doonan is one of fashion’s great characters, capable of vibrant two-pronged storytelling, visually and, as in “The Asylum,” in words.
Doonan also proclaims to be a retailer, which is to say a salesman, dedicated to wrapping product into feel-good packages, the harder to resist my dear. His is a salesmanship that delights so enchantingly, you don’t even know you’re being sold. Our recent chat centered on the book, filled from the first page to the last with witty observations, quips and some intriguing insights, but he went off-topic breezily, according to the turns of conversation.
The first two chapters establish the basic ruse of “The Asylum,” that fashion and madness are “strange bedfellows. Or are they?” Doonan references his family’s history of mental illness (Grandmother, he tells me, had a lobotomy; an uncle, electric shock treatment) and recounts various exchanges between himself and “let’s call her Lizzie,” a psychiatrist. Through their long friendship, the fashion guy and shrink have identified “eerie similarities” between their two worlds. One such parallel — “what seems like madness to Lizzie — seeing patterns where there are none” — is to Doonan (and you and me) trend identification: “Look, here’s an orange skirt at Céline. And look, an orange purse at Prada. Hold the presses! I’m seeing a pattern here…” The two disagree about the legendary, turban-wearing Edies — Big and Little — whom Lizzie suggests were likely women “at the end of their rope [who] are trying to muffle the voices in their heads.” She saw signs of schizophrenia; Doonan saw styling do’s.
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The fashion craziness-motif thus established, it’s then bye-bye Lizzie, as Doonan goes on to a series of self-contained stories about a person, an episode, or a motif in fashion that resonate with him in some way. Some include first-hand anecdotes (at Diana Vreeland’s memorial, he overheard Pat Buckley’s remark that “Jackie always cries at funerals because she wasn’t allowed to cry at Jack’s”) and some “borrowed” or retold tales into which he inserts himself (a young model on a shoot who, with the hairdresser doing his best to recall Marie Antoinette with her coiffure, inquired, “Is she new? Which agency is she with?”)
Most of the wickedness is either self-mocking or blatantly faux; Doonan’s admiration and love for the people and events he describes, and for the industry that spawned them, is obvious. Along with the asylum motif, a thread of then-and-now runs through. Few who know the industry would argue that fashion has changed dramatically over the last 25 years or so, as exemplified by, but certainly not limited to, the explosion of the show process from insider intimacy to live-streamed, tweeted, open-to-all mayhem. For the record, Doonan loves the showgoer preening for paparazzi, theorizing that such personal expressions are an essential part of what drives fashion today. “Today, everything exists concurrently, which makes this a fantastic time for fashion because everything is about self-expression. The ownership shifts to the consumer. It’s about having your own look, crafting your own creative identity. Instead of looking to these dictatorial divas, you’re looking inwards and saying, ‘I’m an existentialist. I’m going to dress like a girl who’s at the store in 1950. Or I’m very sensual. I want to dress like a Russ Meyer Supervixen.”
Yet such freedom comes at a price. Doonan deems himself privileged to have been “involved in fashion when it was all about ideas. When [Jean Paul] Gaultier was doing his post-modern mash-ups. When Yohji [Yamamoto] was doing those great riding coats. When [Azzedine] Alaïa came along. When Romeo Gigli reinvented color. When [Christian] Lacroix came along and looked at folklore and embellishment. They were ideas whose time had come, and they hit you in the face. Maybe you cried because they felt like they had real meaning.”
Perhaps they indeed “had real meaning,” but that did not ensure inclusion in “The Asylum.” Of the above “privileges,” only crying is so honored.
“Unless I could make a story with a beginning, a middle and an end, I didn’t put it in,” Doonan says. “These have to be complete stories, interesting to somebody even if they knew nothing about fashion. So there’s not much esoterica there.” Case in point, his chapter on Rei Kawakubo. “It’s in there because I thought it was an interesting story, and I thought the only way I can get inside this woman’s head is by sending her to Frederick’s of Hollywood.” Yes, as accounted in the chapter “Rei Kawakubo’s Pasties,” during a chance meeting in L.A., Kawakubo’s publicist Miki Higasa asked for suggestions on where to take the designer during a few hours of down time, and Doonan suggested the racy cheese factory as well as Playmates. About Kawakubo, he writes, “nobody knows if she’s a bitch or an angel or a psycho.”
Back to the tears.…Crying at fashion shows is something most sane people of the nonfashion persuasion would find bonkers. Not atypically, Doonan got into this chapter laterally, with a description of his toothless, penniless, hard-drinking though non-lobotomized Irish grandfather, who referred to an easy crier as having a bladder “way too near her eyeballs.” Gramps may have been pithy himself, but he also took from local public domain. Faced with what she considered a child’s unwarranted tears, my off-the-boat Irish grandmother too would note, “a bladder close to your eyes.” After a quick Google search for the origin of the expression that turned up too much cystitis and too little Irish wit, I gave up.
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But, like Simon, I digress. He writes that pre-fashion, he cried only rarely, as when he first saw Doris Day sing “Secret Love” in “Calamity Jane.” Yes, Doris Day; Calamity Jane. “Looking for all intents and purposes like an extremely attractive butch lesbian — singing her heart out about a secret love which ‘became impatient to be free.’” Otherwise, tears came infrequently. Then, at one Giorgio Armani show in the Eighties, he found himself staring across the runway at Elsa Klensch, with a tear rolling down her cheek, and realized that he too was welling up, a condition he labels “fashion verklempt.”
The book is both tightly constructed and delightfully rambly. He tackles “fat porn” and why parents of NYU students would pay for a course about it; the chic vs. sexy juxtaposition at a Barneys event in Phoenix between the Olsens and “a group of exotic birds” who are the wives of the Phoenix Suns. He recalls Miguel Adrover’s odd-even-for-fashion runway escapade with a goat, and wonders, when it comes to a waiter’s lips, exactly how moist is too moist for Tom Ford? He weaves asides throughout, about the appeal of one-room living, about his own great legs that were even better in his twenties, and about the underappreciated glories of paying clients, “the fashion equivalent of angel investors.”
Mostly, Doonan talks about personalities. Thom Browne, or more exactly, Thom Browne’s ankles. The magical collaboration between Kate Moss and Corinne Day that resulted in that antiglamazon creation that rocked fashion, “The Waif.” One chapter deals with a well-known, still-active publicist who fell in love with a randy, hard-living charmer who wound up in jail. The publicist wanted to attend his boyfriend’s parole hearing but had to petition for a change of date to avoid conflict with the Paris couture, at which he had a client. When asked off the record the man’s identity (come on, you’re wondering, too) Doonan doesn’t budge. He asked for and received the man’s permission to use the story, but only anonymously. Doonan admits to tweaking some facts in the interests of anonymity.
Tweaks, manipulations and exaggerations run throughout the book, as do blatant generalizations. “Oh, God!” he boasts. “I love sweeping generalizations. It’s the cornerstone to all my writing.”
Exhibits A and B: He loves lesbians (for one thing, they loathe generalizations about lesbians) and Jews. Apparently completely and without exception. Yet asked for the book’s most hyperbolic position, he offers, “Probably that all models are stupid. Obviously, that’s clearly an insane, sweeping generalization. Lots of models go to college. Lily Cole went to Oxford.” But he adds, for what they make at a young age, they should be able to stand a little ribbing.