TWO burly security guys accost us as we leave Barneys, New York’s hippest department store, which has been closed for almost an hour.
"Imagine the headlines - ‘Nancy window dresser shoplifts’," he exclaims. "How embarrassing would that be? And me waltzing out with my swag and a journalist from Scotland, of all places."
English-born and "Scotch-Irish", with a strong streak of Glaswegian in his blood, Doonan is, of course, no stranger to headlines. His anarchic window displays are the stuff of legend in Manhattan, where he is mega-famous. Yet this is a man who has elevated the swanky shop window into high art, and whose extraordinary success story is one of the oddest in a city that has more than its fair share of quirky tales. In New York City they call him "the paneful genius" and "the emperor of window dressers", "Michelangelo with a glue gun".
He describes himself as "the diminutive doyen of design", "the Joan Didion of display", and - in the wake of the furore that followed his infamous nativity scene, featuring Hello Kitty characters, with Bart Simpson in triplicate as the three wise men - "the Salman Rushdie of window dressing". The store was on the receiving end of bomb threats and hate mail when the display was unveiled, and eventually it had to be scrapped. "I was Manhattan’s answer to Typhoid Mary," cackles Doonan.
Nonetheless, his gob-smacking, Alice-through-the-crazy-looking-glass windows for the high-end Madison Avenue store have brought him fame and fortune. He reportedly earns half a million bucks a year, something he will neither confirm nor deny, simply saying, "If you come to New York and work hard for 20 years, you will be rewarded - as I have been."
Garlanded with awards, he consulted Tina Brown on the debut issues of her now-defunct Talk magazine, has been photographed by Steven Meisel, is best friends with Madonna, and wants Linda Hunt to play him when a film is made of his new book, Confessions of a Window Dresser, for which his pal Madge has bought the movie rights. He has done glamorous jobs such as working on Christie’s successful auction of Oscar-winners’ dresses, and an Absolut advert has been made in his honour - Absolut Doonan, with an assemblage of dummy heads and body parts in the shape of a vodka bottle.
Doonan is 52 and tiny, with elfin features and the gift of the gab. He’s chatting away about his fabulous team of little helpers - "my elves" - standing in front of a vintage Barneys poster, photographed by Meisel but masterminded by Doonan himself. It features Linda Evangelista, haughty in haute couture, and the actor Kyle McLachlan with a lobster on his head. "It was after this that they started dating," he whispers.
He is a flamboyantly out gay man - "a nelly" or "a nancy", in his quaint parlance - and he has written two books, the aforementioned mordantly witty memoir and Wacky Chicks, for which he interviewed "ladies who are out to lunch".
More recently, he has written a playful foreword for Andy Warhol Fashion, a new collection of the father of pop art’s fantastical and rather beautiful fashion illustrations. To Doonan, Warhol is the ultimate window dresser.
Warhol began his career designing windows for a department store in Pittsburgh, so Doonan has, of course, dedicated a Barneys window to "Saint Andy", whom he considers "a marginalised and uncompromising freak".
As a self-confessed marginalised freak himself, Doonan’s job at Barneys extends far beyond filling the windows with mannequins dressed in Alaia or Armani amid smashed-up TV sets and piles of grungy garbage, with alligators crawling out of lavatories, playing on the fears engendered by a hoary old New York urban myth. He has had Nancy Reagan staring eerily out of the Oval Office windows, and created scary tableaux of headless mannequins in Comme des Garons. In 2000, he stuck fashion students - real ones, not mock-ups - in his holiday windows in homage to reality TV. All three TV networks broadcast segments. In the week that basketball legend Magic Johnson announced his HIV-positive status, Doonan celebrated by placing him next to a Christmas tree decorated with condoms. Post-9/11, he had Mayor Giuliani as "Rudolph the right-on reindeer".
Small wonder, then, that his windows make the news, engender articles in the New York Times and prompt the Washington Post to see his work as an "acute commentary on the contradictions of modern life, the hollowness of fame and the hypocrisy of politics", delivered with "the masterly use of a glue gun, boundless enthusiasm for glitter and an anthropological approach to kitsch".
Although he once transformed Margaret Thatcher into a punk vampire dominatrix, and caught Madonna mid-dye-job eating popcorn, albeit in a gold-beaded frock and shoes by Dolce & Gabbana, Doonan is also responsible for Barneys’ brand development, marketing and advertising. When I ask him about this, he shrugs and says, "Maybe I am a corporate man at heart?"
I don’t think so. For he must be the only window dresser in the world to have his own cult newspaper column. Every Wednesday, the New York Observer is a must-read for ‘Simon says’, which runs on the front page of the newspaper’s financial section. Here’s a taster: in a tongue-in-chic column offering style tips to "other undersized fashion gnomes out there", he advises us to "follow the dykes and buy boys’ polo shirts at Lacoste"; then, in a piece on men’s raincoats, he exhorts gents to choose "the pervert’s impermeable... the archetypal flasher raincoat - a simple, single-breasted bone-coloured garment that is... the preferred style of men about town and flashers the world over". Another week he leads with a health warning about LARS, or Lady Chatterley Acute Rogering Syndrome, inspired by British tabloid allegations that Princess Stephanie might have been "shagging the help again". Or there’s "guys getting nailed": tips for a macho manicure.
You get the picture. It’s pre-prison Martha Stewart (once featured swinging from a chandelier in a Doonan window, complete with tool-kit apron) meets Diana Vreeland, mistress of the incongruous edict. Doonan briefly worked for the late Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar editor when she was director of the Costume Institute, and he "inhaled" her dictatorial tone: "Think pink", "Never go out without your mantilla" and "Why don’t you wash your children’s hair in champagne," she opined. As a youth, Doonan used to collect Vreeland sayings ("You would be insane not to buy a cape this season" and "Put your children in Tyrolean hats - the shorter the child, the longer the feather"). Eventually, he dined with her in her apartment. "She was the hippest and most exotic 80-year-old woman on the planet," he writes in Confessions.
Her pronouncements were life-enhancing for the boy from "ordinaire" Reading - "A cemetery without lights," he says, quoting Oscar Wilde. Growing up, he became convinced that he was Madame Bovary, that there was a world elsewhere, one where he would luxuriate in sex and satin sheets. And there was. "My predilections went unnoticed at home. Our house was filled with lunatics anyway," he reveals, adding that his "arch and contrarian" mother would paint the living-room peacock-blue at the drop of a hat.
To say that Doonan’s extended family was dysfunctional would be a masterly understatement. His lobotomised grandmother (nicknamed Narg by Doonan - Gran backwards), his sister Shelagh (who grew up to become a lesbian social worker), a blind aunt and a dotty uncle who conversed with invisible people, made up the household alongside his parents, Terence and Betty. His late mother was Irish-Scots, and a Spitfire mechanic during the war. Doonan remembers her as a non-stereotypical 1950s housewife, riding her white bicycle down the middle of the high street while smoking a Woodbine and wearing rubber, high-heeled
glitter-flecked galoshes. She was also given to Vreeland-esque remarks: "Frilly nighties are grotesque"; "The neighbours are ordinaire"; and "English people are dreary. Jews and Scots are fabulous, without exception."
Her son knew he was "a pansy" by the age of ten. He would "flit around the backyard trailing a long piece of diaphanous fabric, in the style of the ballets Russes". He failed his 11-plus and almost ended up packing biscuits at the local Huntley & Palmer factory. But somehow he made it to Manchester University, where he has vague memories of reading psychology and the history of art, but more vivid ones of getting glammed up to disco dance with hairdressers from the local Vidal Sassoon salon. He credits his family with giving him "the sense of multiple realities" that cultivated his "trademark of surreal tableaux-vivants".
In order to make some cash, he washed dishes at the Mars Bar factory cafeteria in Slough, before getting a job at the John Lewis department store in Reading. Idly wafting a feather duster around clocks and watches, he contemplated suicide. Eventually, though, Doonan escaped into the fantasy world of window dressing - "a reviled and effeminate trade" - and he has never looked back. "It’s a job that, at first glance, is so gorgeously useless it resists all comparison with other derided professions. At least flight attendants bring you peanuts," he scoffs. Inevitably he found his way to London, where he dressed windows at Turnbull & Asser and Aquascutum. He recalls the greyness of life back then, "although it was amazing what a suburban window dresser could do with 30 yards of floral printed nylon, two sets of deer antlers and a lump of driftwood."
At Nutters, the Savile Row tailors of sharp 1970s suits for Elton, Bianca and Hockney, Doonan created a punk-themed window in which he placed tuxedos in dustbins overrun with stuffed rats wearing rhinestone bracelets around their necks. It was his "window-dressing epiphany", he says. He had given birth to his signature style.
Soon, he was head-hunted for an eight-year window-dressing gig at Maxfield, the groovy west Hollywood fashion retailer. Here, he broke all the rules, recreating Charles and Di’s wedding and the anti-Thatcher riots in London. But LA was affronted when he had coyotes abducting babies - a follow-up to a sensational news story. He also put coffins in the windows and had people hanging themselves in displays. The rake’s progress had begun.
BEFORE moving to New York in 1985, he was set designer for the gallery scene in Beverly Hills Cop and can also be seen bopping about in a pirate outfit in Kim Carnes’ ‘Bette Davis Eyes’ video. But, he admits, success and second-string notoriety only really came when he was hired by Barneys. For his job interview he wore an oversized, drapey Yohji Yamamoto suit and a Vivienne Westwood pirate shirt. "I looked like a bat," he giggles. But he got the job.
Most posh stores, says Doonan, "are as constipated and dry as the Dead Sea scrolls, or else they smack of the duty-free shopping found at airports". Not Barneys. "It became the 20th century’s hottest international temple of celebrity (Calista Flockhart is shopping in the store as we speak, as is best-selling novelist Danielle Steel) and fabulousness.
"And it’s the 21st century’s, too. My Molotov cocktail of punk, camp and trendiness exploded in Barneys’ windows and made them infamous, but they still say: buy here. The best-case scenario is passers-by see something in a window, scream, ‘I can’t live without it,’ rush into the store, and five minutes later prance down the street wearing it."
After making it past security, we are outside Barneys, "inhaling" - one of Doonan’s buzz words - the "tacky chic" of this year’s holiday windows. They are a Vanity Fair-sponsored retrospective of the work of caricaturist Risko. "Note the cheeky juxtaposition of President Bush and his severest critic, Vanity Fair editor-in-chief Graydon Carter," murmurs Doonan.
The windows are a symphony in red. The themes are vamps, camps and scamps (Bette Midler, Joan Collins and Monica Lewinsky alongside Marc Jacobs and Lanvin); movers and shakers (Gore Vidal, Bill and Hill, Graydon and George W amid Alaia and Gucci); divas and deities (Audrey Hepburn, Cher and Madonna, with frocks by Helmut Lang and Alexander McQueen); and hunks and blokes (Elton John and Sylvester Stallone with Moschino and Armani).
"God forbid we ever have to do minimalist windows," confides Doonan. "I’d have a nervous breakdown. Layering, layering, layering. Gorgeous! Fantabuloso!"
Since they are such a tourist attraction, the displays run well into January and through the sales. Doonan simply slashes the windows with details about percentage cuts. A side window is devoted to paintings by young teenagers from East Harlem School. Doonan gave them the theme ‘My Hero’, and the subjects range from John Kerry to Marie Curie and the pupils’ mothers. When he visited the school a few months ago, a seventh-grader asked, "What emotion do you feel when you do a window?" It is not something that Doonan had ever considered, and he’s still trying to work out his answer. "I mean, it’s such a frolicsome profession - cavorting and skipping around a store window arranging merchandise and props in full view of humanity. But, you know, it’s also a superficial, ephemeral mtier, suitable only for a marginalised freak - although I find it hard to imagine why everyone does not clamour to become a window dresser. It’s the perfect job for any half-wit, like me, who grew up in a gritty, black-and-white movie surrounded by deranged relatives."
We head for the underground. Doonan says he can’t wait to get home to his Greenwich Village apartment, sometimes referred to as the Old Curiosity Shoppe, which he shares with his "husband", Jonathan Adler, the renowned potter and textile designer, and their Norwich terrier, Liberace Adler-Doonan. They have just celebrated their tenth anniversary. The couple also have a country home hidden away on Shelter Island.
Once notorious for his penchant for cross-dressing, Doonan says his party days are long gone. "I’m a sober Mary, addicted to work - I’m writing another book that comes out in June. It’s called Nasty: My Family and Other Glamorous Varmints. There’s a lot in it about me and my friend James Biddlecombe. We used to go clubbing in London with Eve Ferret and others of that ilk. We called ourselves Brenda and Yvonne, because we longed to be Rita Tushingham and Lynn Redgrave. I do miss all that old 1960s naffness a bit.
"As for you, darling, I see someone in whom Peggy Moffatt - the American supermodel from the 1960s - meets Issey Miyake," he says, wafting down the subway staircase with a twirl of his wrist. Glowing from such a splendid compliment, I decide it must be so - Simon says. n
Andy Warhol Fashion (Thames & Hudson); Confessions of a Window Dresser: Tales from a Life in Fashion (Viking Studio); and Wacky Chicks (Simon & Schuster USA) are all available now