Simon Doonan does not consider himself a visionary.
For a quarter of a century, he was the creative force behind the window displays at Barneys New York. Since 1986, he’s helped distinguish the clothing store’s edgy, alternative image through unconventional arrangements that stunned, delighted and offended passersby, and solidified him as a fashion icon who remains on the cutting edge of the industry.
Just don’t ask him where the future of the industry is heading.
“I strive to keep abreast on stuff,” said Doonan, a keynote speaker at the 2018 PromaxBDA Conference from June 11-14 at the New York Hilton Midtown. But predicting what’s next is not his forte.
When he first heard advertisers were going to start using digital cameras instead of film, “I was like, that’s crazy,” he said.
When there were rumors that people were going to be buying their clothes online in the next five years, “I said, that’s crazy,” Doonan said. “You need to try them on, look at yourself in the mirror, have the experience of the salesperson telling you not to buy them, or to buy them.”
If you told him 20 years ago that everyone in Manhattan was going to be walking down the street looking at rectangles that fit in their pockets, he would have responded, “that’s crazy.”
While Doonan has always approached the future with a healthy dose of skepticism, “I was never change resistant; I was always excited about it,” he said.
With an attitude of “are you sure?” he’s been nimble enough to embrace whatever evolution comes his way—and then take it to the next level.
“I think I’m a very creative person, and I have good instincts about marketing, but I don’t think I’m very visionary,” he said. “Once [change] starts happening, I can make it look great, and keep it in sync with the brand and image. But certain people have this magical way of seeing into the future, and I’m always astonished by what those people do.”
Instead, the secret to his success lies in his talent as a nonconformist.
“I’m very good at looking at something and thinking here’s what everyone else is doing, now we’re going to do something different,” he said.
When luxury dictates a marble slab, a chic handbag and a pair of shoes, Doonan sees a “terribly boring” image, and instead envisions chandeliers and Coney Island. He would make physical lists of what the competition was doing, then gravitate towards filthy and unexpected when standards called for clean, tidy and meticulous.
“I would do the complete opposite of what convention dictated and that has served me very well,” Doonan said. “That’s what made my career.”
While Doonan hung up in his glue gun in 2010, he still works at Barneys as the brand’s creative ambassador-at-large. He and husband and furniture designer Jonathan Adler are also featured on the store’s recently launched The Barneys Podcast, and Doonan has been a guest on The Moth podcast as well. Not to mention his role as a Slate columnist, the fact that he’s about to publish a book about the intersection of soccer and fashion just in time for the 2018 FIFA World Cup, and that he’s a judge on NBC’s upcoming crafting competition series Making It, co-hosted by Amy Poehler and Nick Offerman.
“My passion is just staying creatively stimulated,” he said.
All of these pursuits have been a welcome break from the intense work life that marked his early career. Even then, as he designed artistic, often provocative, window displays that shocked and awed, he was equally motivated by the need to pay his electricity bill.
“I was always acutely aware that this is my job,” he said. “I have to show up and give it 200 percent, because these people are paying me. It’s a very old-fashioned attitude.”
As a creative director for so many years, Doonan is used to rushing into meetings and making quick, instinctual decisions about what needs to be tweaked.
“If you’re a creative person you’ve got responses to stuff,” he said. “You know immediately what needs to change—like the copy that needs to be made larger—and through experience you develop those skills, and that’s why you’re paid.”
Today, with that same “work-hard philosophy” his challenge is to dial it back a bit by trying to make sure the critiques he’s giving are more constructive and not too overbearing as he keeps his expertise in perspective.
“In my 20s, I didn’t have the visual sophistication that I have in my 50s,” he said. “You gather that experience as you go along.”
Throughout his career as a window dresser, he’s honed his ability to come up with themes that strike a collective cord, and resonate with society and pop culture. From “Have a Hippy Holiday” that celebrated the 50th anniversary of the peace sign, to a display inspired by Andy Warhol, “I would always strive to come up with a concept that kind of held everything together,” he said.
One of his favorite campaigns was the final display he created for Barneys as he became aware that many of the store’s customers were becoming increasing obsessed with celebrity chefs.
Doonan himself is not a foodie.
“It’s not something that’s very interesting to me,” he said. “But I was aware that other people in general were extremely interested in it.”
So he immersed himself that world, studying the subculture as though it were a new language.
“Those foodie windows, they were my last ones,” he said. “I threw myself into them; I worked on them for months.” His 2010 “Have a Foodie Holiday” display features the likes of Martha Stewart, Guy Fieri, Wolfgang Puck and others, flinging dishes and ingredients at each other in a massive, over-the-top food fight.
“The takeaway is how to work on your brand, and distinguish it from other people,” he said. “How to stand out and maintain that edge, which is so important, especially today.”