Vintage mannequins. Coyotes abducting children. Stuffed cats. Peanuts.

That is how Simon Doonan, who from 1986 to 2010 was the creative force behind the window displays at Barneys New York, began his career.

“I’m proud of the fact that I figured out the way to do stuff other people weren’t doing,” Doonan said from the main stage at the 2018 PromaxBDA Conference.

After his first job and a few freelance gigs, at the “naive, ferrell” age of 25, he moved to Los Angeles to work at the Maxfield department store frequented by the likes of Fleetwood Mac and Cher.

“It was one of the highest grossing square foot stores in America, but it was this tiny little hole in the wall,” Doonan said. “That in itself was a very unconventional thing.”

It aligned with his unconventional displays inspired by punk rock, mannequins from the 1930s, stuffed cats used in movies, and stories of coyotes coming into Los Angeles and abuducting pets, and apparently children—to name a few.

“I didn’t have much of a budget so I’d find things in the trash,” he said. “I loved doing things on the cheap—and party because I had to.”

After eight years in Los Angeles and bit a of press coverage, he was offered a job at Barneys and moved to New York.

“I thought, I have to make this a little more posh,” he said. “But I was still trying to be surreal and do something other people weren’t doing.”

RELATED: Barneys Window Dresser Simon Doonan on Setting Your Brand Apart

“Kidnapped baby window,” Maxfield, Los Angeles, circa 1980s
“Holiday window,” Maxfield, Los Angeles, circa 1980s

Martha Stewart swinging from a chandelier, and repairing it at the same time. Bette Midler as a dancing Christmas tree. Margaret Thatcher in a dungeon, dressed as a dominatrix.

In the late ‘80s, Doonan noticed a renewed obsession with celebrities. Vanity Fair had just releanched, and people were starting to get serious about watching the Academy Awards.

When Nancy Reagan left the White House left the White House, Doonan created a Christmas display of her standing in a signature red suit, with American Airlines tickets held behind her back, and surrounded by objects she was associated with, such as astrology books and a King Charles spaniel made from paper-mache.

“All the references to the Reagan period are in this window and people went crazy,” Doonan said. He tried to make the mannequin itself resemble the former first lady “but it was horrible so I turned it around.”

The display received a ton of press from around the world, and solified Doonan’s newfound focus on the rich and famous.

“At this point I’m thinking, wow, I’m going to ride the celebrity thing,” Doonan said.

Whoopi Goldberg and Madonna; Tammy Faye Bakker and Ivana Trump; Dolly Parton and Prince; Joan Rivers and Magic Johnson. These were just some of the big names featured in his displays.

“Everytime I did a window there would be crowds of people on the sidewalk,” Doonan said. He gravitated toward people in pop culture who weren’t necessarily posh.

“In other words, picking celebrities who were not sophisticated enough for Barneys,” he said. It gave the clothing store something a little different—it gave it an edge.

He tuned in what society was talking about at the time.

Doonan constructed displays around Magic Johnson when he came out as HIV positive—“an incredibly courageous thing to do,” he said—and captured the moment Anna Wintour got her job at Vogue. When Andy Warhol died, and it became known that he was a bit of a hoarder, Doonan crafted “Andy the Compulsive Collector.”

“It was not what I liked, but what people were obsessing about,” he said.

Nancy Reagan
Nancy Reagan window
“Dominatrix Margaret Thatcher,” Barneys NY
“Madonna,” Barneys NY

Lampshades on heads. Mr. Potato Head. Destroyed rooms. Lots and lots of panthose.

At a time when the widows of luxury stores were clean and minimal with marble columns, Doonan conjured Coney Island.

“Because everybody loves Coney Island, and the windows are very democratic, everybody gets to see them,” he said.

He threw in as many products as he could, creating mad collages that went against the grain, contrasting the typical restraint of Barneys’ competition. It led to destroyed rooms, lampshades on heads, and a series of displays around pantyhose.

“Because people stopped wearing pantyhose, and we had boxes full of pantyhose,” he said.

One display featured a woman in a dress lounging on piled up branches.

“I was running out of money for the season, and I noticed they were cutting down trees,” Doonan said.

Doonan was also inspired by the idea of transforming mundane objects into something entirely new.

“Everything was made out of something else, and that’s a signature thing I started doing that gave Barneys an edge,” Doonan said.

Brush scrubbers became holiday trees. He used old computer parts to form a portrait of Bill Gates, and created Cleopatra out of old beer bottle tops and used legs of a mannequin for her eyebrows.

Shakespeare he created from office supplies purchased from Staples—because Shakespeare was a writer.

“Mr. Potato Head,” Barneys NY
“pantyhose,” Barneys NY
Barneys, NY
Barneys, NY

Peace signs and puns. Rudolph the Recycling Reindeer. SNL and Sex and the City.

Puns played a big role in his work. Cher was featured in a Christmas display, “because the holidays are for “cher-ing,” he joked.

When reality shows like Big Brother started to get popular, “I thought why can’t we have people living in the windows?” So he hired students to pretend it was there home, and wave at passerby.

Doonan also paid homage to television shows, creating displays for Sex and the City when the long-running series ended, and celebrating the 35th anniversary of Saturday Night Live with a conehead display.

He took on social issues as well, going green with an environmental display featuring “Rudolph the Recycling Reindeer” made out of tin cans and plastic, and honoring the 50th anniversary of the peace sign.

Toward the end of his window display career, “I noticed our culture is obsessed with food,” he said. “It was bewildering to me. People are obsessing about cooking shows.”

So he studied the subculture like a foreign language, and in 2010 created his final window. “Have a Foodie Holiday” features celebrity chefs such as Wolfgang Puck, Guy Fieri, Martha Stewart and Anthony Bourdain flinging plastic food as each other in a massive fight.

So he studied the subculture like a foreign language, and in 2010 created his final window. “Have a Foodie Holiday” features celebrity chefs such as Wolfgang Puck, Guy Fieri, Martha Stewart and Anthony Bourdain flinging plastic food as each other in a massive fight.

“Just do things other people aren’t doing,” Doonan said. “And that, to me, is a great way of being creative.”

“Green Holiday,” Barneys NY 2007
“Peace and Love,” Barneys NY 2008
“Peace and Love,” Barneys NY 2008
“Saturday Night Live,” Barneys, NY, Holiday 2009
“Saturday Night Live,” Barneys, NY, Holiday 2009

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