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My Cultural Life: Simon Doonan

The creative director, author and window dresser on what he’s reading, listening to and more

simon doonan interview
Joe Gaffney

Three decades spent dreaming up witty and wild displays for much-loved New York department store Barneys has earned British-born Simon Doonan the moniker of ‘world’s most famous window dresser’, and a hand in decorating the White House for the Obamas’ first Christmas in 2009. Now a best-selling writer, fashion commentator and judge for US TV crafting competition Making It, his latest book, How To Be Yourself: Life-Changing Advice From A Reckless Contrarian (Phaidon, £9.95) is a rousing call for self-belief in the face of conformist culture. ‘When you see the world through an unconventional lens you will always enjoy the view’. simondoonan.com

simon doonan interview
Led Zeppelin
ZUMA Press / Alamy

I was lucky to come of age in the 1960s. I saw Jimi and Joni and The Doors and all the greats. After that we had Roxy Music, Bolan and Bowie – I was a huge glam-rock devotee – and then punk and new wave. I was into all of it. If I had to choose one track, it would be When the Levee Breaks by Led Zeppelin. It’s totally heavy, man.

The record that makes me instantly happy is The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba by Handel, which is extremely camp and always puts a smile on my face and a skip in my step.

At the moment I’m listening to a lot of Kraftwerk. It’s very soothing and I can use it as background music when I write.

The books that have influenced me the most are by Edna O’Brien. As a teen, I was shocked that she was so candid about sex and the stuff nobody ever talked about – it was so very daring and liberating for my generation. I also love Muriel Spark, for her wicked sense of humour.

simon doonan interview
W&N

I’m currently reading Jane Birkin’s new memoir, Munkey Diaries, which includes her time with Serge Gainsbourg. I’m reading it in French, which makes me sound very pretentious, but I have a Kindle, so I can touch a word and get an instant translation. Jane B is definitely a reckless contrarian – I’m loving it.

My all-time favourite film is Midnight Cowboy. I saw it when it came out at The Odeon in Reading and fell in love with its depiction of New York – seedy and trashy but also glamorous. I knew I’d end up living there.

I never miss an episode of The Guardian’s ‘Football Weekly’ podcast, which is informative, bonkers and very amusing. I’m a big footie fan and watch Premier League games every week. If I had been born a girl, I would definitely have become a WAG.

I prefer smaller museums such as The Gustave Moreau museum in Paris. You feel like you’re back in 19th-century Paris, hanging out with Proust and Oscar Wilde.

simon doonan interview
Hemis / Alamy Stock Photo

I don’t collect anything. My husband [Jonathan Adler] is such a prolific potter and designer that our house is already full. Thank God I’m not a hoarder.

Festive traditions? I spent so many decades up to my eyeballs with Christmas zhoosh, that I love to be a spectator and see other people’s windows, like Faye McLeod at Louis Vuitton and David Hoey at Bergdorf Goodman.

If I had to choose a favourite window from my back catalogue, it would be my swan song at Barneys. I designed a set of windows which paid tribute to foodie culture, with celebrity chefs having a gigantic messy food fight. It was very punk and gaudy and crazy.

One of my favourite quotes is from Coco Chanel: ‘My life did not please me. So I created my life.’ I like it because it encourages us to take charge and reshape our own lives without seeking help or permission.

Next, I'm shooting another series of Making It. It’s an insane amount of fun and I have my own trailer, so I feel like Marlene Dietrich, or maybe Dot Cotton.

This article first appeared in ELLE Decoration December 2020

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