Every holiday season, New York’s biggest department stores compete for the most lavish window displays to lure shoppers in from the cold and over to their registers. Simon Doonan, legendary creative director of Barney’s New York, has created the store’s elaborate—and often irreverent—displays for the past 21 years. His avant-garde designs have included caricatures of celebrities from Madonna to Margaret Thatcher, but this year his theme is going green. He tells Smithsonian.com what it takes to create jaw-dropping holiday designs year after year.
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How did you get your start?
Well, like many great jobs, I got here through serendipity. In my 20s, I was very into having fun and freewheeling. I didn’t really have much of a career focus. I worked in a store, and I got involved in windows.
So I did windows at lots of different types of shops and then one day this guy came in when I was 25 years old and said, "You know, I like your windows. You should come to L.A. and do my windows." This was Tommy Perse, the owner of Maxfield’s. I moved to L.A. and worked at his store. This was during a period where my style of windows was very edgy and punky.
I knew a friend who used to work at the Costume Institute under Diana Vreeland. I managed to wrangle an actual paying position [at the Costume Institute], and I worked for six months on "Costumes of Royal India" in 1985. At the opening of that exhibit, I met the guy who owned Barney’s at the time, Gene Pressman and he said, "Oh, I’ve seen your windows in L.A., I’ve heard about them and I want you to come do our windows." So at the beginning of 1986, I moved to New York and started working at Barney’s when it was one store downtown. That was 21 years ago.
Describe your typical day at work.
I get up very early and I read all the papers. I read Women’s Wear Daily, then I try and get some writing done before I go to Barney’s because I write a bi-monthly column for the New York Observer. I have another book coming out in April that I’m just finishing up called Eccentric Glamour that’s about injecting your personal style with more eccentricity and not falling into the trap of looking like everybody else. Then at Barney’s I sort of bounce around between the different departments that I interact with. So it’s a very fun, creative job.
What kind of background or training do you have?
I went to university and I studied the history of art and psychology. When people say they want to study visual merchandising, I say you’re out of your mind. Go study the history of art. I mean if you don’t know who the Russian constructivists were, then you’re not going to bring much to the table.
I grew up in a house with a sort of miscellaneous relatives, some of whom were mentally ill. I think that it made me very imaginative and very open to looking at things very laterally, or seeing things differently than other people.
How did holiday window decorations in New York become as popular as they are today?
I think that New York has been the capital of window display for pretty much the whole of the 21st century. [It started] at the beginning of the century, when stores first got large plate-glass windows. It’s been very competitive. There are many more stores now and everybody has to get the consumer’s attention, so it has become more major but it was always pretty major. All the big stores always pulled out all the stops.
How does it feel to be a part of something so famous in New York history?
I love that fact that the Barney’s windows have become a must-see during the holidays. I feel that’s an honor, but also that I’ve made a rod for my own back because the expectations are high.
What has been your most exciting moment on the job?
I think the first time that I stuck a whole load of celebrity caricatures in the windows. We had Margaret Thatcher, Tammy Faye Baker, Prince, Madonna and all the most resonant celebrities. People went completely bananas. Our block downtown at the time didn’t have a lot of holiday traffic, but people were 20 deep on the sidewalk and I looked out of the window and I just about plotzed. That was in 1989.