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.
What’s the biggest misconception about your job?
I think the biggest misconception about me or my work would be that I’m just a creative person. If what you did not only was amusing and talked about, but it actually got people to spend money, that means you really impacted the way they perceived you and your merchandise.
Are there any downsides to your job?
Not really. I love retail. To me, the really exciting bit is when women get to come in and buy the stuff. To me, the moment when the customer actually throws the frock on in the fitting room is much more exciting than the runway moment. The runway moment is just the beginning of a long journey which culminates in the customer actually opening their wallet and buying it. What could be more validating for a designer than [a buyer] actually saying, "I’m going to pony up my hard-earned cash and own this thing that you’ve created?"
Has there been a favorite window you’ve done throughout the years?
I always get a chuckle when I think of Prince Charles and Camilla that we did a couple of years ago with Prince Charles lying in the bath and Camilla with her rollers in and Prince Harry sitting on the throne. It was full of so many bad puns. I love that window.
What do you think is next for the holiday window?
This year was the first time we ever did anything issue-oriented. I think that will be the next step, where people attempt to address issues. If [the stores] shift to doing issue-oriented things, I think many of them may fall into the trap of being a little too preachy and serious, which is something we strenuously avoided with our "Green" campaign.
How did you decide on the "green" theme for this year’s windows and how did you actually go green?
Our fashion director Julie Gilhart and our CEO Howard Sokol were very into the idea of having a "green" holiday and I wasn’t into it. The "green" thing was very challenging for me, so I thought the best way to approach it was just to have fun with it. So we did holiday icons like "Rudolph the Recycling Reindeer." We took holiday icons and gave them a green twist, like a green version of the 12 Days of Christmas.
Do you have any advice for a novice holiday decorator?
I think there are a lot of things you can do at home. For example, you know those silver pot scrubbers? They look absolutely great as a wreath and you can hang onto them afterward and use them for pot scrubbing. If you love a particular artist then go buy millions of postcards and then with little clips, you can clip them all over your tree and make an art tree which reflects your taste in art. I always encourage people to use holiday décor as a form of personal expression because there really are no rules. Using found objects is very groovy and is kind of a fun way to look at things.