Chick magnet: style maven Simon Doonan talks about his new book, Wacky Chicks, and the fabulous women who inspired it – books – Interview
“I actually sound very much like a woman on the phone,” says Simon Doonan. “[I spend half] my time on the phone being called ‘ma’am.’ When I point out that I’m actually a guy, people go into some terrible genuflection of apology and contrition, like they just said the worst possible thing to me. That’s always bothered me, the fact that the worst thing you can do to a man is misconstrue his gender.”
In his delicious new book, Wacky Chicks: Life Lessons From Fearlessly Inappropriate and Fabulously Eccentric Women, Doonan celebrates and dishes the dirt with 20 unconventional women whose maverick lifestyles he hopes will encourage each and every one of us to “release the wackiness lurking beneath our blouses.”
“Everyone loves an over-the-top woman who is belligerent, resilient, uninhibited, naughty, creative, and hilarious,” says Doonan, the window dresser turned author who has charmed the fashion world with roughly the same traits. A few of the wacky chicks you’ll meet in Doonan’s book: a woman who has lived in a storage locker; the proud owner of 38 lizards and a tarantula; and one of Andy Warhol’s former Factory girls. Doonan sees these provocateurs not as a bunch of kooky broads but as important representatives of the evolution of women’s culture.
“Wacky chicks are the crowning achievement of women’s lib,” he says. “They are disapproval-immune. They are beacons of uninhibited empowerment.”
As creative director of Barneys New York, Doonan exercised his own disapproval immunity with his magnificently over-the-top advertising campaigns and window displays. Also, he could write. The success of his first book, Confessions of a Window Dresser, netted Doonan a weekly column in the The New York Observer. Although the idea for Wacky Chicks was inspired in part by the positive response he got after interviewing several of them in his colunm–“People just went batshit,” he says–Doonan’s love affair with wacky chicks began at an early age.
“I think I resonate with wacky chicks because they remind me of my mom, who was really a rule breaker,” says Doonan. Born in Northern Ireland in 1918, Betty Doonan became a leading aircraft electrician for the Royal Air Force during World War II and “eventually bluffed her way into the editorial news department of the British Broadcasting Corporation.” All the while, she maintained her joie de vivre, a belligerent tongue, and a stylish albeit unconventional feminine allure.
Doonan shares his love of wacky chicks as well as a New York City apartment with his partner of nine years, potter and decorator Jonathan Adler, and their “son,” Liberace Doonan-Adler, a 5-year-old Norwich terrier. “We’re actually very 1950s, like Arthur and Martha,” says Doonan of his relationship with boyfriend Adler. “I think people actually find it quite disturbing that we refuse to do anything without each other. But we are ragingly dependent on each other and adore each other.”
Doonan’s book also speaks to the old gay wives’ tale that while gay men might like women’s adornments, they don’t actually like women. “I think lots of gay men feel, especially in America, where there is a conformist streak in high school, that women are laughing at them,” he observes. “I feel very lucky not to have gone down that road. But I feel that’s because the women around me were very magnetic, outgoing, outspoken, fun characters.”
Recalling his desire to dress up in his mother’s glittery, high-heeled galoshes when he was 10, Doonan says, “My wacky chick obsession results from a deep-seated need to establish that, contrary to popular belief, it’s OK to be different. In fact, it is positively preferable and really rather fab.”
Kaye is a television writer-producer working in Los Angeles.
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