Fashion: Nuthouse or Refuge?

Simon Doonan's Asylum book cover

“AH!  FASHION.  A nuthouse? A refuge? Or maybe both. Yes, an asylum in both senses of the word.  A place where unemployable crazy people are always welcome.”  

So begins Simon Doonan’s book The Asylum, with most of the ensuing 268 pages devoted to making his case that hardcore fashionistas and the mentally ill have far more in common than one might think. Doonan is the former, celebrated window dresser and Creative Ambassador-at-Large of shuttered luxury department store Barneys New York. 

Doonan's friend Lizzie, a doctor who works at an NYC public mental hospital, points out to him that both fashion people and the clinically insane see patterns where none exist, and both focus on them in a desperate attempt to impose order on the chaos of their lives, and very few of the stories contradict the basic premise in the slightest.  

The stories include such delights as trying to find a peacock for a Diana Vreeland-curated Met exhibit, and settling for a taxidermied seagull; taking Rei Kawakubo of Commes des Garcons fame to Frederick’s of Hollywood for inspiration; Danny, "the only convicted felon in U.S. legal history whose parole date was dictated by the French couture calendar;” why models are often amateur shamans and obsessed with toxins; Tom Ford, then of Gucci, demanding male models with a “moist lip”; an angry goat channelling Black Phillip and crashing the runway; Anna Wintour of Vogue, emerging from a couture show during which the ceiling collapsed, her signature bob in place and only a touch of plaster dust; and why Queen Elizabeth is never, ever allowed to be “chic”...

...and these are just some of the highlights, along with tales involving some of Doonan's window-dressing co-workers over the years, such as one woman’s Hari Krishna mother babysitting her young son in a corner of the art studio.

It’s not all fashion hijinks, though; in the story “Willi Smith was a right-on sista,” Doonan dissolves into tears while being interviewed by a CNN reporter when he looks back at so many of his friends and friends-of-friends in the fashion and art worlds who died of AIDS in the 1980s and ‘90s. He begs the reader to remember the people he lists, along with so many others, as actual human beings--not merely names in the annals of fashion, but complex and fascinating individuals who lived their lives out loud and in color, and then died far too soon.  

Come for the wacky stories; stay for Doonan’s love of both the fashion industry and the people involved with it.

--Robin Colleen Moore, Senior Substitute Librarian

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