As Creative Ambassador-at-Large for Barneys, author, cultural observer, and window dresser extraordinaire, Simon Doonan has influenced our fashion sense for over four decades. His bestselling works include Confessions of a Window Dresser, Gay Men Don’t Get Fat, and Eccentric Glamour: Creating an Insanely More Fabulous You. His newest book, Fashion Asylum, is due in 2013. As a regular contributor to Slate, his recent piece on the decline of fine art launched a wave of online discussion. I continued the conversation with him about art, craft, and style.
Karen: I’d like to jump right in to your piece on Slate. You wrote:
“…a lack of skill and craft among artists is sucking the life and the gravitas out of the art world. There are, thank God, still some artists and designers who are bucking this trend and making gorgeous stuff. You won’t find it at trendy galleries or at Art Basel. You are more likely to find it among the potters and craftspeople on Etsy.“
Simon… do go on.
Simon: Well, I’m sort of geriatric about my Internet activities but my husband, Jonathan Adler, has shown me how much great stuff there is on Etsy. He is a potter and loves to look at craft, you know. He started off as a teenage potter selling his stuff at craft fairs. In fact, one of our first dates was in Philly at a crafts show. Something that both he and I have always enjoyed is the magic of what human hands can do.
Karen: So craft has been part of your work, too?
Simon: Oh, yes. One of the key components of my approach was to do things that people never did. So I did incredibly filthy, untidy windows. I did a window with colostomy bags – unused colostomy bags, I want to stress. But in the ’80s, windows became perfection; props were made of fiberglass with perfect surfaces.
Karen: I remember. All the designers went for those seamless matte black finishes.
Simon: I went the other way and used wigs made out of paper mâché and chicken wire, and sheep made out of bubble wrap. I was rebelling in a way, revolting against flawless fiberglass props that were machine made. I collaborated with craftspeople and artists, hairdressers who could make a giant Christmas tree out of wigs. We did an entire room out of pasta for the Sophia Loren window, just making things out of other things. So much of my work was about surrendering to the craftiness of display and realizing that it is actually more charming than some flawless technology. I’m grateful to the world of craft for that.
Karen: Sellers on Etsy need to convey a feeling for their work in a small space on a screen. Do you have any advice for Etsy sellers on how to display their work effectively?
Simon: A window display can be intensely complicated, but for things online, clarity is the mode du jour. Let your object be the focus of attention. The moment calls for simplicity and minimalism. You don’t need a lot of hoo-ha. It’s about good lighting and clarity so that people can feel they are touching the thing. Craft is always tactile.
Karen: That tactile quality…why do you think modern industrial culture seems to devalue just that, work done with the hands?
Simon: Well, actually I’m not entirely qualified to answer that question – remember, I have been a window dresser for 40 years. Camille Paglia, who is so smart, writes about this so well in her book Glittering Images. But I can say in the 1960s, when Futurism came along, the idea of handmade things was considered sort of grotesque. People talked how in the future we’d eat little white pills and wear white Courrèges boots. Everything from germs to dirt to winkles was not part of the Futurist vision of the early ’60s. It was supposed to be all Joe Columbo all the time. Since then, thank God, we’ve had a lot of neo-hippie humanist movements and bohemian revivals.
Karen: So what would you say about personal style for the craftsperson?
Simon: You can be a great craftsperson and be very stylish. In terms of personal style, I encourage women to approach it without any self-critical or masochistic thoughts. I talk about this in my book, Eccentric Glamor. There is no such thing as a faux pas. There is no such thing as a wrong choice. The fashion landscape is so huge that you have to approach it as self-expression, which brings you to the question of “Who are you?” That’s the question you should be concerned with, not trends. When you know who you are, then you are just wardrobing that persona. You’re not frantically looking for a transformative something in a store. Fashion is great for the soul and a little vanity can be very life-affirming for an artist or craftsperson. Just give yourself permission; the really hard-working artists sometimes self-deny. On days when things aren’t going so well in the studio, maybe you want to throw on your beret and play with your identity as you play with your designs. It’s all about being idiosyncratic and being yourself.
Karen: In your career, you undoubtedly came in contact with some garments that had some wonderful handwork, some wonderful craft. Does a particular designer, couturier, or garment stand out for you?
Simon: I think Miuccia Prada has always done fabulous original prints, with lots of stuff on the hem like raffia and oversize beads and cracked mirrors – you’d think no one could attach that to a skirt. Yeah, she’s a gal who does a lot of crafty things, usually in the skirt. Dries Van Noten is a Belgian designer with original prints with lots of embellishments. Belgian designers are probably favorites of people on Etsy. Super creative and very craftsy.
Karen: To me, it seems that no matter how prominent they ultimately become, the people who are the most fun and the least pretentious have usually done something with their hands in their careers.
Simon: I think it’s the people who can actually create something with their own two paws who know the meaning of creative satisfaction.
Simon kindly shared some of his Etsy favorites with us to illustrate the post. For more, check out the related items below!