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Simon Doonan: San Francisco Is the Center of the Fashion World

Image via <a href="">Barneys</a>
Image via Barneys

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Simon Doonan has been at the forefront fashion for 35 years as a window dresser at Barneys, a writer, a decorator for the Obamas during the holidays, and a designer of Target's Halloween costumes. So you can just imagine the stories he has to tell. But you don't have to—you can go beyond imagining and dive right into his world thanks to his latest book, The Asylum, a Collage of Couture Reminiscences... and Hysteria.

We stepped into Doonan's office—the shoe department at the San Francisco Barneys—for a chat about the charms of San Francisco, his favorite local haunts, and the secret to his success (hint, it involves diving boards.)

How long have you been in San Francisco?
"My plane landed at 10am and we flew from L.A."

Did you do a book signing in L.A.?
"Yes, at the new Barneys store in The Grove, which is a transformed glamour palace, it's so gorgeous."

Do you come to San Francisco often?
"Yeah, of course! When we opened this store I was here a lot, a lot, a lot. And then I've come consistently for events and stuff like that."

Do you have any favorite shopping haunts in San Francisco?
I've been coming to San Francisco since the '70s, so I feel very at home here. Ben and Chris at M.A.C. are very old friends of mine. So there's a lot of people here who have great stores and my husband (Jonathan Adler) has a store on Fillmore and Sacramento."

Does he visit pretty often as well?
"Constantly, yes! Anyone in fashion or retail is always happy to come to San Francsisco. The energy here is very groovy and dynamic and fun. There are always lots of interesting things going on—well not always—but you know it goes up and down depending on the economy. I always ask the cab drivers, "How's business?" and they'll tell you. You get a really good window into how things are going and it's been pretty positive for the past few years.

My friends at Boulette's Larder just opened a new restaurant called Bouli Bar in the Ferry Building, it's great. I always go to Zuni. Alice Waters at Chez Panisse, j'adore. The thing about San Francisco food is it's what Europe should have stuck with. The ideas came from Europe but then Europe moved on and went into this really contrived horrible food, especially in France. But in San Francisco, the focus on local ingredients and that rustic cuisine is still very much alive."

Do you have any favorite SF neighborhoods?
"I dunno, often when Jonny and I go to Zuni we walk there, and walking through all the different neighborhoods is hilarious and frightening and exciting and inspiring. That's always the magic of San Francisco, how quickly the neighborhoods can change from fancy to terrifying to glamorous to whatever. It's a really remarkable city."

What do you think about how San Francisco has changed over the years?
"San Francisco has changed over the years in the way that other major American cities have changed—because of the internet. There's no lag time anymore between New York and San Francisco. You have the same gorgeous merchandise in this store as we have in New York. I just did a walk through the store and I'm looking at the same things at the same time whereas that didn't used to be the case. In the past there was this lag time and people who lived in Chicago or San Francisco or Dallas were acutely aware that they were (outsiders).

I think people who live here still psychologically feel like they're not quite the center of everything but they are. They are—you can buy anything you want anytime of the day morning noon and night., hello!"

That's good to remember because it's true we do often feel like outsiders.
"But San Francisco has always been very stylish!"

Do you feel like San Francisco still has an identity, style wise?
San Francisco had the counter-culture and the bohemian and the hippie and all that stuff in the late '60s and that was such a defining moment and it's something that to this day still reverberates and people still use as a fashion reference and inspiration. That's huge, and it's really tough to live up to."

Your writing is wonderful, when did you start writing?
"It happened by accident when I was getting my first book together (which was mostly images of my windows). The publisher asked me to write an intro, and he said oh my god, your writing is hilarious."

What do you think is the secret to your success?
"I think it's mostly that great opportunities came my way at the right time. And I never hesitated or asked for a lot of input. I was offered a job in L.A., and I was living in London with this transvestite and we were drinking like crazy like you do when you're young—I was 21. And I came home and told him I was offered this job in L.A. and he said, "Where's that?" and I said, "I dunno!" And a month later I was moving to L.A."

Is there maybe a reason why you've attracted great opportunities?
"I don't know. I don't procrastinate. You know how some people procrastinate? I was always the one who was able to jump off the diving board. I was always intrepid. Intrepid and hard working—say that (haha). And with really low expectations. So I was always delighted! And people say, oh that must be so hard, being on a book tour. Hard is working in the cork factory, which was my first job when I was 16, making bottle top liners out of cork. That's hard, because it's so fucking boring."