Open Windows


Open Windows

Barneys' window designer Simon Doonan 'fesses up about divine inspiration, design tricks and the culture of retail windows

Store windows balance two roles: prompting spontaneous desire and instant gratification in the short-term, they also must tell an evolving story about the store over a period of time.

This is one of the major truths offered by Simon Doonan, the notorious window dresser for Barneys New York in New York City, in his new autobiography, Confessions of a Window Dresser.Amid a sea of Manhattan department stores struggling to stand out, Doonan for 20 years has been challenged with the responsibility of communicating the Barneys message to the world: that the store is hip, instinctive about new talent, in touch with the designers' visions, willing to take risks, equipped with the best customer service and committed to classic, enduring quality.

He has addressed the challenge with outrageous, theatrical store windows, immersing the featured clothing designs in a whirlwind of pop culture. The windows often are obsessively elaborate (a recent tribute to the styles of India used 13,000 Q-tips and 68 boxes of pink wafer cookies for the background design alone), occasionally controversial and usually hilarious, bizarre and startling. His weekly statements build an identity for Barneys that carries itself distinctively beyond the designer names the store carries.

He shares some of his tricks in his book. Among them:

  • Consult different eras and cultures. When designing his windows, Doonan looks at vintage issues of Esquire,display books from the early 20th century and modern European magazines such as Wallpaper.His emerging style, he writes, "combined the Deco glamour of prewar retailing with the European boutique sensibility."
  • Make the fashions the focal point. No matter how carried away he gets with a window, he never allows gimmicks to upstage the merchandise. Doonan says he learned early in his career to consult with the fashion designer whose clothing he's accessorizing before going ahead with a window display.
  • Use pop culture, high and low. Distinguished art, literature and music are excellent inspiration for window ideas, but so are seedy talk shows, tabloid journalism and horror movies, Doonan says. Nuances of both give windows an irony and hipness.
  • Borrow other peoples' ideas. Doonan strongly encourages looking everywhere and learning from everybody. Window-shop in cities you visit and jot ideas, find pictures of old Gene Moore windows at Tiffany & Co. and don't look just at upscale retailers – Doonan suggests groceries and liquor stores for studying the effectiveness of "obsessive repetition."
  • Don't fear controversy, with exceptions. Don't be afraid to "get up people's noses," writes Doonan, who abhors political correctness; edgy designs are bound to offend somebody, no matter what. However, avoid religion or sex in your themes.
  • Incorporate text. Whether it's newspaper clippings, handwriting on torn scraps of paper, license plates or signs, text is an effective design element because it stops and engages the viewer.

Sometimes bad taste is just as effective in a shop window as good taste. "Don't be afraid to get up people's noses," says Simon Doonan. Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in dominatrix garb is certain to offend some, but will attract and amuse others.


– by Stacey King

Copyright © 1999 by Bond Communications.


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