Daily Features

The Multibillion-Dollar Madhouse

Insanity never looked so good: Simon Doonan's book, The Asylum, recounts a life spent in the fashion industry

By Bryn Smith, Superscript September 11, 2013

New York’s fashion week draws to a close on Thursday, but don’t fret if you weren’t invited inside the tent. Fashion is a nuthouse, a refuge, or some combination of the two, according to writer and self-proclaimed bon vivant Simon Doonan. His new memoir, The Asylum: A collage of couture reminiscences...and hysteria (Blue Rider Press), draws a parallel between fashion insiders and actual mental patients (both see patterns everywhere and have an affinity for avant-garde style), but the premise merely serves as a jumping off point for Doonan’s exaggerated, and often caustic prose.

The Asylum: A collage of couture reminiscences...and hysteria by Simon Doonan. Photo: courtesy of Blue Rider Press

Now creative ambassador at large for Barneys New York, and husband to designer Jonathan Adler, Doonan distills a lifetime in the industry into two dozen delicious (and digestible) bon mots. Highlights include: rubbing elbows with Marc Jacobs, Thierry Mugler, Steven Meisel, and Madonna at Gaiety, a male strip joint and early-1990s de facto social club for the fashion set; denying Alexander McQueen a room in which to do his drugs; advising Rei Kawakubo on the best place in L.A. to spend an afternoon (answer: the G-string and pastie emporium Playmates); and how Michael Kors’s love of disco literally brought the house down during a runway show. Doonan also waxes about the intelligence of models, his hatred for Lauren Weisberger’s The Devil Wears Prada, a fascination with fat, and his escape from the “crap town” of Reading, England. He cautiously touches on serious subjects as well, such as his own family’s history of mental illness, the brutality of AIDS as it hit fashion’s best and brightest, and Anna Wintour’s 30-year-reign.

The final chapter, “Zips Up The Back With No Bones,” traces the phenomenon of informal modeling, and may prove surprisingly prescient. Just last week, designer Rachel Comey ditched the traditional runway for a chance to show her spring collection in a very different setting. Models walked among guests while they ate in a 19th-century factory in Red Hook, Brooklyn. According to Doonan, “Informal modeling is Dada and strange at the best of times,” and at its worst it is “like street theater, minus the BO.” Either way, I see a pattern.

The Book

The Asylum Simon Doonan

A madcap tour of the fabulous and often bizarre personalities behind fashion’s big names, The Asylum is a good point of entrée for the fashion outsider. Learn both about Thom Browne’s creative genius and his penchant for dressing “like a very chic Jehovah’s Witness.” Or how fashion people are currently obsessed with toxins “in a Gwyneth [Paltrow] kind of way.” Doonan will be holding court next Monday, September 16, at the 92nd Street Y in New York City.

Doonan and his husband, designer Jonathan Adler. Photo courtesy of AOL Studios 
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