The following piece is an excerpt from Simon Doonan’s new book The Asylum: A Collage of Couture Reminiscences … and Hysteria.
At some point in the early ‘70s, as I flicked a feather duster over wall-mounted sunburst clocks, brass carriage clocks, booming grandfather clocks and those depressing rows of moc-croc travel alarms, I was compelled to ask myself a truly heavy question: Is this how I am destined to spend the rest of my fucking life? Is this my lot?
Cuckoo! Cuckoo! Cuckoo!
After graduating college, I had returned home to Reading, Berkshire, and taken a job selling clocks and watches at the local John Lewis department store. Though I did not realize it at the time, this was the starting point of my fashion odyssey.
Working in retail during one of the most blighted economic periods in British history turned out to be a grimly surreal endeavor. In the absence of moneyed customers, or any kind of customers, I occupied myself by keeping each timepiece fully wound and synchronized. A certain satisfaction came when, upon the hour, all the carriage clocks and cuckoos ejaculated and exploded into action, scaring the shit out of the few customers within earshot.
Things looked up when I was transferred to the luggage department. Getting away from the clocks—an unwanted reminder of the horribly relentless passing of time and the inevitable approach of death—was a huge relief. And there was something undeniably upbeat about travel goods. The sight of a spanking new avocado green (remember, we are talking about the early ‘70s) Samsonite Tourister with matching cosmetics case never failed to suggest that life elsewhere was full of possibilities.
And speaking of possibilities: I also found myself working alongside a certain tall, languid queen. This attenuated person was fun and amiable, but most important, this attenuated person had a special friend named Eric. The special friend named Eric was so special that he had made his way out of our hometown and struck gold. He was working—drumroll!—as a dress designer in London.
Eric did not design dresses, per se. His specialty was “missy separates.” Missy separates were not to be sneezed at. Missy separates—tight sweaters, frilly blouses, tweedy skirts and slacks—were a huge business back then. Every young slag in Reading would somehow manage to scrape together the pennies to buy a “fab new top” or a “nifty skirt” to enhance her weekend pub crawls and nocturnal escapades.
Today, Reading is a barely recognizable gleaming beacon of reinvention. With a Premier League soccer team and masses of corporate investors such as Oracle setting up shop, Reading has never seemed more foofy and fabulous. Quel contrast! Back in my day, Reading was a slaggy, violent kind of town. On Saturday nights all the young moderns would head to the Top Rank ballroom opposite the train station, looking for pep pills and a fight. Oblivious to the peace-and-love revolution of the counterculture, and the arrival of the now famous Reading Festival, the local youth were still very much committed to mod clothes, ska music and chewing diet pills to get high.
I had one foot in this world. A pal named Jim worked at the local yob clothing store selling Crombie coats and Harrington jackets to neighborhood lads. I had my posse of straight friends. On Saturday nights we would wear our Sta-prest pants, Ben Shermans and Fred Perrys, and head to the “Rank,” where I would chat to all the girls about how great their new missy separates looked and pray to god that nobody would figure out that I was as queer as a three-pound note.
The other foot was placed in a more daring location. While working at John Lewis, I was living a double life. Every couple of weeks, I would make an excuse, throw on my Mr. Freedom polka-dot sweater—or maybe the knockoff Mr. Freedom satin jockey jacket I had stitched myself because I was so desperate to have one but did not possess the requisite dosh—and nip off to the Railway Tavern with some of my gay John Lewis pals.
These included my lifelong best friend Biddie, aka James Biddlecombe, who worked in the John Lewis soft-furnishings department. Together we made our inaugural trip to the Railway Tavern where we found the local gays. There they were, still stuck in the 1950s, squeezed into fluffy sweaters and lacey stretch nylon shirts, listening to Judy Garland, knocking back gin and tonics ... and more.
Some of the gays, as Biddie and I were fascinated to discover, were locked in the vicelike grip of a strange and noteworthy addiction. They drank endless bottles of a mysterious liquid called Dr. J. Collis Browne’s Chlorodyne. Collis Browne’s was an old-school, over-the-counter “cough medicine” which had been formulated in the 19th century and just happened to contain a nice dollop of opium. We had read Coleridge at school and knew all about his opium addiction and the resulting constipation. The fact these gays were ingesting vast amounts of this antique remedy seemed very Victorian and hilarious to us.
One night we spotted a superannuated gay rummaging in the trunk of his car and stared in fascination at several crates of little brown bottles, each bearing the distinctive ye olde worlde Collis Browne label. Biddie caused a screeching furor when, later the same evening, he described his amusement at this sighting to another old queen, who, as chance would have it, was an even bigger Collis Browne’s guzzler than the first bloke. These homos hailed from the days when gays were discreet and wore green carnations. They were less than thrilled to have their secret addiction outed to all and sundry by some young Bowie wannabe. We quickly became personae non gratae.
It was hard to say which was the more frightening subspecies: the speeding, tweaking mods and soccer skinheads at the Top Rank or the highly strung, opiate-addicted poofters at the Railway Tavern. One thing was for sure: I would need to escape before somebody gay-bashed my head in or got me started on the Collis Browne’s.
Tangential though it was, the acquaintanceship with Eric, a bona fide missy separates designer, seemed to offer me a potential escape route. I was in awe of this Eric. Eric was a working-class slag who had made it out of our crap town and who was, at least from my vantage point, hitting the big time. I use the word “slag” broadly and loosely, as we did back then. I yearned to follow in slag Eric’s footsteps. I had stared at the distant glittering mirage of fashion, smoldering seductively on the horizon, for most of my short life (I was 21), and I was yearning to reach out and touch it. Eric the missy separates designer had brought me one step closer.
At this point, dear reader, I should point out that my hometown of Reading is by no means far from the fashionably madding crowds of London. It was, in fact, only half an hour by train. But, like John Travolta’s character in Saturday Night Fever staring across at Manhattan from his home in Bay Ridge, I felt that it might just as well be a million miles away. So near and yet so far.
Like a good working-class slag, Eric the missy separates designer made the train journey home once a week to see his mum. He never failed to swing by the luggage department to update his pal, the tall amiable queen, on his latest goings-on. He seemed to take a sadistic pleasure in taunting and tantalizing us with tales of the big city and all the glamorous people with whom he was now consorting. I was happy to be the object of his sadism. His stories gave me hope.
Eric told us about a wild and fascinating fellow designer whose name was Pamela something or other and who worked for—yes!—the Mr. Freedom label, my glam-rock obsession. In homage to the great record company founded by Berry Gordy, this gal had recently changed her name to Pamla Motown. To me this seemed daring, wildly camp, and outrageously glamorous. A white girl named Pamla Motown. How Afro-eccentric!
Another of Eric’s designer pals, a guy named Cliff, had a psychotic obsession with Marilyn Monroe. He had bleached his hair blond and, if Eric was to be believed, walked around the streets of London carrying a squirt bottle filled with peroxide. He used it to douse the heads of hostile construction workers and random passersby. His goal was to turn everyone he met into Marilyn, such was his commitment to the deceased movie icon. How Dada and recklessly outré!
Though clearly deranged, these two, Pamla and Cliff, had accomplished something major. They had found a place to exist, a stylish, safe, satiny, sequined space, where their insane ideas were considered an asset. I knew in my heart that crazy Cliff and Afro-eccentric Pamla were kindred misfits. The world of fashion had given them refuge. Soon it would be my turn.
I desperately needed to escape my grim town and my nutty family milieu. Fashion seemed just as nutty, but in a good way, a glam-rock way.
Twenty years later: It’s the early '90s. I am working at Barneys New York. I have long since exchanged my crap town for a life of fashion and fabulosity. I am not famous or ridiculously wealthy, but I am creatively fulfilled. I have found refuge in a world of rolling racks and glamour.
Though I am involved in all aspects of the Barneys store image, it is in the area of window display that I have made my name. My displays are jarring and punky and intentionally shocking: coyotes abducting babies, mannequins in coffins, fashion suicides, Christmas in July, a trailer-park tornado. My chosen themes have consistently erred toward the bizarre and unconventional. Early on in my display career I made a list of window-display taboos and then proceeded to bust them. Condoms, broken toilets, live vermin... it is hard for me to think of something inappropriate which I have not plonked in a display window at one time or another. Tammy Faye Bakker? I created an homage to her in the late ’80s. There she was, standing next to a giant mascara wand. I have even plopped a replica of Margaret Thatcher in a black leather dominatrix frock in a holiday window. I see myself as a carny, rather than an artist, presiding over my very own Coney Island sideshow. One day I got sick of making displays that were so relentlessly pristine and simply filled the window with all manner of horrible detritus, including, but not limited to, broken furniture, cigarette butts, old newspapers, shopping coupons, soda cans and half-eaten Twinkies. The perfect backdrop for precious designer clothing.
Did I lose my marbles? Negative. Window display provided me with a therapeutic outlet for all my crap-town rage and insanity. Uncle Ken and Granny had their basket weaving. I had my windows.
So there I was, working at Barneys as Head of Creative Services, which sounds dirty but is just a fancy way of saying “marketing.”
One hideously chilly winter morning an incredibly young Kate Moss entered the Barneys advertising department, wearing what looked like a monk’s habit. Her perfect bone structure peaked out from an alpaca hood. On anybody else this garb would have looked costumey, almost Canterbury Tales. On teen Kate it looked effortlessly fab.
Accompanying Kate was Corinne Day.
Corinne was the photographer who played such a key role in launching Kate’s career. She shot the now famous 1990 The Face magazine cover of Kate wearing an Indian headdress. The as-yet-unknown Kate was in New York to do her first shoot for Calvin Klein. Corinne, aided and abetted by Ronnie Newhouse and Glenn O’Brien, had just shot the Barneys spring catalog.
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