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Book review: The Asylum, by Simon Doonan

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 30 September, 2013, 10:18am

The Asylum: A Collage of Couture Reminiscences … and Hysteria
by Simon Doonan
Blue Rider Press
4 stars

Liesl Schillinger

"Whose world is more demented?" Simon Doonan asks. "The world of the insane or the world of the insanely fashionable?" In his new memoir, The Asylum, Doonan shows the line is hard to draw, especially because the once-narrow outline of the glamour ghetto has burst its gussets in the past three decades.

"Fashion has exploded from minority elitism to international democratic spectator sport," he writes. "Fashion is now a global cultural obsession."

Man of mirth and letters, and husband of designer Jonathan Adler, the British-born Doonan has been whiffing the intoxicating vapours of style and camp for a half-century. Asylum is no mere memoir: it's a them-oir, in which Doonan lavishes loving attention on the illustrious in-patients who have been his friends and colleagues for decades.

"I see myself as a carny, rather than an artist, presiding over my very own Coney Island sideshow," he writes. He throws a spotlight on every star performer from Diana Vreeland, Miguel Adrover and supermodel Kate Moss to Valentino and Thom Browne.

He also pauses to kneel before Vogue's "fashion superdeity", Anna Wintour, but most fun is his adoration of the austere Rei Kawakubo, "the reigning enigma of global fashion", whom he once sent off on a merry tour of the "fascinating sleazetiques" of Hollywood Boulevard, notably Frederick's of Hollywood and a vast cellar called Playmates.

The experience, he writes with relief, sent Kawakubo into an "intense, unblinking fugue state". She rummaged for hours through velour swimsuits, cone bras, edible panties and dingy peignoirs.

Doonan bravely unleashes a barrage of outrageous dress tips for daring scenesters. Riffing in the manner of Vreeland, he updates the diktats she once deployed in her giddy Bazaar column, "Why Don't You …?"

"Do not even think of leaving the house this season unless you are wearing a puce-coloured leotard and a scalloped zebra cape," he orders. "You would be mad not to dye all your underwear cerise." He adds, "Cardigans must be worn back to front always!"

Come to think of it, that cashmere straitjacket can do double duty, turning heads not only at Bryant Park but also at Bellevue. In Asylum, Simon Doonan shows it might well get the chance.

The New York Times

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