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Simon Doonan on what we can learn from New York in the 80s




I lived it, so I didn’t see it objectively, says Doonan, 68, of British descent, who began his career in the unglamorous surroundings of a store in Reading before the bright lights of the shop windows of Savile Row don’t call him. After a stint at Maxfield in LA, an upscale fashion store, he landed at Barneys in New York in 1978.

It wasn’t until I wrote this book that I could see what an incredible time it was. People laugh at the ’80s, but there was an amazing sense of creativity and originality that went wild around that time. Punk in the late 1970s had flattened the landscape, so all bets were off, we could do anything.

This sense of freedom and freewheeling experimentation is what turned American artist Haring, who died tragically of AIDS in 1990, into an art superstar – his graffiti-inspired pop art was a form of social activism, especially concerning the gay liberation movement, and not confined to the galleries where he works on large-scale public installations.

His mission was to create art for people, to really communicate a message. It wasn’t what I call the art of funders, it was political and focused on social justice themes, which we saw a lot now – Keith was the first one, Doonan says.

Even those who may not be familiar with his name are familiar with his iconography – from his Crack is Wack mural that first adorned a Harlem subway, to his cartoonish, glittering figures intertwined with one another. Doonan was one of a crowd of downtown creatives, including Jean-Michel Basquiat and Kenny Scharf, who merged fashion with art and culture.

They would all walk into the store, Doonan says of how he familiarized himself with the scene. Back then, the original downtown Barneys was groovy and hip – I remember Warhol shopping there – and slowly this cultural witch brew evolved.

“The art world had hitherto hesitated to go to bed with fashion, fearing a corrosive effect. But suddenly there was an explosion in art, fashion, music, society, club culture, dancing. “

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