Simon Doonan — window dresser to Barneys and guest star on “America’s Next Top Model” and “Gossip Girl” — is standing on a Lincoln Avenue curb in the rain. He’s thoughtfully regarding at the building in front of him, hands clasped.
Doonan’s usual designs include a window displaying Margaret Thatcher dressed as a dominatrix. A coyote kidnapping a baby window. A Queen Elizabeth face made of ribbons.
Today, he’s commandeering a project that’s decidedly less obscure: the windows of Merz Apothecary in Lincoln Square. Boughs of branches, light-up pink blossoms, feathers and sparkly sprigs in hand, he’s designing a holiday gift display as a film crew looks on.
Doonan’s stunt is meant to promote Small Business Saturday, an American Express-sponsored event that encourages shoppers to support small businesses the Saturday after Thanksgiving. The segment on window makeovers in Chicago, New York and LA — also sponsored by AmEx — will air twice this month on LX.tv, a lifestyle and entertainment unit of NBC Universal. Merz and other small businesses were chosen by AmEx and Doonan to be featured.
For Merz, which sells homeopathic and other natural health and beauty goods, Doonan is thinking his-and-hers organic-inspired “trees,” with products displayed beneath.
“The one for the boys, it’s very kind of more earthy and masculine, and for the girls as you can see, it’s playful,” he says. “It’s a wonderful, old-fashioned pharmacy, but it’s going to have a modern, groovy look.”
Anthony Qaiyum, the store’s owner, said he hopes Doonan’s windows bring in more traffic.
“We don’t normally have the time and resources to do something that’s maybe this ambitious,” he says. “I’m excited for something that’s a little more fantastic than we normally have. It seems like it’s going to be very ‘us,’ but also different than anything we’ve done.”
To make it “us” for a Chicago business, Doonan says he can’t go down the same paths he’d take on the coasts.
“In Los Angeles, the windows have to look good from a car whizzing by at 40 miles an hour. It’s a lot more like a billboard,” he says. “In New York, you have to have intriguing things, things that draw people in, things that make people stop as they’re walking down the street. Here, it’s a combination. It has to look good from a distance and from up close. That’s the double challenge.”
And the other challenge? To steer clear of tacky. Unless tacky is what a window calls for.
“The big no-no is to do something that’s out of context. Here, where you have this wonderful old apothecary, which has a really great history in Chicago, if you did something kitschy and tacky and glittery, it would look all wrong, and too Vegas-y. It needs to have that heritage, vintage feel.”
“The no-no in display is doing a punk-rock window in an old-fashioned dress shop,” he continues. He considers that for a moment. “Which, actually, would be really fun,” he says.