Simon Doonan's Mad World Memories

Lewis Carroll's classic story conjures up the childhood and career inspirations of a fashion maestro.

Lewis Carroll's classic story conjures up the childhood and career inspirations of a fashion maestro.

I’ve always been wildly obsessed with Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland because it represents so many things that resonate in my life.

First of all, the book is completely psychotic, and I grew up in a house with a lot of mental illness. As a kid, it was comforting to look at Alice and this completely mad world where there was an absence of logic, because that’s what I was living with—a world where people become transformed, and the things they say don’t make any sense. In Through the Looking-Glass, the Queen says, “Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” It made me think, “Well, I’m not the only one living in cuckoo land.”

I was probably 5 or 6 when I first read it. I had a copy with the original drawings by John Tenniel. The illustrations are very creepy, surreal, and Victorian, and they re- ally bring the story to life. In my career, I’ve always wanted to create that kind of funny and stylish, but vaguely sinister aesthetic. Jonathan Miller made a wonderful TV version of the story, a black-and-white movie that was incredibly faithful to the drawings by Tenniel. There’s a girl who looks just like Alice running through this strange place with strange curtains. That has also influenced my window-display career.

The book is a great escape story: If you’re in one world and you’re bored or unhappy, you can escape down this hole into another world where everything is original and funny and anything is possible—that was great growing up in postwar England in the 1950s, which was pretty grim. In the ’60s, counter culture came along, and Alice in Wonderland became a symbol of expanding your life and your mind, like in the song “White Rabbit” by Jefferson Airplane.

I still often dip into Alice in Wonderland. I find myself looking up quotes from it. I was just perusing the drawings and the one where Alice becomes very tall is special to me, because I’m not. The idea that you could take a pill and become very tall—that has a certain appeal if you’re very short.

Simon Doonan is the creative ambassador for Barneys New York, a Slate columnist, and the author of The Asylum: True Tales of Madness from a Life in Fashion.

All Stories