December 14, 1998 12:00 PM

As a child in Reading, England, Simon Doonan liked to eavesdrop on imaginary conversations his schizophrenic uncle Ken had in the bathroom with the prime minister. “When you grow up with people who have multiple realities, it forms your creative sensibility,” says Doonan. “You think maybe the prime minister is in the bathroom. You say, ‘Wow, how fun!’ ”

These days, Doonan’s own flights of fancy rival Uncle Ken’s. As creative director at Barneys New York, he presides over the store’s naughty window displays of celebrity mannequins (by artist Martha King) in cheeky guises. There was Margaret Thatcher as a dominatrix, Martha Stewart swinging from a chandelier in a tool-kit apron and other “Molotov cocktails of punk, camp and trendiness,” as Doonan calls them.

After 25 years in the business, Doonan, 46, has written Confessions of a Window Dresser, a coffee-table tome of color photos and over-the-top tales. It tells, for example, how the display team brawled over a strand of Madonna‘s hair found inside the Jean Paul Gaultier cone-shaped bra she had loaned Barneys. Full Monty director Peter Cattaneo has expressed interest in Dresser’s movie rights. “The message of my book,” says Doonan, “is that weird is okay.”

It’s a lesson he learned growing up with Uncle Ken as well as lobotomized grandmother Elsie and blind Aunt Phyllis. Doonan (his sister Shelagh, 47, is a human-resources counselor) is glad his parents—Betty, a former clerical worker, now 80, and Terry, 72, a former journalist—took in the relatives. And he’s grateful, he says, that “they gave me a lot of latitude to be myself,” especially when, at age 7, he realized he was gay. “I thought, ‘At least I’m not nuts like others in the family,’ ” he deadpans.

Doonan moved to London in 1972, after graduating with a liberal arts degree from the University of Manchester. Always fashion-conscious, he learned window display at the Aquascutum clothing store. But it was as a freelance display artist for such Savile Row stores as Nutters, where stars like Elton John and Bianca Jagger had their suits made, that Doonan honed his signature style, posing mannequins on trash cans and draping rhinestone necklaces on stuffed rats. The buzz he generated led to a job at Maxfields, the ultrahip Hollywood boutique. He stayed until 1985, when he was wooed to New York City by his idol, former Vogue editor Diana Vreeland, to design an exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute. Five months later, when Barneys needed someone to make their windows must-see, store cochairman Gene Pressman called Doonan. “I admired his work,” says Pressman. “He’s wonderfully creative and has a great sense of humor—and so does Barneys.”

By 1989, Doonan’s Christmas extravaganzas had become the gawk of the town. Most stars considered it a kitschy kick to be caricatured. Others were thin-skinned refuseniks—Barbra Streisand and Michael Jackson among them. In 1994 outrage led to death threats over a Nativity scene by artist Tom Sachs that played up the holiday season’s commerciality with Hello Kitty characters as the Virgin Mary and Jesus and with Bart Simpson figures as all three Magi. Barneys immediately pulled the piece and apologized. “It was poor judgment, and I take full responsibility,” says Doonan, later calling himself the Salman Rushdie of display.

He finds refuge in the one-bedroom Greenwich Village pad he shares with potter Jonathan Adler, 32, or in kayaking near their Shelter Island, N.Y., cottage. “We say that all the drama occurs in our professional lives,” Adler says, “and that our personal lives are fabulous.”

So are Doonan’s current Christmas windows at Barneys. Signed by the store (it plans to emerge from bankruptcy by year’s end) for three more years, Doonan toasts the “new holiday hedonism,” he says. A celeb montage includes Uma and k.d. but not Bill and Monica. “It’s too cheesy,” says Doonan. “And if I’m saying it’s too cheesy, that means it really is.”

Christina Cheakalos

Debbie Seaman in New York City

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