Few men influenced fashion more than David Bowie. The fact that the anniversary of his death last January falls in the middle of the 2017 Autumn Winter menswear shows seems wholly appropriate considering his extraordinary and lasting legacy.
The early years
Asharp suited and booted mod at the beginning of his career, it was perhaps David Bowie’s encounter with avant-garde mime artist Lindsay Kemp that shaped the 20-year-old’s lasting belief in the importance of clothes to a performance – indeed Kemp is sometimes credited with having planted the seed that would become Ziggy in his protegé’s mind. As The Guardian’s fashion editor Jess Cartner-Morley says, “Bowie made art out of his clothes.”
His willingness to push boundaries became apparent with the cover of his third studio album The Man Who Sold The Worldwhere he was photographed reclining on a chaise longue in a “man dress” – although the original cover was, in fact, a cartoon. The piece had been designed by Michael Fish who as Mr Fish had been one of Swinging London’s leading trendsetters and the inventor of the kipper tie. Bowie went on to wear the dress for interviews. This underlined his early fascination with androgyny a theme echoed on the cover of his next album Hunky Dory, where Bowie was pictured channelling Marlene Dietrich – another influence that stayed with him in various forms throughout his career.
Ziggy is born
The real turning point in Bowie’s fashion progress came with his collaboration with Japanese designer Kansai Yamamoto whom he met when the latter learned that Bowie had been wearing pieces of his womenswear on stage. It was Yamamoto who designed the kimonos and knitted unitards that came to personify the Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane era– and helped invent glam rock. The famous hairstyle was the work of Bowie’s mother Peggy’s hairstylist Suzi Fussey in Beckenham and was inspired by a model in a Yamamoto photo shoot (Fussey later married Bowie’s guitarist Mick Ronson). Not all the tropes of this time were deliberate, however. The famous eyepatch came about when Bowie contracted conjunctivitis before an important interview – he liked the look so much, however, he adopted it. He also claimed that he had shaved off his eyebrows in a fit of pique when Mott The Hoople turned down his song “Drive-In Saturday”.
The Thin White Duke
The look, however, had run its course by the time he came to take Diamond Dogs on tour in 1974 and the “cat from Japan” was reinvented as the early soul man in oversized suits, such as the blue Yves Saint Laurent look he wears on the cover of David Live album. Fittingly, when Hedi Slimane took the reins at Saint Laurent he openly cited Bowie as one of his greatest influences and after the singer’s death he penned this tribute for the V&A Magazine, “July 1975. I open my birthday present and I meet David for the first time, at the age of seven. David Live, recorded in Philadelphia one year before, is about to change my life.”
Slimane’s biggest influence came from Bowie’s Thin White Duke look from Station To Station in 1976 that carried on through to the Berlin period of Low and Heroes. Monochrome, brooding – taking a simple white shirt and a black waistcoat to create what has to be one of the coolest looks in the history of both menswear and music and one that still informs countless catwalks and campaigns.
Another designer Bowie worked with was Willy Brown, who worked for the massively influential London fashion store Demob on Beak Street in Soho that is credited with helping to shape British fashion in the late Seventies and Eighties. It was Brown who created the pink jumpsuit and duster coat that Bowie wore in the video for the 1979 single “DJ”, which sees the singer pushing through London streets as strangers grab and try to kiss him. Today Brown lives and works in rural Norfolk with his iconic Old Town label.
After the Lindsay Kemp inspired Scary Monsters moment, Bowie made what in retrospect looks like one of his rare sartorial missteps with the pastel shoulder-padded suit moment of the Let’s Dance era in the mid-Eighties – although his besuited appearance at Live Aid proved to be one of the greatest musical moments of the decade. While reporting on his “Serious Moonlight” tour Time magazine deemed it noteworthy to comment on the fact that he wore a wristwatch while performing – apparently a very unusual thing at that time.
The later years
By the late Nineties Bowie started to work with the then upcoming fashion wunderkind Alexander McQueen who created costumes for his 1996 tour, as well as the Union Jack coat Bowie wears on the cover of the 1997 album Earthling.
In August of that same year Bowie was shot for British GQ by fashion director Jo Levin in Paul Smith suits and brown Grenson brogues – the singer had long been a fan of Smith’s work and the designer recalls, “He once came into the Fifth Avenue shop and bought every shirt in his size. It was mind-blowing. Thrilling.” One of the images from this shoot is still on the wall outside the GQ fashion office and looks as fresh today as it did 20 years ago. Not surprisingly in a BBC poll in 2013 Bowie was voted the best-dressed Brit in history. He won 48.5 per cent, beating Elizabeth I into second place.
Sadly, the very last project of Bowie’s life was a collaboration with his old friend Smith on a limited-edition Dark Star T-shirt design. Smith had them hanging on the installation he had created for the January 2016 London Collections with the Pace Gallery – it was, by coincidence, the day that the news came through that Bowie had died.