‘An artist for the eye as well as the ear’ – Jeremy Vine, BBC1, 11/1/2016
Much has been written and posted about the late, great David Bowie in the past week. Bowie was, without doubt, a significant cultural icon – a man through whom music, art and fashion converged. I love Bowie’s music, but I agree with Jeremy Vine, his visual appeal is just as important.
Bowie understood that his look was an essential part of his (very-theatrical) performance. A follower (and inspirer) of fashion both onstage and off, he adopted and discarded personas, becoming rock’s greatest chameleon and paving the way for Madonna and Lady Gaga. The great man said it himself back in 1974: ‘One of my great loves is clothes…I’m really mad about them’.
In his quest for new looks, Bowie also supported new talent. In 1996 he commissioned the then-relatively unknown Alexander McQueen to design the union jack frock coat that he went on to wear on the Earthling album cover and subsequent tour. The coat was then displayed at the David Bowie IS retrospective at the V&A in 2013. He was also loyal to chosen designers. He wore Paul Smith a lot, for example, who said on Radio 4 last week that Bowie ‘had such good personal taste’.
From the glam appeal of Ziggy, to the stark Berlin-inspired elegance of the Thin White Duke, from the yellow suit for the Serious Moonlight tour (which, incidentally, was the first time I saw Bowie in concert) designed by opera costume designer Peter J Hall, to the minimalist cool of the early 2000s – no one quite wore it quite like him.
Unfortunately I don’t have the rights to any images of Bowie, but the New York Times has helpfully published a great slideshow showing some of his most iconic looks here.
Lee Alexander McQueen would have been 46 today. His star burned brightly, but briefly, as he died at the age of 40 in February 2010.
Unlike some of the designers I’ve written about, who came from privileged and aristocratic backgrounds (Gaby from Chloe, Givenchy in particular) McQueen was the son of a taxi driver and teacher. He was the youngest of six children, and made dresses for his three sisters from a very young age. Leaving school with an O-level in art, he joined Savile Row tailors Anderson & Shepherd as an apprentice (and then Gieves & Hawkes) which gave him a solid foundation in tailoring.
He applied to Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design to work as a pattern cutter tutor, but was persuaded to enrol instead on the Masters course in fashion design. His 1992 graduation collection was famously bought in its entirety by influential fashion stylist Isabella Blow. Legend has it that it was she who persuaded McQueen to become known as ‘Alexander’.
His life may have been short but his achievements were many. McQueen went on to work as chief designer at Givenchy (succeeding John Galliano) and to found his own label. He designed the wardrobe for David Bowie’s tours in the late ‘90s and the Union Jack coat worn on Bowie’s ‘Earthling’ album cover (the jacket was exhibited as of the Bowie ‘Is’ exhibition at the V&A in 2013). He won four British Designer of the Year Awards and was awarded a CBE in 2003.
McQueen has had a lasting impact on fashion. His ‘bumsters’ kickstarted the trend in low slung jeans when he debuted them in 1993. His skull scarves remain covetable and repeatedly copied. ‘Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty’ opens this week at the V&A to huge demand. The exhibition spans his entire career – from his 1992 graduate collection to his unfinished A/W 2010 collection. I can’t wait to see it….
‘Enfant terrible’ ? Probably. Genius ? Definitely.
Legendary designer Oscar de la Renta died on 20th October after a long battle with cancer, aged 82. He was trained by Balenciaga and became well- known in the 1960s, particularly as a couturier to Jacqueline Kennedy. De la Renta also worked for Lanvin and Balmain, before launching his own label in 1965. His signature looks were rich colours and structured taffeta, and he produced absolutely show-stopping gowns.
He said: ‘fashion is about dressing according to what’s fashionable. Style is more about being yourself.’ Amen to that.
Mr de la Renta’s death closely follows that of Chloe founder Gaby Aghion in September at the age of 93. She started her business (named after a girlfriend) from her Paris apartment, telling her husband ‘I’ve got to work…it’s not enough to eat lunch’. Her clothes deliberately turned away from couture stuffiness, injecting freshness, fun and ‘wearability’ into womenswear.
Hubert de Givenchy (who designed practically everything Audrey Hepburn ever wore) recently bemoaned the fact that fashion no longer had time to evolve. As fashion moves ever faster, and we lose these pioneers who really did give their ideas time to evolve, what will the future of the industry look like? I’d welcome your thoughts.