“Fa … fa … fa … fa … fashion!” As the catwalk shows continue in Milan and Paris, jaded guests wonder just how many times they’ll have to sit through yet another collection soundtracked by David Bowie’s new wave stutter. From Ziggy Stardust to Zoolander, fashion has had a four-decade love affair with Bowie that’s only getting stronger. Indeed, Bowie may be the most referenced musician in fashion history.
Before Madonna, and long before the fancy dress of Lady Gaga, Bowie was busying himself as a performance and visual artist as much as a musical one. When he appeared on Saturday Night Live in 1979 he wore a skirt, six years before Gaultier showed men in skirts in Paris. In 1996, he commissioned stagewear from Alexander McQueen, in the same year that London’s most directional designer reciprocated with a collection inspired by the Bowie/Catherine Deneuve movie The Hunger (1983). Last spring, Balmain’s strong-shouldered metallic blue and gold women’s blazers were Bowie-inspired, as was Bella Freud’s Aladdin Sane lightning-bolt knitwear. This season, it’s Bowie’s wardrobe from the post-glam period of the mid-1970s that is everywhere you turn – particularly in men’s wear. From Lanvin to Dior Homme, Dries van Noten and Roland Mouret, designers have focused What Bowie Knew to redefine the notion of smart casual dress for 2011.
Bowie demonstrated that the suit could be outrageous and expressive as much as it was a smart or slightly dandy uniform. “A lot of people have said they identified Bowie in our autumn show,” says Lucas Ossendrijver, Lanvin’s men’s wear designer, specifically referring to the Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) period. “It wasn’t intentional, but there’s certainly a graphic purity and crispness in that look that’s very modern again – the wide pants, the crisp white shirt and waistcoat and the hat. It’s a return to elegance. And I like Bowie best when he’s … androgynous and mysterious.”
Bowie’s move in the 1970s to a more sober look is mirrored by the movement in high-end men’s wear right now that says expensive clothes should look expensive and justify their cost. They have to dress you up, not down, and they have to be serious. Even men in their twenties are wearing suits and waistcoats as off-duty fashion. The silhouette is a tailored mix of svelte on top and voluminous below: visually interesting but credible and surprisingly wearable. Trousers are generously pleated but not ridiculous; shirts are slim-fit, crisp and white.
In his autumn collection Dries Van Noten, inspired by the Bowie movie Just a Gigolo (1978), sent his corps of slicked, henna-haired men out to the sound of a 2 Many DJs remix of “Golden Years”. “The Thin White Duke [of the mid-70s] is one of my favourite periods,” says Van Noten. “Bowie has proven to be timeless and relevant in a moment where many musicians fade into oblivion.” And timelessness, or clothes that last, is a mantra for much contemporary fashion. Like a lot of designers, Van Noten finds Bowie relevant now because “his playing with androgyny was so powerful. I think that what was avant-garde back in the 1970s is consistent with today’s psyche.”
When Bowie went through his soul-inspired Young Americans period, circa 1975, he moved the goalposts. The kimonos and jumpsuits stopped and his wardrobe became more subtle, more subversive and ultimately more influential. “He was wearing suits by Derek Morton from City Lights,” says Paul Gorman, author of The Look: Adventures in Rock and Pop Fashion. “Derek went on to become Paul Smith’s tailoring main man, and Smith provided the white shirts for the Thin White Duke.”
A Terry O’Neill image of Bowie from the Young Americans period appeared in the inspiration book left on the seats at Phoebe Philo’s Céline show this season. In it, Bowie is holding tailor’s scissors and wearing a rake-thin yellow suit with exaggerated cuffs, shoulders and a rounded collar. If the suit was black, it could easily be edgy new season Todd Lynn for either gender. It has a sharp, modern insouciance. “I think that every men’s wear designer has referenced Bowie at some point,” says Lynn. “After all, he made the trench coat rock and roll.”
This season, Roland Mouret identified Bowie’s character in Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence (1983) as a strong influence for his Mr label, while for spring he has looked to the swagger and relaxed tailoring of the 1976 to 1979 era, when Bowie was based in Berlin. “That was a transitional period for him,” says Mouret. “He left glam behind and was absorbing a new culture in Germany. He mixed the art scene with the leather of S&M and mixed it up with a British elegance. It was decadent and cinematic.” Mouret’s men’s wear is textural, with a touch of military panache. These are, as he says, “clothes that can define you without being outrageous.”
Bowie’s trump card was repositioning the man’s suit in high fashion. He did it in a confrontational way that Bryan Ferry and designer Antony Price couldn’t match, making it a postmodern fashion statement. “His Thin White Duke seemed conventionally masculine,” says Glenn Adamson, co-curator of the V&A’s current Postmodernism exhibition, “but it referred to the cabaret styling of Weimar Berlin.”
The irony is, of course, that as the rest of the fashion world renew their love-in with Bowie, Bowie himself has gone quiet. Every designer wishes that he would return but the signs aren’t positive. Paul Trynka, a Bowie biographer, recently said that he had “most likely retired”. But as Todd Lynn says: “Although he hasn’t released a record since 2003, we still think of him as an artist who might perform something new tomorrow. And if he did, we’d all want to know what his new style would be.”
The orange and blue lightning strike of David Bowie’s Aladdin Sane may be instantly recognisable but the cover of Patti Smith’s debut album Horses has been equally influential in the world of fashion.
The Robert Mapplethorpe-photographed sleeve from 1975 shows an androgynous Smith, standing by a white wall next to a triangle of light and a soft shadow, dressed in a white shirt with a ribbon around her neck; face scrubbed, hair wild. “I’d flung my jacket over my shoulder, Frank Sinatra-style,” Smith recalls in Just Kids, her 2010 biography. “I was full of references.”
Camille Paglia has written of it being the most “electrifying image” she has ever seen of a woman. “Smith defies the rules of femininity … it unites austere European art films with the glamorous, ever-maligned high-fashion magazines.”
Robert G Leach, author of the forthcoming The Fashion Resource Book: Visual Research for Fashion Design, says: “The Horses cover appears time and time again on the studio walls and mood boards of fashion designers. It fits so well with the modern minimalist aesthetic favoured by designers and labels such as Jil Sander, Helmut Lang, Francisco Costa at Calvin Klein and Phoebe Philo at Céline.”
From Hedi Slimane, Balmain and Limi Feu to The Gap, the stark Horses image has given inspiration to endless sets of bohemian-tinged white shirt, black jacket and trousers combinations. More than an image, it’s a mood: strong, provocative and thoughtful. It has a timeless integrity and purity – the exact values fashion constantly strives to attain.