The Genteel
October 26, 2020


Bowie's collaboration with avant-garde Japanese designer Kansai Yamamoto produced some startling fashion imagery. Source:
Bowie's collaboration with avant-garde
Japanese designer Kansai Yamamoto produced
some startling fashion imagery.

How would you characterise David Bowie? The gender bender whose androgynous appeal blew open societal doors to the complexity of sexual liberation? An alien changeling from a distant planet who crashed to Earth like a blazing meteorite? Or just the man who saw the 21st century before anyone else?

With a new album about to be released, a biopic film in the pipeline and a retrospective of his unparalleled creative genius due to be staged at London's V&A Museum, 2013 is the year the world gets a chance to show its appreciation for the man known as the Thin White Duke.

Bowie is a revered cultural icon whose music career has spanned six decades, in which time he has produced a multitude of hit singles and albums, appeared in critically acclaimed films, has made his mark on fashion with his outlandish style and is one-half of one of the most beautiful couples in the world (by marrying Somalian supermodel Iman in 1992). But Bowie's greatest reinvention of all was probably into the role of a settled family man. One would think he has either nothing left to prove or nothing left to say.

When Bowie quietly released the melancholic and lilting single Where are we now? on his 66th birthday on January 8th this year, he took the world by surprise yet again. His first single release in ten years, a love song to the scene of his two-year rehabilitation from a period of excess and debilitating decadence, sees Bowie earnestly asking the listener to help him reflect on his own journey while recalling the streets of Berlin. Even when asking the question, Bowie seems in control - framing the answer and pointing in the direction he wants people to look. As he recounted in his 1980 hit Ashes to Ashes - "I never done good things, I never done bad things, I never did anything out of the blue" - Bowie remains a master of calculation.

One would think [David Bowie] has either nothing left to prove or nothing left to say.

It was in 1976 that Bowie escaped the pressures of drugs, fame and life in Los Angeles and surprisingly sought refuge in West Berlin - the epicenter of the Cold War at the time. Bowie immersed himself into the city's fabric and made it home for the next few years. It was also a time of Sturm und Drang in the realms of art, literature, electronic music, and the city was a magnet for creative and bohemian-minded individuals, who were looking to express difficult emotions and subjective ideas against the perceived constraints of rational normality.

West Berlin proved a place of healing and inspiration for Bowie as he cleansed himself of cocaine addiction and the remnants of Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane ("A Lad Insane") - the alter-egos that had projected the struggling performer into the stratosphere of overwhelming pop super-stardom and its negative affectations. As Bowie told Uncut in 2001, "Berlin was the first time in years that I had felt a joy of life and a great feeling of release and healing."

Bowie's time in Berlin is the focus of the new film Lust for Life co-produced by Egoli Tossell Film and Altered Image, which centers on the creative collaboration of Bowie and Iggy Pop during that time. Although less recognised than his earlier works and less popular than his later efforts, the Berlin years produced a trilogy of albums that represent some of his most original and artistically revered work: Low, Heroes and Lodger were influenced by German bands Kraftwerk and Neu!, Brian Eno and Brian Eno again respectively. The albums, with their low-key instrumental vibe and innovative use of synthesizers, have in turn influenced important bands such as Joy Division/New Order, Depeche Mode, U2 and The Smiths, to name just a few.

Bowie contemplates his comeback while sitting underneath a picture of himself and Beat Generation writer William Burroughs. Source:
Bowie contemplates his comeback while
 sitting underneath a picture of himself and
Beat Generation writer William Burroughs. 

If Berlin proved to be a moment of creativity borne of sober reflection and experimentation of musical soundscapes, what had preceded was an explosion of one man's sensory (and chemically assisted) exploration of not only music but of style and design. 

The V&A has been given unprecedented access to the singer's archives to curate the first international retrospective of his extraordinary career, titled David Bowie is, which will "explore the creative processes of Bowie as a musical innovator and cultural icon, tracing his shifting style and sustained reinvention across five decades."

Along with handwritten lyrics, original costumes, photography, film, music videos, set designs, and album artwork, the exhibition will also explore the broad range of Bowie's collaborative approach with designers in the field of fashion. The show will chart his rise to cult rock star status from his early years in Brixton, south London, using his collection of outfits to illustrate his constantly changing identity.

Surely Ziggy's finest futuristic bodysuits, space-samurai outfits and white satin kimonos will catch the eye, but Bowie also cultivated the avant-garde, high fashion ideas of cutting-edge designers such as Kansai Yamamoto. Ever the pioneer, Bowie would use his music and fashion to challenge the assumptions held by nearly everyone. It must have been terrifying and exhilarating to experience the sight and sound of Bowie first-hand in the early 1970s: in zigzag make up, with red-flame hair appearing like some strange-eyed space traveler.

Although Bowie had found a modicum of success in his British homeland in the late 1960s, it was his reinvention as Ziggy Stardust, a theatrical combination of glam-rock with a heavy dose of sci-fi, which culminated in his breakthrough into the world's consciousness. The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars saw Bowie entrance the world with one of the most iconic personas in pop history. When British television viewers first saw Ziggy singing Star Man on popular music programme Top of the Pops in 1972, 15 million jaws hit the floor. The Freddie Burretti bodysuit he wore that day will be a key exhibit in the V&A exhibition. The first moon landing by Apollo 11 in 1969 had made space fantastically attainable and Bowie's sublime masterpiece of subliminal convergence - extraterrestrial life forms, fluid sexuality, cryptic lyrics and brilliant pop songs - helped him ride the wave of the zeitgeist.

When British television viewers first saw Ziggy singing Star Man on popular music programme Top of the Pops in 1972, 15 million jaws hit the floor. The Freddie Burretti bodysuit he wore that day will be a key exhibit in the V&A exhibition.

Always a great collaborator, Bowie had soaked up and filtered direct influences from the likes of Andy Warhol and The Velvet Underground scene of early 1970s New York, the Beat Generation author William Burroughs and classical, avant-garde Japanese dance-drama of Kabuki theatre. The rise of Ziggy coincided with a brand of mascara-smudged rock music ripping up the scene in the UK at the time. Marc Bolan's T. Rex and Roxy Music were waking up teenagers to a heady cocktail of exquisite riffs and a frisson of sensuality, yet it was Bowie's cosmic creation that stole the show. Unfortunately, the strain of having a constructed character overwhelm your own personality meant that Ziggy had to be killed off by the hand of his creator in 1973, in a death grip struggle. As Bowie would prophetically sing in his third-person style, "Making love with his ego Ziggy sucked up into his mind…"

As time passes, the glam era is progressively seen as a socio-cultural lens through which the migration of fine art ideas passed into the front line of popular culture. A book published to coincide with a current exhibition (of the same name) at Tate Liverpool Glam! The Performance of Style by Darren Pih puts forward a theory that as the primary pop narrative at the time, glam "offered a vision that conflated tantalizingly artificial glamour with dystopian futurity." An era, the book contends, that reveled "in revivalism, irony, theatricality, and androgyny, privileging surface effect and artifice over meaning" and a "challenge to the rationalism of modernism."

With a new album The Next Day, produced by his long-term producer Tony Visconti, set for release in early March, the world awaits the latest journey of the man who floated down to earth in a tin can. It presents us with the opportunity to look back at a body of work that incorporates an incredible number of original themes and genres generated by a great artist of the 20th century, whose impact on the cultural mores of western society still reverberates like a timeless, sequin-laden echo.



Sign up to receive a weekly dispatch from The Genteel.

About Us

The Genteel unearths the forces shaping global fashion and design through the lens of business, culture, society and best kept secrets. 

More about us

Our Contributors

A worldwide collective of contributors currently form The Genteel. On a daily basis our team dispatches thought-provoking and insightful articles from the streets of Oslo, Toronto, Beirut, Moscow, United Arab Emirates, Seoul and beyond.