The menswear that fell to earth (Financial Times Weekend)

“Fa…fa…fa…fa…fashion!” Jaded front row guests frequently ponder just how many times they’ll sit through a catwalk show soundtracked by that familiar 80s new wave stutter, while designers continue to plunder David Bowie’s early-70s wardrobe. Last spring, Balmain’s strong-shouldered metallic blue and gold women’s blazers led the way, followed by Bella Freud’s Aladdin Sane lightning bolt knitwear. From Ziggy Stardust to Zoolander, David Bowie is the most referenced musician in fashion history.

David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth and Lanvin A/W 2011

It’s Bowie’s wardrobe from the post-glam, second half of the 1970s that is inspiring the most interesting fashion right now, particularly menswear. The silhouette is a tailored mix of svelte on top and voluminous below. Trousers are generously pleated, shirts are slim-fit, crisp and white. David Bowie made the Lanvin and Dior Homme aesthetic his own even before it had been invented.

For his autumn collection, Dries Van Noten sent his corps of slicked, henna-haired men out to the beat of a 2 Many DJs remix of ‘Golden Years’, modelling an A/W collection that took inspiration from the Bowie movie Just a Gigolo. “The Thin White Duke 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. Of course I love the Ziggy Stardust era too.”

It’s easy to pull together a Halloween approximation of Ziggy’s Kansai Yamamoto glam-rock robes and Pierre Le Roche’s make up, but when Bowie moved on to his soul-inspired Young Americans period in 1974, he moved the goalposts. The kimonos and jumpsuits stopped. 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 & 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’Neil image of Bowie from the Young Americans period appeared in the inspiration book left on the seats at Phoebe Philo’s Celine show this season. In it, Bowie holds tailor’s scissors, 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 menswear designer has referenced Bowie at some point,” says Lynn. “After he all, he made the trench coat rock and roll.”

This season, Roland Mouret identified Bowie’s character in 1983’s Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence as a strong influence in his menswear, while for spring, he’s looked to the swagger and relaxed tailoring of the 1976-1979 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.”

The wedge-cut flame-red hair and platforms were strong signifiers, but Bowie’s trump card was repositioning the man’s suit in high fashion. He did it in a confrontational way that Bryan Ferry and Antony Price couldn’t match. He made 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.”

Bowie demonstrated that the suit could be outrageous and expressive as much as it was smart or a slightly dandy uniform. Emaciated but beautiful, living – infamously – on a diet of cocaine, coffee, cigarettes, red and green peppers and milk, The Man Who Fell to Earth persona he created was the visual blueprint for the fedora-clad men that appeared at Lanvin this season, as well as a precursor of the female supermodel of the 21st century – androgynous, angular and goth-white. “A lot of people have said they identified Bowie in our autumn show”, says Lanvin’s menswear designer, Lucas Ossendrijver. “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 very natural, androgynous and mysterious.”

Before Madonna, and long before the cynical fancy dress of Lady GaGa, David Bowie was busying himself as much as a performance and visual artist as a musical one. He was ahead of every curve. When Bowie 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/Deneuve movie The Hunger. Like his 1970s work with Kansai Yamamoto and Derek Morton, there’s more to Bowie’s fashion influence than just providing an image – he’s constantly collaborated. The shame is, of course, that Bowie has gone quiet. Every designer wishes that he would return, but the signs aren’t positive. Bowie biographer Paul Trynka recently said that he has “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.”


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