”David Bowie Is,” the exhibit, has toured the world and makes its final stop in the place David Bowie called home with wife Iman for the last two decades of his life, New York City. After the Victoria and Albert’s record-breaking opening run, the globetrotting carnival of curiosities visited Toronto, Sao Paolo, Berlin, Chicago, Paris, Melbourne, Groningen, Bologna, Tokyo and Barcelona. New Yorkers find themselves in that rare position of being the last to know. How will they react to playing catch up with the rest of the world?
“I can’t stop smiling,” says one attendee to the toddler in his arms as he wanders from one room to the next, a large multi-screened space from which a millennial wearing silver ankle boots embellished with a glittering lightening bolt comes fleeing with tears in her eyes. Just inside a duo in coordinated clashing layers reminiscent of fashion week streetstyle photos gaze up at a pair of red PVC overalls and feathered boa from one of the singer’s TV performances. Other young students of style, surely thrown for a loop by the museum’s photography ban, are documenting their findings old-school, peering at the wall signage and scribbling furiously in small notebooks. Three women with interlocked arms are dancing. I encounter more tears from a viewer immersed in the singer’s Blackstar notebooks. “It’s our third time seeing it,” reveals a tourist from England who together with her friend whisper and giggle with familiarity at each display. “Because it just never gets old, does it?—although there is some new stuff here.” Indeed the museum swapped out about 100 pieces from the show with “never-before-seen items,” designed to appeal to the New York visitor and highlight the singer’s longterm connection to the U.S., including memorabilia from his Philadelphia “plastic soul” years and the suit he wore to the 1975 Grammy Awards during which he hung out with John Lennon and Yoko Ono. For the Rockefellian Ziggy fan the museum is even selling a special Aladdin Sane ticket billed as “The ultimate David Bowie is exhibition experience” featuring a curated tour and merchandise add-ons for the price of 2500 dollars.
Clowns, punks and bikers
From Bowie’s personal archive, the costumes are one of the show’s highlights––the unforgettable Kabuki theater-inspired early outfits by Kansai Yamamoto, the tailoring by Freddie Burretti, the Pierrot by Natasha Korniloff, through to Alexander McQueen’s punk dandy of the 90s, and looks from obscure local biker label Deth Killers of Bushwick who outfitted Bowie in distressed grungey tailcoats, dirty-washed T-shirts and weathered waistcoats for 2004’s “A Reality Tour.” Thierry Mugler, Katherine Hamnett, Issey Miyake, Giorgio Armani, and Hedi Slimane are also represented, but some of the singer’s drawings demonstrate he was as much a part of his image-making as any famous designer.
We’ve got five years, that’s all we got
It’s hard to believe that when the exhibit began, Bowie was still alive––or to put it in fashion terms, perhaps making this easier to comprehend, it began when Alessandro Michele was still a lowly associate designer at Gucci specializing in leather goods and Frida Giannini the brand’s Creative Director. With David Bowie A Life, by Dylan Jones, former editor of i-D and GQ, just the latest in a long line of books at the top of the non-fiction charts, and the glam rock of Ziggy Stardust pulsating through collections from young emergents like Paula Knorr and Halpern to the establishment’s Dries Van Noten and Tom Ford, Bowie is still the consummate cosmonaut floating through our modern culture. He remains master of ceremonies in the evolving dialogue on gender nonconformism, directing us from his lounging position, attired in his “man-dress” and flicking long pre-Raphaelite locks from the album cover of “The Man Who Sold The World.” In exhibit video footage, Kansai Yamamoto describes Bowie’s “unusual face…neither man nor woman…which suited me as a designer because most of my clothes are for either sex.” Bowie’s 4-year partnership with the Japanese designer is a guide on how cross-cultural collaboration triumphs over cultural appropriation, something many modern designers still struggle to understand.
The last show
Much like the atmosphere in the Hammersmith Odeon in July 1973 when Bowie killed off Ziggy Stardust, announcing, “This is the last show we’ll ever do,” there is a special frisson in the air as New Yorkers get to host the exhibit’s farewell performance. The archive that was plundered for the show is apparently located at a secret New York City facility, and it has been reported that Bowie intended for it to open in London and close in the city where he had lived longer than any other place. The exhibit is as relevant now as it was five years ago simply because Bowie continues to inspire. “I like to keep my group well-dressed,” the singer famously told the press of his band, but added. “I’m out to bloody well entertain.” So while the ripples of his personal style spanning half a century still reveal themselves on runways and on the fashion-obsessed, his “group,” who can’t get enough of his outlandish alien glam, eye-patched sateen-trousered buccaneer, Berlin trench-coated gent or fedora’d Rat-Packer, his influence also surges through the gift shop for those less inclined to think too deeply about fashion. Valuing the entertainer above all else, they snatch up T-shirts, caps and buttons featuring every iteration of the singer’s unusual face. David Bowie Is…still delighting audiences.
Fashion editor Jackie Mallon is also an educator and author of Silk for the Feed Dogs, a novel set in the international fashion industry.