Leigh Bowery was an appropriate model for his outfits. His physique, pale and vast, made an ideal canvas on which he substituted glitter, boning and black kohl for brushstrokes. He reserved the outrage for himself: light-bulbs for earrings, mlted wax for hair, taped breasts. His favourite outfit was of a bodysuit with a target circle painted over a built-in round belly, that extended so far above his shoulders you could not see his neck. He would wear it with two-tone brown shoes which displayed tiny platform sandals inside their perspex heels.
A maschoist of his own style, Leigh Bowery believed that clothes could only be meaningful if they challenged received notions. So he strived to merge the stage with the street. An extremist in the Ziggy Stardust mould, he created and re-created himself in increasingly alienating guises, developing his own theatrical look for the street, and then laughed at how passer-bys stared.
But the invention of a new style aesthetic did not make Bowery a fashion designer. Despite their popularity, the designs he sold on his stall at Kensington Market back in 1980 were not particularly individual, and he had to recruit a live-in friend, Trojan, to improve sales by modelling them with Glam-Rock make-up.
Yet it was his own relentless thirst for the spotlight, the efforts he put into his own image, that influenced fashion and pushed Trojan out. Vivienne Westwood declared him one of the two most important fashion designers. (The other one was Yves Saint Laurent.) Jean-Paul Gaultier drew inspiration from him too, creating the distinctive ‘street’ look he is now renowned for. In the spring 1995 W< show, the Day-glo rubber Spiderman suits that were showcased borrowed an idea pioneered by Bowery.
As he told i-D in 1987, “If you get used to a look you’ll believe it’s beautiful eventually. New looks filter through, gradually being diluted, until they’re acceptable.” Bowery made most of his outfits, spending £20 on fabrics from Brick Lane and getting friends to help him make them up, sewing in padding and beads day and night. Each one took several weeks, yet Bowery would prostrasinate until the last minute, often persuading his PA, Nicola, to take time off work to help.
His life is packed with contradictions. He was born in the Melbourne suburb of Sunshine in 1962: a name usually associated with happiness and togetherness. Yet he led a grey, solitary childhood, quietly knitting at home while other children played hopscotch. He lived like a promiscuous homosexual, yet he married Nicola the preceding May before he died. Matromony seemed to confirm that he was really heterosexual all the way along.
In 1980, he decided that Australia was psychologically too small for him to gain an audience, and moved to London with his savings. The irony of favouring a petite island like the UK over a spawling one made Melbourne pale into 1800s pioneer territory next to London.
There was always an inner conflict. Bowery relished public attention at painful cost, with shoes that weighed him down and chicken wire masks that cut into his skin. To avoid chafing from the inticate boning of his costumes he would contort his poise, thus exaggerating the surface deformity. In public he insisted on wearing them all day long and was never known to go out in a pair of jeans.
In private, however, he would gleefully strip off. His idea of perfect happiness was reclining, au naturel, on his favourite suite at London’s Dorchester hotel. He once explained to one Guardian journalist that “Underneath all these sequins there is something else. You see something human and non-human at the same time. They don’t really merge. They’re pulling against each other.” Who would have thought he was referring to his own mascohistic fixation?
Meeting Bowery for the first time, you were certainly startled. Not just because of the costumes; you knew they would arrest your eyes. It was the voice that was reportedly the real revelation: his presence, as hard as a multi-coloured sugared almond, belied a fudge-like Cockney burr.
Emigrating to London in 1980 was the most timely career move he could have made. A breed of young design creativity was brewing at the time, resulting in an exotic evening dish of counter-subculture. The New Romantics, as these aesthetes were called, beautified themselves with make-up and transformed their gender in exquisite, androgynous gowns; pick of the best ingredients included Boy George, the nightclub host Phillip Sallon and Stephen Jones. The flavour was out of this world.
Before long, Bowery had spiced up the scene with the opening of Taboo at the Maximus nightclub in Leicester Square in 1985. Thursday nights then became so popular that bouncers were regularly bribed with drugs and money.
If you were lucky enough to get into Taboo, you would witness an extraordinary scene. Amidst video screens showing Indian religious epics, Abba and Bee Gees music would play at the wrong speed. Hermaphrodites would glide past and you’d have to guess their sex by subverting the gender roles of their clothes: Y-fronts for girls, nylon wigs for boys.
It was against this backdrop that Bowery met Nicola. She looked so weird that night that he felt compelled to go down on one knee and ask for her telephone number. The behaviour deceptively convinced her that the man was full of self-confidence; in truth, it took him four months to ring up and ask her to be his personal assistant.
On meeting the avant-garde dancer Michael Clark at another nightclub, Planets, in 1982, the two men quickly became close through a shared passion for artistic nightclubbing culture. Bowery then went on to design the costumes for Clark’s company, eventually joining in the performances with routines of his own so mischievious that he attracted the opportunistic eye of gallery impressario Anthony D’Offray, whose previous ‘discoveries’ included land artist Richard Long.
This was the big break that finally launched Bowery’s career, enabling him to be taken seriously as a performance artist. In a precedent of the famous glass box that contained a sleeping Tilda Swinton in The Maybe at the Serpentine Gallery in 1995, D’Offray invited him to model behind a two-way mirror in his Cork Street gallery in a different outfit every day for two weeks. There, viewers would stand and watch him preen and adjust himself, silently amused. The gallery assistants had never experienced such an absolute stillness.
A second ambition to be a pop star was frequently thwarted, however. Bowery’s first band, Raw Sewage, was a frustration: all the band members were singers, not musicians. His second, the cult band Minty, formed over a year-and-a-half ago with the menswear designer Richard Torry, was more successful albeit rather disgusting, specialising in defecation and vomiting on stage.
Nevertheless the crowds reacted favourably if belatedly: the single Useless Man was released post-humously, reaching No 12 in Amsterdam and now plays regularly in London nightclubs. Minty is continuing with Nicola taking her husband’s place as vocalist.
Preparing his easel the painter Lucian Freud expected to paint his new muse in his usual garb but was surprised to find him peeling off his tortous layers. Bowery had at this pint decided to try a new persona: himself. Unbeknown to Freud, Bowery had discovered himself to be HIV positive and was keen to leave a lasting impression of himself on the public.
Shrewdly, Dulwich Picture Gallery chose to position the resulting portraits alongside Rubens, thus highlighting the way the torsos echoed each other in size and pallor. Closer observation revealed the true differences, however: while the Rubens figures stood proud of his pummelled flesh, Bowery looked like an anxious boy. The gesture might have initially suggested a fear of the consequences of his first physical and psychological exposure, but hindsight today enriches that fear with a graver dread of the HIV virus. Bowery had told precious few people of his illness; he must have been terrified.
That he should choose to flaunt his nakedness at this point now feels poignant. After all, we assume the permanence of the human body and choose to forget our mortality. The irony is that death, upon the new year’s arrival, should cast off Leigh Bowery’s body like another layer of dated clothing.
(c) Melissa Mostyn 1995