Exposé of a REVOLUTIONARY ICON
Sue Tilley confesses all of the performer who aimed to confuse, shock and enlighten. Remembering Leigh Bowery, the artist who was far from ordinary
“He was completely naked except for a belt and a merkin over his gaffer taped genitals,” reveals ‘Big Sue’ Tilley, of eighties performance artist Leigh Bowery and his unconventional style. “One woman gave him a mouthful of abuse and said he was disgusting and revolting, Leigh was delighted as he had achieved his aim.”
Though many try to forget their fashion faux pas of the eighties and their attempts at making a fashion statement, the catwalks for spring/summer were reviving the decade that invented eccentricity. Jean Paul Gaultier’s body suits, power shoulders and pinstriped three pieces, were all in ode to Grace Jones, Annie Lennox and Sade. As well as Philip Treacy who channeled the bizarre styles of the era taking influence from Michael Jackson. The eighties saw some of the most influential icons including David Bowie, whose much-anticipated exhibition showcasing his extraordinary career, opens in March at the V&A.
Nevertheless one icon that built his life out of dressing extravagantly and unfortunately died before he was able to make a global significance, was Australian native Leigh Bowery. He created the bravura that’s seen a triumphant return in recent years with the likes of Jessie J, Nicki Minaj and Lady Gaga all recreating the Bowery aesthetic.
Bowery moved to London in the eighties becoming muse to artist Lucian Freud, romancing with Trojan, partying with John Galliano and opening one of the most iconic nightclubs known to the London scene, Taboo. He also established a close friendship with Job Centre and Taboo worker Sue Tilley, whom Freud also depicted in his ‘Benefits Supervisor Cleaning’ paining. After Leigh’s death she recounted the life of the visionary performer in a book titled Leigh Bowery: The Life and Times of an Icon.
Bowery the artist paved the way for performers alike to add a decadent and freaky twist to their image. “He created fashion but took it somewhere else,” says fashion designer Bella Freud. He was the ambassador of using the body as art, refusing to conform to traditional ideas of fashion. Leigh wasn’t afraid to push boundaries; he wore tops that would give him cleavage, often covered in body paint and even wore stilettos inside his trainers to appear taller.
Leigh hoped to show the world that he was far from ordinary and enjoyed the attention- good or bad- he received when showcasing his risky designs. “It’s quite a disturbing look,” a young Jonathan Ross says to him, in which he replies, “Thank you!” Genuinely pleased. His intention to make an impact upon the fashion world certainly succeeded.
Bowery’s vivid imagination was set alight when Vivienne Westwood first introduced her ‘Buffalo girl’s’ influencing him as a designer. Consequently as he explored London further he became fascinated with his surroundings and different subcultures, including the Asian community in East London, hence sporting the look ‘Paki’s from Outer Space.’
“He was very keen on Chanel for a while and made his own version of the boxy jacket and pleated skirt,” Sue explains. “Or else he might find something and then base an outfit around it, such as a toilet seat.”
And the place to parade these intricate designs that were disapproved by many, was Taboo, one the most legendary nightclubs, that had the biggest fashion crowd. “Taboo attracted anyone who was anyone in the fashion world,” enthuses Sue. “Taboo was about excess,” Boy George notably declared, another fashion muse to enter it’s doors. It attracted some of the biggest entrepreneurs of fashion that London had ever seen. “I remember John Galliano hitting the dance floor to Get into the Groove by Madonna,” Sue continues. “Bodymap used to lead everyone in a synchronised dance to Body Rock by Maria Vidal.”
As diverse as the clientele was in Taboo, they all united in their efforts to impress. “It was mad, wonderful, and eccentric,” says celebrity makeup artist Mary Greenwell, who often visited the club on a Thursday night. “Drug’s weren’t fashionable then, the only drug you had was a bit of ecstasy and coke,” she reveals so nonchalant. “We were all part of a whole gang in fashion. You could be yourself and be fabulous.” And Leigh Bowery was certainly the ringmaster of fabulousness.
However Leigh wasn’t always the outrageous performer he became famous for. Before he had the confidence to show case the Bowery vision, he often designed clothes for close friend Trojan, whom he also had a brief fling with. For a couple of years he and Trojan would dress as a pair, flamboyantly seeking attention with their extraordinary style. “It was a strange relationship as on the surface it seemed like Leigh held all the aces,” Sue recounts. “He was brighter, quicker witted, more focused and made all the clothes.” But as time went on (including Trojan notoriously cutting off his own ear) he became more self assured and dressed in his own pieces rather than wearing head to toe Bowery. “Trojan had a trump card, Leigh fancied him and as much as Trojan loved Leigh, he did not fancy him back,” was Sue’s version of their odd relationship.
Though their efforts at a romance failed, together they did manage to urge others to abandon conformity, and their influence is still prevalent today. Jean Paul Gaultier, Gareth Pugh and Alexander McQueen are among the list of designers to imitate Bowery’s abstracted appeal. In 2003 John Galliano even dedicated his spring/summer collection to the artist, incorporating tinsel wigs and six-inch wedge-heeled flip-flops.
“A couple of years ago Pam Hogg showed tulle pom pom headwear which was a complete copy of something Leigh had done,” says Sue. “I think that Leigh gives designers permission to go crazy and lets them realise that anything goes.”
Bowery treated his body like a blank canvas, exploring opportunities for him to go against the mainstream. Italian fashion writer Anna Piaggi adopted a similar fashion concept that Leigh projected. “My philosophy of fashion is humor, jokes and games. I make my own rules,” she famously declared before her death in 2012. This surely ensured she was muse to the likes of Stephen Jones and Karl Lagerfeld. “With Anna it’s about fun and interest and frivolity,” Jones commented.
Like Leigh, Anna used the whole body as a statement and has influenced stars today to exhibit their fearlessness, originality, and quite frankly a little bit bonkers, approach to fashion.
Tilley proclaimed how Madonna once copied a Bowery pose for her music video and even Lady Gaga’s bizarre ensembles are believed to be inspired by the late Bowery, causing monster mayhem across the world.
Unfortunately Leigh was unable to make global domination, dying at just 33 years old. “He had done a lot of performance art but this is not really popular with the general public” says Sue, of Leigh’s career. “It was not likely to get him a guest appearance on ‘Wogan’, which was one of his (unfulfilled) lifelong ambitions,” sadly she reveals.
Not all is lost; the eclectic movement that is thriving today is thanks to Leigh Bowery. He may not have met Wogan, but Wogan definitely missed out on meeting this extraordinary icon, who will forever hold a legacy of using the body as a walking art form. Attention seeking he may be, but as Mary rightly suggested, “If you’re that fabulous, why not be attention seeking?”