London’s Victoria & Albert museum which hosted the globally acclaimed “David Bowie Is” exhibit in 2013 announced in February that it has acquired more than 80,000 archive items spanning Bowie’s career that will be made open to the public in a custom-built David Bowie Centre for the Study of Performing Arts in 2025. As New York City prepared to host June’s sold-out David Bowie World Fan Convention 2023, FashionUnited attempted to answer the question of why David Bowie’s style still proves so fascinating, fifty years after Bowie’s alter ego Ziggy Stardust first took to the stage, and seven years after the singer’s untimely death.The late singer inspired designers as varied as Tommy Hilfiger, Jean-Paul Gaultier, Hedi Slimane, Raf Simons, and Dries Van Noten, the latter describing his influence as follows: “He opened the great big gates to our future and sparked in us that creativity that proves vital even to this day.” During the Ziggy Stardust/Aladdin Sane years, David Bowie wore custom-made stagewear by little-known Kansai Yamamoto, thus helping bring the Japanese designer to international prominence, before he graduated to wearing Alexander McQueen on the Glastonbury stage in 2002 and Thom Browne to launch his last album Blackstar in 2016. Yet David Bowie was known more for his own unique self-expression than for the designers he favored, and despite radically changing his appearance from one chapter of his career to the next, no one ever questioned his authenticity. In a 2016 Oprah Winfrey interview taped before Bowie's passing, runway model-turned-businesswoman Iman described how when people ask her if she gives her husband fashion tips, she replies: “What are you, crazy? He’s David Bowie. He is fashion.”
FashionUnited spoke via Zoom with Andy Jones, co-curator of the David Bowie World Fan Convention about the singer's neverending appeal, and to Ava Cherry, fellow musician and former girlfriend of Bowie’s, to discuss how her own personal style greatly influenced his looks during the Young Americans era of the early 70s. We attended the three-day Bowie Fan Convention to take in the parade of brilliant, enthusiastic, outrageous, artistic outfits assembled by fans who had traveled from all over the world to be there.
Why David Bowie continues to be a style icon
“Bowie moved with the times,” said Jones. “He moved on just like that. Fashion moves, and he moved. Unlike a lot of musicians who are stuck in one signature look forever.” When Jones tweeted out a suggestion of gathering Bowie fans in one place back in 2017 he was unprepared for the groundswell of interest it garnered which resulted in the first convention last year in Liverpool, England. A superfan himself, Jones had seen Bowie live 43 times, and is the creator of an old-fashioned fanzine called David Bowie: Glamour which sells out on pre-order and which was declared by GQ magazine in 2018 to be one of the "100 best things in the world.” Jones sends Iman a copy of each issue, and is in regular contact with Bowie’s manager while also maintaining a WhatsApp chat with all of Bowie’s bandmates and collaborators who are also participating in the convention. “Had Bowie still been alive, we’ve heard he would have been in touch,” said Jones.“I didn’t realize my influence on him at the time,” said Cherry whose peroxide crop, shaved eyebrows, electric colored clothing, and platform boots earned her the title in the early 70s of “the goddess from outer space” to compliment flame-haired Bowie’s Starman. “When we met, the connection was we that we looked weird together.” She introduced him to clubs like the Apollo and he came to rely on her opinion on his music and appearance, and together they got people talking. “He had no prejudices,” said Cherry. “We would go places and sometimes people would look at us, this white guy with a black girl, and he would look at them, just daring them to say anything.” She described a sense of magic that surrounded him and his self-possession. Living together in London, when the media began to call Cherry "the Black Barbarella" after the space-age movie character played by Jane Fonda, Cherry recalled, “David would just say, ‘Be yourself. Be unique. Don’t follow the trend of being anyone else.’ He always encouraged me to just be me.”
Bowie’s influences came from everyone and everywhere so it’s inevitable that his appeal is equally far-reaching. When Cherry invited him to her parents’ house for dinner the singer raided her father’s closet. “My dad had zoot suits from the 40s because he opened for Count Basie and when David saw those suits, he was like ‘Mr Cherry, do you think I could wear one of those?’” He managed to convince her father to part with his silk ties too and brought everything to his designer, Freddie Burretti, who made versions of the suits to match Bowie’s vision. “It was a gouster look, a Chicago thing, the baggy suit,” said Cherry. “He would even wear my shoes because we wore the same size. I had an army flight suit and he wanted to wear that, and he wouldn’t give it back. ‘That’s mine,’ he said, ‘that’s part of me now.’ He was a great artist in his own right, but he took bits and pieces from everyone and everywhere. You have to see what came before you to understand what’s going to come next.”
Fifty years on and it appears that the fans on the dance floor of the Bowie Ball, which is held on the Saturday night during the convention, have also taken "bits and pieces from everyone and everywhere" to create their individual takes on many of Bowie’s most famous sartorial statements. There is glitter, plumes and sequins, sharp shouldered jumpsuits and one-shouldered knits, kimonos with platforms, countless red wigs, theatrical make-up and of course, the instantly recognizable face paint.
Said Andy Jones, “The lightening bolt is going to live forever.”