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CELEBRATING THE LIFE OF LEIGH BOWERY

CELEBRATING THE LIFE OF LEIGH BOWERY

"Flesh is my favorite fabric." So declared Leigh Bowery, the Australian performance artist, club promoter, and fashion designer who made an indelible mark on avant-garde circles in 1980s London through his outrageous costumes and bodily transformations.

 

Born in suburban Melbourne in 1961, few could have predicted Bowery's rise as an undersung creative pioneer. His fashion education was limited to a single year of design courses at RMIT University before he departed for gritty London in fall 1980. Supporting himself with odd jobs, Bowery frequented art galleries and immersed in the city’s burgeoning New Romantic club scene.

 

There he befriended fellow Aussie immigrant Trojan, an artist who became Bowery's roommate and frequent collaborator. By 1983, Bowery birthed his first iconic ensemble: Pakis From Outer Space. The look involved silver body paint, glittering caps, and wildly patterned, flowing multicultural robes. That costume announced Bowery's talent for cultural pastiche and established his appetite for provocation through exaggeration of the female form.

 

Taboo: The Outrageous Birth of a Scene

Bowery’s creative restlessness translated into becoming a club night impresario in 1985 when he launched Taboo inside Maximus off Leicester Square. Taboo rapidly ascended as London’s hottest ticket for those craving debauched escapism. With Bowery presiding as onstage ringleader, veering from glamorously operatic singer to voguing drag delight, crowds including Boy George and young Alexander McQueen lost themselves in casual drug use, fluid sexuality, and Bowery’s own brand of social scrutiny-meets-celebration.

 

While only lasting 18 months before an exhausted Bowery killed his own darling, Taboo's impact rippled outward creatively as an uninhibited space where performers could road-test their self-expression. Indeed, Taboo directly inspired the West End 2002 musical featuring lyrics and music by Boy George as well as Madonna's song "Vogue" celebrating serpentine underground dance moves.

 

Through Taboo's vivid example, Bowery demonstrated early on his skills curating cultural happenings that liberated patrons and performers alike to transcend norms. This erstwhile suburban kid had midwifed a scene attracting soon-to-be design titans like Galliano thanks to his discerning tastemaking and courage encouraging unfiltered identity exploration.  

 

Pioneer Provocateur on International Runways

Beyond legendary hosting and dancing, Bowery relentlessly used his own bulky six-foot-three frame as canvas, donning increasingly bizarre subcultural mashups he stitched together himself. In 1983 and 1984, his witty conceptual collections hit runways in New York and Tokyo. Without apparent irony, he'd strut regally down the catwalk in titanic platform shoes and a giant bonnet with bare buttocks peeking through babydoll lace, or sporting frilly scuffs poking from satin pantaloons.

 

Bowery attracted admirers like dancer Michael Clark whose productions integrated his showstopping outfits. Such commissions became a prime income stream for Bowery even as he spurned tailoring clothes for retail, instead pouring creative energies into costumes as a channel for internal theatrics. Ever the perfectionist about construction, Bowery crafted durable ensembles allowing exhaustive character exploration through Club Kids scene international touring.

 

Boy George accurately pinpointed the difference between Bowery's sensibilities versus traditional drag, commenting "he was kinda non-sexual...very confusing." Indeed Bowery escaped facile reading, fluidly surging from glamour to gruesome with balletic grace. Gender impersonation was mere pretext as Bowery melded runway, stage, club, and everyday street life into seamless performance domain.

 

An Enduring Muse Elevating Fellow Creatives 

In 1988, Bowery met acclaimed realist painter Lucian Freud at Taboo. Freud became entranced by Bowery’s manipulation of volume through flesh, make-up, and padding to manifest myriad personas. Over sessions through 1994, Bowery unlocked unprecedented psychological intimacy within Freud's portraits.

 

Art critic Jonathan Jones declared Freud's representations including giant "Leigh Bowery (seated)" as glorifying Bowery as "a Renaissance character out of pagan myth...a painted monument quietly contemplating existence." Lucian said Bowery was for him "perfectly beautiful" given "wonderfully buoyant bulk" as "an instrument to use." This encounter forever validated Bowery’s talents, incubating his own legend by catalyzing immortalization by an artistic master as both muse and peer.

 

Bowery spawned an eponymous style of makeup and costuming making space for gender fluidity and play. His iconic rouged circus cheeks, amplified silhouettes, and brazen nudity live on through club scenes and stage. Traces of Bowery's sensibility run through performers Lady Gaga, Boy George, and RuPaul's Drag Race contestants. Alexander McQueen and John Galliano represent star designers also moved by Bowery's brand of cheeky pastiche. 

 

 

 

 

His Legacy and Last Days

 

In 1993, Bowery formed the art-pop band Minty, engaging his friend Richard Torry plus wife Nicola and backing musicians. Infamously during the group's two week run at Freedom Café, Bowery would appear pregnant, giving a shocking onstage birth beside eerie mannequins while Nicola emerged from a pouch on his belly covered in sausage links and fake blood. This grotesquely humorous spectacle exemplified Bowery's eternal mission to startle through poking at taboos.

 

By then secretly struggling with AIDS for years, Bowery passed in December 1994 from an opportunistic infection, leaving Nicola and collaborators bereft. Yet Bowery's drive, despite doomed health and refusing to curb his uncompromising vision defines his lasting cultural contribution. Through fashion design, performance art, modeling, and music, this human powder keg exploded preconceptions while empowering fellow travelers to discover themselves. We celebrate Leigh Bowery for burning brightly as a totem offering permission simply through audaciously manifesting his truths without apology.

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