He rose to fame as a fabulous illusionist of rock – ever changing, always outrageous and more bizarre by the moment. David Bowie made art out of life, from his music to his clothes, and he was a champion of fashion designers both world famous and relatively unknown. Fashion shaped the style chameleon’s belief in the importance of clothes to a performance. One of his most prolific collaborators was Kansai Yamamoto, whose designs are part of the traveling exhibition, ‘David Bowie is’, now on its last stop at the Brooklyn Museum in New York.
The ‘David Bowie is’ exhibition has already traveled to ten other cities across five continents, where it’s been seen by about 1.8 million people and counting. The Brooklyn installment is a feast for the senses and features all things-Bowie related, selected from Bowie’s personal archives – but it is the fashion on display, worn by custom-made mannequins with an actual mold of Bowie’s face, that embody the spirit of his wildest personas.
Hi-Fructose met with Kansai Yamamoto in Tokyo during the development of our upcoming publication, New Contemporary Fashion. Working together with Kansai was a turning point in Bowie’s fashion evolution, whom he met after Kansai learned that Bowie had been wearing pieces of his on stage. Our evening was just as eclectic as Kansai himself, a lavish sushi dinner followed by a more basic dessert at Krispy Kreme, where he recalled those early moments that brought them together:
“I had many phone calls in the middle of the night from Yacco-san [Bowie’s stylist, Yasuko Takahashi] and she told me to go New York. Soon after getting three enthusiastic offers by telephone, I flew out to New York and saw a concert by David Bowie from the front row,” he shared. “He was wearing my womenswear collection and he also used hikinuki onstage, an instantly-changing technique derived from Japanese kabuki.”
Kansai’s now famous striped, billowing jumpsuit is the first thing visitors see when they walk into the exhibit, on display under glowing light bulbs that spell “Bowie”. The exhibit then opens up to 26 sections ranging from Influences to Characters to Performance to Costumes, and so on, featuring nearly 100 costumes by designers like Alexander McQueen, Hedi Slimane, Issey Miyake and Vivienne Westwood. There are seven costumes that Kansai designed for Bowie during his “Ziggy Stardust” and “Aladdin Sane” tours.
“There was a clear distinction between David ‘onstage’ and David ‘offstage.’ The second he stepped on the stage, there was an immediate shift in energy unlike that of any other artist at the time. I know I have a very strong personality and I am always attracted to work with people with strong personalities, and he had an extreme personality,” Kansai recalls. He considered Bowie to be the ultimate vanguard, making waves in the musical landscape of the time. The onstage character they created, Ziggy, was a surreal cartoon character who ‘played guitar’ that nobody had ever seen anything like before.
“His energy resonated with my own desire to venture out into the world. I think David felt that the energy in my designs contributed to his own energy. He knew that when he wore my clothing onstage, he could elicit a strong reaction from the audience. Looking back to his Tokyo concert in 1973, he performed wearing nothing but small ‘support shorts’ to excite the audiences. He always knew how to make audiences happy.”
“Music, fashion and art had intimate relationships, and me and Bowie were not the exceptions. We didn’t distinguish fashion from art at all. It’s fashion when worn, and it’s art when displayed, that’s it. All I have to do is create as I desire. The world is surrounded by installations from our day in the life,” Kansai says.
‘David Bowie is’ is now on view at the Brooklyn Museum in New York March 2nd through July 15th, 2018. Hi-Fructose’s New Contemporary Fasion is now available to pre-order here.