Media crowded into Toronto’s Art Gallery of Ontario this morning for what can only be described as a job perk: A preview of David Bowie is, the first stop on the acclaimed exhibit’s world tour after a successful, sold out run at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A). The multi-disciplinary installation contains 300 objects, including 60 costumes, from Bowie’s personal archive of 75,000 items collected from his teenage years to the present, handpicked by Geoffrey Marsh, Director of the V&A’s Department of Theatre and Performance and Victoria Broakes, curator in the Department of Theatre and Performance, Head of Performance Exhibitions and Head of the London Design Festival at the V&A. After the preview, we spoke with fashion media icon (a term we don’t use loosely, but it’s appropriate here) Jeanne Beker about Bowie’s impact on fashion, style and art, as well as her exhibit highlights and personal Bowie memories.
FLARE: As a fashion personality, what does David Bowie mean to you?
Jeanne Beker: First and foremost, if I go back to my beginnings and the roundabout way I got into fashion, it’s really theatre, and that’s what Bowie was all about from the get go, too. [He had] a theatrical understanding of the world. [He understood] the power of sartorial garb as a costume to really communicate certain things about yourself and to help you transcend even your own image of yourself. As a person who loves fashion for its larger than life imagery, it’s not just about the clothes as garments it’s about their transformational power and their ability to communicate and that’s what David Bowie was all about.
He really shook us out of our complacency. The early seventies were a time when grunge was the thing, it was not about dressing up and Bowie made us appreciate the art of dressing up. It was a time when the women’s movement was on the rise and we started thinking differently about gender roles, and with all the play Bowie had in that department, he really made us think outside the box. He reflected the times, but he also helped transform them.
FLARE: What were some of the highlights of the exhibit for you?
JB: All the imagery, the photography is astounding. He was a champion poser from the very beginning…he really knew how to own the camera, he knew how to turn it on.
The costumes, obviously. The Pierott costume from the Ashes To Ashes video in 1980—we started The New Music in 1979…so we were probably one of the first shows to play that video—so that was incredible, to see that gorgeous costume. All the Kansai Yamamoto costumes, when you think that Yamomoto was the first Japanese designer to show in London. After the success of Ziggy Stardust, Bowie was able to commission Yamomoto to design his samurai, kabuki-inspired costumes. Those are just absolutely sumptuous.
And, of course because of my personal relationship to McQueen, to see that sensational jacket he co-designed with Bowie based on a jacket worn by Pete Townsend [of The Who]. There’s a blow up version of the note Lee McQueen sent Bowie, you know that’s pretty incredible. It was at an early point in McQueen’s career and I was lucky enough to know him in those early days as well.
FLARE: Do you have a personal David Bowie memory that stands out to you?
JB: Bowie studied mime with Lindsay Kemp, the great British choreographer, but he also studied mime with Étienne Decroux who was the father of modern mime and actually taught Lindsay Kemp. Decroux was my old mime teacher. I remember, when I moved to Paris in 1973 to study mime, everyone in the little school was buzzing that David Bowie had been there previously as a student. So, I was like, wow, talk about one degree of separation!
David Bowie is open to the public from September 26 until November 27 at the Art Gallery of Ontario.