The Genteel
April 12, 2021


Inside the "David Bowie Is" exhibition at the Victoria & Albert museum. Photograph copyright by WENN. Source:

Eccentric, cutting edge, and as glamorous as ever, David Bowie is back with a new album and a retrospective at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. Cristina Fei chatted with co-curator Victoria Broackes to find out the secrets behind the cultural icon.

David Bowie As V&A

Installation shot of Quilted two-piece suit,
worn on Top of the Pops, 1972. Designed
by Freddie Burretti for the Ziggy Stardust
tour. Courtesy of the David Bowie Archive. 
Photo (c) Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Cristina Fei: For this retrospective, you've collected more than 300 objects to exhibit all together. How did you go about selecting them?

Victoria Broackes: Co-curator Geoffrey Marsh and I spent about six weeks in New York in 2011 choosing exhibits and film from the vast David Bowie archive. It comprises over 75,000 objects so it was challenging whittling it down to 300 or so to tell a good story. We decided early on not to do a chronological exhibition, instead we're looking at Bowie thematically.

CF: What can visitors see at the exhibition?

VB: This exhibition will be a unique opportunity to see together for the first time, costumes, photography, designs and rare material spanning 50 years of Bowie's career. We will also exhibit never-before-seen film, including footage from the Diamond Dogs tour at Tower Theatre in Philadelphia. We'll be showing many objects illustrating Bowie's design process: storyboards drawn by Bowie for the Ashes to Ashes music video and sketches for a proposed Diamond Dogs film project, handwritten set lists and lyrics including "Heroes", Starman and Fashion and paintings made during Bowie's time in Berlin in the 1970s, as well as some of Bowie's own instruments, sketches and diary entries. This may be the only opportunity to see Bowie's collection in public.

CF: Wow, that's quite a collection! Bowie's outfits during the late 1960s (while he was living in south London) showed his changing identity. How would you describe what was happening then?

VB: Clearly in the '60s he went through many stylistic changes before he found fame, but actually for Bowie, change is his style. He's the opposite of someone who finds a winning formula and then sticks to it. Bowie finds a winning formula and then does something else - that is his winning formula!

CF: The exhibition also explores Bowie's broad collaborative approach with fashion designers. Was Bowie's style influenced by fashion during the '70s or were designers to be inspired by his extravagant personality?

...for Bowie, change is his style.  [...] Bowie finds a winning formula and then does something else - that is his winning formula!

VB: His influence on contemporary culture is arguably greater than any other musician of his generation. His contributions to music, performance, fashion and design are milestones of our era. Bowie is a pioneer not just in music, but also of rock theatre, videos, internet and digital downloads. 

From a design point of view, he is unique in creatively directing every aspect of his work from his costumes, album covers, tour sets to even the merchandise that goes on tour with him; and to add to this, he is continuously cited as an influence by artists, designers and performers.

Bowie has continually absorbed ideas from the world around him and introduced them in his own innovative way to his stage personas, style and music, his impact on fashion is everywhere, you just need to look at recent collections from designers such as Gucci, Jonathan Saunders, Jean-Paul Gaultier, Dries van Noten, Roland Mouret, MiuMiu, Richard Nicoll, who all cite Bowie as a huge influence on their work.

CF: Which brands or designers does Bowie prefer and why?

VB: Bowie has worked with a great range of designers. He chooses collaborators who are in sympathy with his creative vision and whose style fits with the particular look or aesthetic he wants for each tour and album.

Some of his key design collaborations have been with: Alexander McQueen, who was still a recent graduate when Bowie commissioned him for the Outside (1995) and Earthling tours (1997); Kansai Yamamoto (see below); Freddie Burretti and also Natasha Korniloff, both friends of Bowie's who made stagewear for him in 1971-78; Mark Ravitz, who designed sets for the Diamond Dogs (1974) and Serious Moonlight (1983) tours; Jonathan Barnbrook, graphic designers who produced album covers for Heathen (2000), Reality (2003) and The Next Day (2013).

David Bowie As V&A

Installation shot of Asymmetric knitted
bodysuit, 1973. Designed by Kansai
Yamamoto for the Aladdin Sane tour.
Courtesy of the David Bowie Archive.
Photo (c) Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

CF: Freddie Burretti's bodysuit and Kansai Yamamoto's flamboyant creations are exhibited at the V&A. How was Bowie's relationship with these designers?

VB: Bowie met Freddie Burretti in London in the 1960s, reputedly in the Sombrero club. Bowie admired Burretti's glamorous style and film star looks (Burretti's stage name for a time was 'Rudi Valentino') and they shared interests in music and fashion. Burretti designed and made costumes for Bowie for the Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane and Diamond Dogs tours, 1972-74.

Kansai Yamamoto's designs first caught Bowie's eye in 1971, when Kansai held his first fashion show in London. It received a large amount of publicity, including spreads in Harper'sQueen and Vogue. At the time Bowie couldn't afford many of Yamamoto's designs, but did purchase a short bodysuit with a rabbit print design from Yamamoto's pop-up boutique. After the success of Ziggy Stardust, he was able to commission Yamamoto to make a full set of flamboyant costumes for the Aladdin Sane tour in 1973, which travelled to Japan. The costume designs were inspired by Japanese kabuki theatre costumes and samurai armour. Bowie described them as "everything I wanted…outrageous, provocative, and unbelievably hot to wear under the lights."

During the '70s, the pressure of fame and his cocaine addiction were too much to handle for Bowie who ran away from the spotlight of Los Angeles and took refuge in Berlin. Read Part 2 of our interview with Victoria Broackes as she discusses this stage of his career. 



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