Oftentimes, the most culturally rich and influential individuals go overlooked in the context of history. Recognized, instead, by a few ‘in the know’ figures, who in turn commercialize and capitalize off their avant-garde, underground legacy. No trajectory holds truer than that of the late London-based performance artist, club promoter, artist’s muse, and designer, Leigh Bowery.
Born in Sunshine, Australia, a suburb of Melbourne, in 1961, Leigh Bowery studied music and fashion design as a young man, always dreaming of a world outside his conservative landscape and traditionalist upbringing. Through reading British fashion magazines, Bowery developed an interest in London and the New Romantic club scene of the late 1970s, and decided to move to the UK for his life to begin; perhaps never imagining he would quickly ascend to king of London’s booming underground club culture.
After working a slew of odd retail jobs to find his footing in his new home, Bowery’s penchant for night life and outlandish, attention-grabbing ensembles – all of which were of his own making – attracted the attention of likeminded personalities and awestruck admirers. Bowery’s rapid rise from retail associate to club promotor was never more evident than in 1985 when his ‘underground party’ evolved into the full-fledged club called “Taboo”. Known for its wild atmosphere, resistance to sexual convention and, at times, unexpected song selections, Taboo became the city’s hottest club and catapulted Bowery to stardom.
Perhaps the closest embodiment of a renaissance-man-meets-club-kid the world will ever see, Bowery’s early years as a fixture in London’s underground scene afforded him the liberty to finetune his public persona and carefully crafted character off of which he then built a larger professional career involving fashion, performance art, and music. Known for his wildly creative ensembles that oftentimes included hand-made costumes, a full face of makeup, vibrant wigs, and headgear, Bowery later explored the role of fashion designer showing several collections in London, New York, and Tokyo. Despite his short-lived journey on the catwalk, his influence on the fashion community continued well after his passing, namely in the work of Alexander McQueen, Vivienne Westwood, John Galliano, and Rick Owens; the latter of whom paid homage to Bowery’s legacy not as a performance artist in his highly acclaimed Spring/Summer 2016 runway collection.
The trajectory of Bowery’s career led him from club basements to becoming a fixture in fashion circles and later a performance artist, shocking audiences in outlandish drag outfits and suggestive storylines. His signature performance – the one that Owens referenced for Spring/Summer 2016 – involved strapping his assistant to his belly with her face in his crotch, hidden beneath layers of fabric, and then suddenly, to the audience’s surprise, he would drop on his back and simulate giving birth to the young woman. Much like his wild ensembles, Bowery’s performances sought to inspire emotion, whether good or bad, their purpose was to ignite some sort of reaction.
Leigh Bowery’s commitment to his work became increasingly intense as the years went on. Soon his flamboyant costumes and maquillage progressed into Bowery using his body and manipulation of his flesh to create personas, masochistically taping his torso and piercing his cheeks with pins in order to hold masks. At the peak of his fame, he would go as far as to distort his body in various ways, appearing either deformed, pregnant, or as having breasts, one remarking that, "Flesh is my most favorite fabric." One such individual who remained awestruck with admiration for Bowery’s devotion to his craft was British artist Lucian Freud. Considering themselves kindred spirits, Freud later enlisted the former club kid as a muse of sorts, ultimately painting dozens of works capturing Bowery’s exaggerated 6 foot 3 inch frame.
From a young boy in Sunshine, Australia to club promotor in London turned world renowned performance artist and muse to one of the 20th century’s greatest painters, Lucian Freud, Leigh Bowery’s life story ended up reading as eclectic as his most outlandish ensembles. While his time on earth was cut short as a result of the AIDS pandemic, he certainly made enough of an impact to continue inspiring the world for decades to come.