For those of us not lucky enough to live in the time of the legendary Leigh Bowery, it’s rare to get a glimpse of him in motion, speaking, or giving us advice on the fall fashions. Like most visual icons, Bowery is instead crystallised in countless images which are still spread like wildfire over everyone’s moodboards, or in anecdotes of a true genius found only in books and magazines of the times describing the dance-floor scene of London’s Blitz heyday – with Bowery at its centre.
“The staff here adore me,” delights a surprisingly spritely Leigh as he enters afternoon tea at Harrods. In a rare clip from a 1988 episode of BBC One’s The Clothes Show, we’re greeted by a prim Bowery sheathed in a “few thousand” sequins, which are apparently “very in” right now. From “apres-ski” wear to some v Richard Quinn florals, the style icon welcomes us into his world of seasonal shopping and cream tea dining, far from his usual context of the club. It was around this point Bowery was reaching notable status beyond the dancefloor – the very same year he met Lucian Freud, becoming a short-lived muse.
Watching Bowery in motion is such a stirringly surreal experience, his gigantic outfits and bigger persona flooding the space as he twirls and chats eagerly with a young, upbeat Caryn Franklin, onlookers unsure what to do with such magnificence. Instead of cowering away from the posh shoppers of West London, he takes the motifs and patterns of Harrods itself (especially that William Morris inspired number for his performance at Sadler’s Wells) and dons them proudly, fabric face coverings and all, becoming almost an extension of his surroundings. Instead of rejecting – or being rejected by – an institution like Harrods, he instead subsumes it into his own image, celebrating and undermining fashion and establishment in one fell swoop. It’s pretty glorious.