“The urge to categorise: if you label me, you negate me.”
TRQ: Leigh Bowery, Born March 26, 1961
Fashion designer and performance artist Leigh Bowery was born in Sunshine, Victoria, Australia. He studied fashion and design at RMIT University for a year, and then moved to London in 1980. There, Bowery involved himself in the New Romantic scene.
His bad head dripping with melted wax, Bowery created his image as an affront to mainstream sensibilities and tastes through flamboyant costumes and performances that, according to his friend Boy George, “never ceased to impress or revolt.” First appearing at the Anthony D’Offay Gallery in 1988, Bowery would often take to the stage to sing, dance, and give birth to the naked Nicola Bateman, his friend whom he married in an art performance. Michael Bracewell of Frieze magazine, described Bowery’s performance group, “Minty,” as an actual art statement that was “having the last laugh at the expense of formal art.”
In 1993, Bowery told the Guardian that what he most disliked about the public was “the urge to categorise: if you label me, you negate me.” True to his words, Bowery’s creative work is nearly impossible to categorise. He gave performances at Harrod’s with a soundtrack provided by John Waters’ drag performer Divine. He also created costumes for Boy George’s Culture Club, and for dancer Michael Clark. Bowery crossed over into the mainstream after meeting British painter Lucian Freud at the club, Taboo, and posing nude multiple times as his muse. Following, he appeared in advertising for Pepe Jeans and on The Joan Rivers Show and BBC One’s The Clothes Show. Bowery also served as art director for Massive Attack’s Unfinished Sympathy 1991 music video.
Bowery’s influence on the wider culture continues to echo. Gareth Pugh describes Bowery’s influence on fashion today: “If you go into any suburban art college, you’ll always find that book in the fashion section.”
Pugh says that Bowery “created his own language. That’s the golden fleece for any fashion designer: to find something they can be known for 30 years down the line – and for it to be so iconic.”
Decades after the birth performances, designer Rick Owens referenced Bowery with his “human backpack” collection in 2015. Designer Charles Jeffrey’s club Loverboy shows feature Bowery-esque performances. Most recently, designer Richard Quinn’s use of floral gowns and face masks referenced Bowery in a runway show that the Queen attended.
Leigh Bowery died on New Year’s Eve, December 1994 at the Middlesex Hospital. A year before, he said that his biggest regret was having “unsafe sex with 1,000 men.” Few people knew at the time that Bowery was HIV positive. His wife Bateman only learned of his diagnosis once he entered the hospital.
In 2002 Boy George created and performed in Taboo, the musical. It opened in London’s West End, and later opened on Broadway.