David Bowie Was the Original Style Chameleon

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There was a Bowie for every era.Photo: Getty Images, Corbis

There was no one more skilled at fashionable reinvention than David Bowie, who died on Sunday at age 69, after a battle with cancer. There was a Bowie for every era — his early experiments with Mod when he was still known as Davie Jones, Ziggy Stardust and his glam-rock excess, the Thin White Duke and his natty three-piece suits and scarves, Aladdin Sane and his much-imitated Technicolor face paint. Rather than one influential look, his true legacy was that chameleon-like quality, minus the willingness to blend into one’s surrounding. As he hopped musical genres, Bowie sloughed off styles just as skillfully. Now, when every new single release necessitates a musician changing their persona (remember Sasha Fierce? what about Jo Calderone?), that might not seem as revolutionary, but it was at the time.

The other stamp he left on fashion: an embrace of androgyny, a stance that looks more and more prophetic given the rise of gender blurring on and off the runway. He favored skintight jumpsuits, teetering platforms, feather boas, and even the Michael Fish “man-dress” (that’s what the designer called the maxidresslike style) he wore on the cover of the The Man Who Sold the World, reclined odalisque-style. He had a knack for finding designers who understood his unique needs: Kansai Yamamoto was the genius behind his ultra-wide-legged Ziggy Stardust jumpsuit and remained a longtime collaborator. Yamamoto wasn’t the only talent he gave a boost to: In 1996, at the height of Cool Britannia, he had a recent Central Saint Martins graduate named Alexander McQueen design his tour wardrobe, notably a Union Jack frock coat covered with cigarette burns, which he wore on the cover of his Earthling album. On the roster of other designers he worked with: Thierry Mugler, Issey Miyake, Giorgio Armani, and Hedi Slimane.

Bowie was drawn to fashionable women as well, notably Iman, his wife of 24 years. He was a regular attendee at shows and even paid sly mockery to the industry with his single “Fashion.” Jean Paul Gaultier devoted a show to him, and Raf Simons has cited him as an influence, telling Style.com that he’s “More than a man — an idea.” His style has merited multiple books and a dedicated V&A exhibition in 2013. And he never lost his appetite for metamorphosis. As he promised the crowd at his 50th birthday concert at Madison Square Garden, “I don’t know where I’m going from here — but I promise it won’t be boring.”