Monday, July 11, 2011

The Day I Met David Bowie

The Day I Met Bowie by Designer and Rebel Rebel Anti-Style Author Keanan Duffty

In 2002 I had reached out to Bill Zysblat. Bill is David Bowie’s longtime business manager. His office, which houses the RZO organization is on 57th Street in Manhattan.
I was interested in designing some clothes for David. “Great,” said Bill, “but he’s on tour so let’s revisit after the current dates come to a close in 2003.”

Several years later I reconnected with Zysblat. In the time since our first conversation my fashion business had changed. My label had blossomed and I struck a deal with the American mass retailer Target, a 1400 plus chain based in Minneapolis and reaching across America coast to coast.

“Come up to the office,” said Bill. “You should meet with David and see if there is synergy.” The RZO organization – that would be the place where I would first encounter the guy who had influenced my whole career.

In December 2006, at his management offices in Manhattan, I met David Bowie to discuss my idea of creating a fashion collection inspired by him, his style, and his music. I confess to feeling something approaching awestruck at the first meeting, which was to be with David, Coco Schwab, and Bill Z in Bill’s boardroom. Beforehand I imagined the meeting would be with the Thomas Jerome Newton character fromThe Man Who Fell To Earth. The seminal Nic Roeg movie that cemented Bowie’s mid 1970’s star as the alien rock icon. Would David enter the room in a fedora, black coat and shades? Was I suddenly being transported into the offices of World Enterprises? ”Slow down Arthur, keep to thirty.”

I nervously paced the boardroom. After a few minutes Bowie appeared looking very casual in a sweatshirt, chinos and suede desert boots. “I guess I’m meeting David Jones then,” I thought to myself. Bowie immediately put me at ease by having me sit in the chair at the head of the desk! Now I was on the spot. That voice. Even his speaking voice is totally distinctive. This is the guy who inspired me to be creative in the first place. I’m in the same room. This is surreal but I am keeping it together. Just act natural…After some light hearted small talk I made my pitch. Bowie was charming and funny, at one point in the conversation I forgot where I was in my monologue, “I’ve lost my thread,” I said, at which Bowie pointed out that was “not so good for a fashion designer – losing your thread.”

He asked what I had in mind and I told him that I thought it was a good time to bring my idea of a Bowie fashion line to him. “Oh, why is that then?” he asked. Simply, that I had built a small business selling to hip premium retailers around the world and had now struck a deal with Target, meaning that my clothes would have the potential to be in shops across America. It was a bit like getting a big record deal after years with an independent label. With that distribution already in place I could put the Bowie name on a fashion collection and offer a “Warhol style” mass market approach. David seemed intrigued.

One of the appealing elements for me was to make a limited edition line for sale in Target’s 1,200 stores in the United States; I felt this then would be in the spirit of Andy Warhol. There was an enormous satisfaction from bringing someone of Bowie’s caliber – a globally renowned rock star who is in the mainstream but constantly works in the leftfield – to the mass market.

I was dying to ask David for his autograph and get my picture taken with this icon of innovation and cool, but I resisted the temptation to ask. “Don’t’ blow it” I kept telling myself. We shook hands and Bowie asked to see some design ideas. “You haven’t already pitched this to Target have you?” “No”, I said, “I was waiting to get your approval.” He seemed happy with this and gave his blessing for me to approach the retailer.

In terms of tone, I had in mind Bowie’s Man Who Fell To Earth/Station To Stationlook of the mid-‘70s, which was quite dressy: suits, hats, smart shirts and coats. I saw the overall palette as black and white with a hint of color, and also detail that referred to other parts of his career. Since it was into stores in and around the holiday period, the dressy approach felt right.

Meeting number two took place again at Bill Z’s office. David, Coco, Mark Wolk, the president of the manufacturing company, my wife Nancy Garcia, and myself attended. We had sketches, sample garments, and designs for the labels, hang tags and packaging. All we needed was David’s green light. “Nice jacket,” Bowie said to me of the coat I was wearing. “It’s one of Vivienne Westwood’s,” I said, relieved at the seal of approval.

The third meeting was at the Isolar offices on Lafayette Street in Soho. This time it was just David, Coco, and myself. I had come to present the marketing ideas. Target were very keen to have David perform a song at an opening party. Not going to happen. “I’m not Posh Spice,” he said. Oh dear. Did I fuck this up? He seemed happy with the in-store promotional presentation and the CD design.

The concept for the collection was to avoid the whole rock star /fashion route of plastering obvious images onto T-shirts. My notion was that Bowie’s richness and diversity could be used for a collection that was subtle and detailed.

It’s a testament to Bowie’s rightful position as a true style icon that the collection sold out very rapidly and I feel proud to have been part of his exploration of this new area.

Excerpt from Rebel Rebel Anti-Style by Keanan Duffty with Paul Gorman and Forward by BP Fallon, (c) 2010. Rebel Rebel Anti-Style is published in the US by Universe/Rizzoli (US $22.50 / CAN $27.95) and in the UK by Adelita (£14.99).

Keanan Duffty is a British fashion designer and musician based in New York City. He is a member of the Council of Fashion Designers of America and winner of the Fashion Group International Rising Star Award 2003. Duffty studied fashion design at Central St. Martin’s in London, and was awarded a first class Bachelor of Arts degree with honors. His celebrity clients include David Bowie, Sex Pistols, and Gwen Stefani. Duffty is also lead singer in the band Slinky Vagabond, alongside Glen Matlock of the Sex Pistols, Clem Burke of Blondie, and Earl Slick (David Bowie/John Lennon/New York Dolls). His book, Rebel Rebel Anti-Style explores how fashionable music and “anti-fashion” icons, like David Bowie, the Sex Pistols, and Gwen Stefani, have inspired fashion. Rebel style is all about wearing common or mundane items with a sense of creativity and irony.

For more on Keanan Duffty visit his blog:

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