Bontha is achieving something similar with his clothes: he transforms into his characters and develops a narrative mainly around the perception of oneself. Beauty and aesthetics are subjective, but confidence is objectively alluring. “A great piece of fashion need not make its wearer infallibly beautiful, but must inspire within that person a sense of self-assurance”, says Bontha.
His muses are the beautiful, strong, sensitive and sexy men in his life. His work, both sartorially and musically, is always inspired by the men he falls in love with. Ultimately though, his greatest love is art. “James Turrell, Dan Flavin, Rothko, Caravaggio, Tony Cragg, Allen Jones: I enjoy thinking of myself in the context of these masters,” he says. He identifies with performers such as Mikey Woodbridge, Kevin Bailor, M.I.A., Jeffree Star, Princess Nokia and Pete Burns.
Whether it’s dress to impress or to show off one’s sewing skills, underground club nights are an honest way of manifestubg an alter ego, an invented personality that one day might become reality, just like Charles Jeffrey’s LOVERBOYs.
The 1980s were marked by a lack of future options for young people, who had to invent new ones of their own. In a way, this resembles the global situation today. Besides, in a world of post-truth and alarming politics, isn’t having fun the primary form of escapism?
Arriving from Sunshine, a conservative town in Australia, London became the creative home for young Leigh, who was in search of creative freedom. His new family would become the Soho crowd of art students at Central Saint Martins and future pop icons such as Boy George and Spandau Ballet.
His first months in London were marked by the gritty British 1980s life. The country was suffering from stagnation, a lack of job opportunities threw young students on the dole, and the future looked dark. Ironically, since he arrived from a quiet suburban Australian backwater, Bowery’s bright personality stood out. His first performance stage was Burger King where he worked briefly.
His next stage were the alternative parties he was throwing with fellow party freaks DJ Rusty Egan and Steve Strange. The club scene at the time was flourishing thanks to underground nights at places like Blitz club. The New Romantics were in full bloom. In 1985 he started a club night called Taboo which became the underground party of the decade. It was a veritable night time catwalk where visitors could sport the most extravagant of looks. The scene championed poly sexualism, defying sexual conventions.
One of his most memorable performances, witnessed by the early Alexander McQueen himself (later inspired by Bowery’s make-up for his show “The Horn of Plenty”), featured Bowery “giving birth” to his assistant and future wife Nicola Bateman at the club Kinky Gerlinky.
His friend and biographer Sue Tilley recalls: “He came tottering on stage balancing on high heels and wearing a huge frock. He pranced about singing and then started groaning, He laid down and started waving his legs in the air showing a flesh-coloured gusset. Suddenly the gusset started moving and a little red head popped out followed by a whole body covered in streaky red paint and attached to Leigh with a string of sausages pretending to be an umbilical cord. He then spat some vomit into the baby’s mouth to feed her… although it was vegetable soup.”
Leigh had persuaded Bateman to hang upside down in a sling-like contraption inside his outfit. The radical nature of his performances has been imitated and even replicated – for his SS16 show Rick Owens copied the slinglike contraption.
The idea of transformation was never his main goal but at the same time it did help him become famous. In fact, he based some of his looks on Japanese robot transformers. Tilley says, “As he got the chance to spend so much time contemplating his body, it became his main material.”
This led to experimental outfits that he made, such as the black PVC cat suit “with one leg fatter that the other”. He also used corsetry and belts to reshape his body. Often, he went out to party almost naked, wearing maybe just a corset and a mask. Defiant and bold, Bowery defied convention to the end.