Loverboys

London’s club scene is resurgent. Reminiscent of Leigh Bowery’s nights at Kinky Gerlinky in Soho, Charles Jeffrey’s LOVERBOY at Vogue Fabrics is bringing back to life club kids culture. Desislava Todorova reports.

Walking art exhibit Leigh Bowery left a legacy that lives on more than 25 years after his tragic death from an HIV-related illness. During his lifetime, he became the epitome of what was later known as a London “club kid”.

Bowery’s work is still recognized and celebrated, prompting several exhibitions. There’s even a theatre in his native Australia that has been named after him. Its mission statement is: Be Bold. His influence has been seen in the work of wave after wave of designers ranging from Jean Paul Gaultier to Rick Owens. And now? Sue Tilley, his long-time collaborator and friend, reflects: “Instagram kids all over the world are dressing up as Leigh and showing his influence in their looks.”

Almost twenty years later, an ostentatious club scene in London that recalls Bowery’s 1980s heyday is experiencing a resurrection. British Fashion Awards nominee and CSM alumnus Charles Jeffrey has embraced wild dress-up-for-the night aesthetics and invented characters who came to life at his theme parties. His first attempts to gather his crowd happened further in East London in a pub called Queen of Adelaide and in the basement club Vogue Fabrics in Dalston, later giving birth to his eponymous label LOVERBOY.

The idea of collaboration and tribalism gives club culture a special allure at a time when separatism in politics and a dark post-Brexit future are casting a shadow over youth. Clothes remain the most accessible expression of this longing for freedom and fashion provides it. Club momentum has expanded with the popularisation of Jodie Harsh’s nights at Metropolis or Heaven’s Porn idol with visiting drag queens from Ru Paul’s Drag race.

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The performative nature of club nights like Leigh Bowery’s Taboo represent a form of escapism. They also offer a stage for unique performances for many stylists and artists.

London College of Fashion BA Menswear graduate Justin Bontha started his artistic career during a queer night in Vogue Fabrics. He saw this opportunity as a liberation from conventional masculinity. His goal is to change the perception of men. He feels many of the world’s problems will be solved by eradicating toxic machismo in favour of a vision of sensual male beauty. Fashion and performance are the tools he uses to communicate this vision.

The performative nature of club nights like Leigh Bowery’s Taboo represent a form of escapism. They also offer a stage for unique performances for many stylists and artists.

London College of Fashion BA Menswear graduate Justin Bontha started his artistic career during a queer night in Vogue Fabrics. He saw this opportunity as a liberation from conventional masculinity. His goal is to change the perception of men. He feels many of the world’s problems will be solved by eradicating toxic machismo in favour of a vision of sensual male beauty. Fashion and performance are the tools he uses to communicate this vision.

Bontha explains he just wants to make men feel sexy and good about themselves so they do good for the world. “This theme bleeds into my music and performance, where I aim to inspire men by representing an example of a fearless, romantic, sexually empowered, gender non-conforming hot male bitch.”

A link can made with the work of Leigh Bowery. Sue Tilley reflects on Bowery’s approach: “It was the intelligence behind his looks that was the key. Of course, because of his huge personality and charisma. He wasn’t just dressing up for dressing up sake but to make a statement.”

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?

LEIGH BOWERY

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.

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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.

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