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Dissecting the style of David Bowie with Mick Rock & John Varvatos

ShortList chats to the iconic photographer and rock 'n' roll fashion designer

Dissecting the style of David Bowie with Mick Rock & John Varvatos
14 September 2016

If you’ve ever looked at an iconic picture of David Bowie, Lou Reed or Iggy Pop, it was most likely taken by Mick Rock, close friend of the Starman - particularly during his Ziggy Stardust persona, where he took intimate backstage shots of the late musician.

In fact he’s taken so many pictures of Bowie (just in that period of 72-73) that he’s released a back breaking tome full of candid and never before seen snaps of the legend. We spoke to the man behind the camera, as well as famed rock 'n' roll designer John Varvatos, to discuss the style genius of one of the most important pop culture figures of all time, the complexity of Lou Reed and the current state of music.

We probably know the answer to this…but who is the best dressed rock star of all time?

Mick Rock: "John thinks that Syd Barrett was, just to be controversial. But there is some truth in that."

John Varvatos: "I think that there’s style and best dressed. I think that Syd had a very cool style."

M: "And attitude."

J: "But David was the most interesting, he was a chameleon and changed so much over time. I also think that Jimi looked like he came from outer space, his look was so different than anyone else on the planet at the time."

Lou, I’ve got some great pictures of Lou in that whole plastic look. That along with Transformer, I know they were some of his favourite all time pictures. And Iggy at times in the Raw Power days with his silver trousers, silver hair and pointy boots. But David for the sheer longevity.

J: "When I started my company in 1999, I started pulling some pictures together. I didn’t know Mick at that time, but there were some pictures around of David and I thought he was so handsome and very elegant in his black suit. He just looked like a guy I wanted to be, and a guy that transcended style."

M: "He could wear fucking anything. He could wear a fireman’s outfit, he just had style."

What’s your favourite Bowie look?

M: "That’s hard. He had so many."

J: "Memorable: Ziggy Stardust. Best look? I don’t know."

M: "I photographed him in that 21 month period in 73 different outfits. Some haven’t even been published for whatever reason, but he was always changing. It was like watching a technicolour movie. He was very playful and had an interesting perspective on things. He was built on curiosity, not on judgement. I can’t remember him being judgemental about anything in particular, other than what he liked. He could like anything on any given day though. My mother used to say to me, "we dropped you on your head too many times as a child". I thought then David must’ve been dropped on his head dozens of times then."

What’s your favourite picture of David?

Mick: "Well there’s 350 shots in there alone and I have over 5,000. The 2002 session that Jon was referring too, I have some great shit from that session. But I don’t know, it depends on the hour of the day, the day of the week, the week of the month, the month of the year. Or if I’m having my period. And men do have periods."

If you could pick anything from David’s wardrobe to wear yourself, what would it be?

Mick: "I’m alright slightly boho. But the jeans got really good when I started wearing Varvatos! They’re a cut above the Levi’s. I couldn’t even imagine myself as David Bowie. He could wear anything and always look fabulous. Even seeing him first thing in the morning with his hair all over the place."

J: "Even the last images of him with the suit and hat."

M: "Yeah, they said it was taken a couple of days before his birthday, but they were actually taken in November, but still not long before he died. It’s still hard… the double thing, of Lou dying a couple of years ago and David dying. They both influenced my life enormously, and they were both very kind to me during periods that I was having difficulties and didn’t even shoot them. I remember them in that way."

J: "And who would’ve though Iggy would outlive them all?"

M: "If you were talking back in those days, Iggy was way out in front as the first one to leave the planet. No doubt about it. There’s a session I recorded where I say, “Iggy…you know you’re a fucking freak, you haven’t got any body fat on you!” He said, “It’s genetics.” But he looks like an iguana, and I always thought that shot of mine on the cover of Raw Power really worked because he looks like an iguana. And of course in the early days it was Iggy and the Iguanas. He’s super bright, but also like a creature."

Lou and David had a very complex relationship, didn’t they?

M: "They were very complicated people, but Lou was way more complicated. He turned me on to so many things I will not talk about because they are almost too interesting. He was something else. He knew the underbelly of New York. He once took me to see a friend of his who was the best breaking & entering man in New York, and this guy could get into any apartment. He was from a very wealthy family, and he didn’t want or need anything, he just got a thrill from breaking in. He was a complete speed freak this guy. Lou came back from somewhere once, walked into his apartment on 65th street, and all of his furniture had been rearranged. There had been no sign of a break in. Then he figured out who done it, it was his mate. Don’t even remember what his name was and he’d never let me photograph him, but I took a lot of pictures of Lou in his place. Pure speed freak, there was stuff everywhere. To look at the pictures your eyes are bouncing around."

Is there anyone around today who’s on the same level as David?

M: "The anarchic geniuses? I think it’s difficult today, because you don’t get a lot of time to develop their eccentricity. Because all that time David and Lou were unsuccessful they had time to develop that strangeness."

J: "There isn’t anyone who’s made that kind of impact. There are people like Jack White, who is super creative and walks to his own beat. What he did with the White Stripes was so innovative at the time. But there really isn’t a person or band who… there’s interesting things going on, but there’s no one who says…"

M: "Look at this mother fucker!"

J: "There’s not a lot of surprises either."

M: "There aren’t. But my friend Lucky, who’s a Sikh, showed me this yogic sect who eat corpses. One day he said come take a look at this, and these people were be hacking away at these corpses. It’s on the internet! Forget all the freaky sex shit, these mother fuckers are eating legs!"

What piece should every respectable rock star own?

J: "A great leather motorcycle jacket. It could be simple, but one that’s going to last you. I bought one in the Seventies as a kid after seeing the Iggy & The Stooges album in the Spread. I wanted that jacket desperately. It’s timeless and lasts forever if you get a good one – and you don’t put on weight."

Do you think there’s certain fashion that rock stars couldn’t pull off today?

J: "I think fashion and rock is like it’s always been: it’s incestuous. There are certain people who shouldn’t be allowed to try and pull stuff off, because they don’t’ carry their selves in that matter. If you’re just a poser, forget about it. But if you’re really delivering something new and interesting, you can pull off anything you want."

What’s your most stylish city?

M: "It’s a funny word stylish, because it’s so eccentric. I think it’s forever New York. But in a more overt way, stylish as being more of a high end thing, it’s London. But when you go low end, it’s got to be New York."

What style advice would you pass on?

J: "Be yourself. You can be anyone you want but you have to look in the mirror and feel like it’s you. It’s when you’re trying to be someone you’re not; everyone sees when you’re trying to be someone that you’re not."

M: "Who are you writing for?"

M: "Is it intelligent? Because if it is, fuck it."

Mick Rock: The Rise Of David Bowie is available now through Taschen

Photo credit: Mick Rock, John Varvatos