Few musicians have used art and image to such great effect as David Bowie. Back from a ten-year hiatus with 'The Next Day', his 24th album and a return to collaboration with Tony Visconti, Bowie is once again setting a visual agenda as well as a sonic one.
The Next Day's cover sees designer Jonathan Barnbrook quoting and reinterpreting photographer Masayoshi Sukita's classic cover image for 1977's 'Heroes' and now there's a fashion collaboration in the offing too, one that makes explicit reference to the David Bowie of old, the 1970s style icon without parallel.
Popular legend has it that 1971 was not an auspicious year for fashion. But while the mainstream was lost in the post-Sixties hangover, the outliers were busy defining the styles that still resonate today, a melange of sexual ambiguity, historical influences and bold forms and colours. The rich visual culture and endless streams of imagery we all take for granted today had no place in the monocultural, tech poor era of the early 1970s, where a 12-inch album cover could become an era-defining object, an art-directed artefact from another dimension that could enthral its audience just as much as the music within.
David Bowie had already kick-started 1971 with a record - and an image - that continues to echo down the decades. The cover of 'The Man Who Sold the World' saw a defiantly androgynous Bowie draped across a chaise longue, the floor strewn with playing cards, the copious fabric of his silk robe spilling down behind them. Like the music inside, it was glamorous, alternative and other-worldly.
The Man Who was followed a few months later by 'Hunky Dory', regularly acclaimed as one of the best albums of the decade, if not of all time. For the cover, Bowie was shot by Brian Ward in a luminous, angelic pose - allegedly referencing the celluloid glow of Marlene Dietrich. On the back cover, Ward pictured the singer standing nonchalantly against a plain backdrop, his figure dominated by a pair of high-waisted, wide-legged woollen tweed Oxford Bags. The designer? A young Nottinghamshire-based menswear designer called Paul Smith, who had opened his first shop just a few months before.
Smith and Bowie have been long-time friends, with the singer regularly pictured in Paul Smith clothes. It seemed only fitting that this historic partnership should be revisited on the occasion of The Next Day's release. Bowie invited Sir Paul Smith to create the album's official T-Shirt, using Barnbrook and Sukita's artwork (Smith is also good friends with Sukita - who has exhibited at the Paul Smith Space in Tokyo) and the discrete but resonant label, 'Paul Smith for David Bowie'. The new T-Shirt is just the first fruit of an ongoing collaboration between the two men, more of which will be revealed as 2013 progresses and the world is swept up in Bowie-mania all over again.