Interview with Daniel Lismore
When Daniel Lismore makes an entrance – you notice! At six feet four and with a flamboyant sense of style he has made it his mission in life to be a living work of art. Like Marchesa Luisa Casati, Leigh Bowery and Isabella Blow before him, self-expression is everything. As a prominent fixture of the London fashion and nightlife circuits since the early noughties, he has been described as “England’s most outrageous dresser” by Vogue and he never fails to make an impression at a big event. The look? Think visual overload and more is always more. A MIND-BOGGLING MIX OF HIGH AND LOW, HISTORICAL AND CULTURAL REFERENCES, HAUTE COUTURE AND CHARITYSHOP finds. Sumptuous fabrics and elaborate details in unique, floor length outfits that could be best described as wearable art.
According to his extensive title this amazing apparition is an Artist, Designer, Performer, Stylist and Human Rights Warrior. I guess you might also add Curator to the list. Last year he was asked by SCAD FASH: Museum of Fashion and Film in Atlanta to create an exhibition about his own unique sartorial point of view. The exhibition featured thirty-two of his most expressive outfits. When I, to my great joy, got a chance to ask Daniel Lismore a few questions about his life and style by way of email in between his travels and grand entrées, I decided to start off with the more than fabulous title of the exhibition: Be Yourself, Everyone Else is Already Taken.
Dear Daniel, I love the title of your exhibition, “Be Yourself, Everyone Else is Already Taken”. What does it mean to you?
Growing up, I often thought that I had to be someone else, something that I am not, because of the way the world seemed to be at those times. I moved to London aged seventeen to be a model. For work I had to pretend to be many faces, but one day I realised that I had spent too long trying to be someone else but what I needed to be was already there. I read a lot of Oscar Wilde and saw the quote “Be Yourself, Everyone Else is Already Taken” which confirmed to me how I was feeling at the time. Since then I have been unapologetically myself.
Why Oscar Wilde, what is the appeal?
I feel that Oscar and I roamed the same areas, both being men with a fascination for people, from an Irish background, tall and large and later dressed the same. I realised I have a parallel life to his struggling with the same problems at different times. Before getting to know the actor Stephen Fry I had gone to a Soho Society meeting where he was speaking. My mother had dressed me up as Oscar Wilde. He came over to me and said it was genius, I told him my mum had dressed me and he said, “Well, she’s a genius!” There have been many characters along the way that I have been inspired by – some I knew who have passed, some still alive and some well long gone. Chevalier D’Eon is up there next to Oscar Wilde.
How come you started dressing up in this eye catching, elaborate way?
When I was a child my brother and I had a dressing up box, full of all sorts of goodies my father brought home from his auction house. It has been ever since then really. My brother and I used to have to wear the same clothing until we discovered pop culture and sportswear. Age fourteen or fifteen I started to wear makeup and wanted to be black like my idols P. Diddy and Whitney Houston. Age fifteen I discovered a goth across the road who dated my cousin who was very indy. Understanding these tribes, I started to dress up and go to rock festivals or clubs (underage) and the looks grew from there. I wore platforms and always wanted to be taller than my height six feet four. Then I came to London and was thrown into the fashion world and discovered my beloved Soho where the freaks roamed at night.
And why do you do it?
I always think why not? I feel compelled to live as art. I do it for art’s sake, I am fascinated by how people relate to art. Becoming it, you learn a lot about humanity and how they judge, create concepts from what they have experienced in the past and judge on their past experiences. I also think for me it’s a celebration of life. I have seen mass destruction and devastation on my travels but amongst the madness and mayhem I also saw culture and culture values. This has become my culture. I like to celebrate others along the way. With social media, I feel as much as it has opened the world up to other people around the world, there has also been cultural exodus. I believe we live in so many boxes that we have been conditioned by, ideology from idiots from the Victorian times and before (in the western world). I believe that we have human instincts to dress up and decorate ourselves. We all love this at times. I just like to do it every day and have turned it into a ritual art form. What I wear is my version of a t-shirt and jeans or a suit and a shirt.
How would you yourself describe your style?
I would describe my style as surrealist realist artworks.
Do you recreate yourself as a living work of art every day, or only for special occasions?
I live my life as art most days as every day is a special occasion to me.
How do you go about creating your stunning outfits?
I usually start with a base which gives me what has become a signature look – a black long garment which is the foundation for my outfits. It covers my whole body, legs, chin and hair all covered, face framed and I build on top of that. Sometimes it is well planned and sometimes like a walking buckaroo game. Usually gravity is a massive asset, it works under water too but I don’t think I could do what I do in space! Mostly it is spontaneous and I paint with fabrics and shapes and embellish them. I always go for maximalism. When I hear the Coco Chanel saying, “take one item off”, I usually tell someone to add something else to enhance or balance out the item they would usually take off.
Of all the outfits you have created so far, which one is your favourite?
They are all my favourite outfits. When I create something and I feel it’s ready to go out to be shown to the world I feel a certain way, then usually forget about it and forget what I am wearing. Sometimes I wonder why people stare at me and then I realise why! I look back and I have favourite memories associated with my outfits. One was made from twelve inflated garbage liners with a black cube and spikes sticking out. I wore just heels, tights and a vest under it and went to Boombox. I couldn’t fit in the door and had to go in the fire exit. I knocked over every drink on the tables I walked past. I got to the main door of the dance floor and literally the room stopped – everyone in the room stopped dancing and I continued walking, walking past Gareth Pugh and Agyness Deyn on the dance floor. I felt like Moses at the disco, the sea of people opened up and let me through. I joined Gwendoline Christie and Sybil Rouge on stage who were kicking their long legs in the air and screaming very loudly. One by one the bags came off and we threw them into the crowd, the inflated garbage bags bounced around the room.
Is it worth it, always standing out – being you? Or are there any drawbacks to the equation?
I always thought it was well worth standing out. I am stared at regardless of what I wear because of my waist length hair, face and size. I often like to think I would like to be generous and give people something worth looking at. Reactions are different depending on where I am in the world. I have been flown around the world and given treasures and I have been spat on and beaten up. I have had to argue with who I feel are unintelligent and sometime cast out. A few years ago I upstaged Grace Jones and she had me removed. I went willingly because I thought it was hilarious, since then she has been fine with me. I have received a lot of jealousy over time. I was also thrown out of the Eccentric Club with Britain’s Most Eccentric Thinker Tyne O’Connell for being too eccentric. We loved that! I have also attracted my idols and icons, I have a few true friends like my manager Oliver Luckett who has thrown me into some very magical situations. I once got into a scrap with four men who attacked me and Steve Strange in Soho but on the up side I have been asked to events all over the world because of the way I dress. I feel the negatives are well worth it because they make me stronger.
Which would be your ultimate dream event to make a really grand entrance?
I always dreamed about going to the Versailles Opera, dressed up. I was invited last year and I was treated like a queen. I even got Marie-Antoinette’s box. The opera was where Baroque was invented so I went with dressing as the interior. I never felt like I blended in anywhere before but I did there. I would love to make an entrance into space.
Your exhibition at SCAD seems to have been quite amazing! Can you tell me about it?
I was sitting at home in Farringdon, alone and fed up with the direction my life was going. I decided to turn off the internet and phone for three days and put all my ideas down on paper. Only two things I really had plans for came about. I had to move my vast storage unit of clothes that I have collected over the years. I decided it would be a great idea to write an exhibition plan down, inspired by the rankings of the Terracotta Warriors, turning thousands of objects into 3D-tapestries of myself – my journey and an army of splendour and detail. I went to a Westwood party three nights later and met Raphael Gomes who worked for Vivienne at the time curating her exhibitions. He said he was going to work in SCAD Fash Museum in Atlanta. I said, “I want to do an exhibition” and he said “ok, ’ll get back to you”. Thinking nothing would come of it. Three days later he said they were interested and a week later they gave it the go ahead. Raphael came to my storage lock up and we chose 4 000 pieces of my eclectic wardrobe to be sent to Atlanta. It included most of the pieces given to me by celebrities over the years, from Jean Paul Gaultier scarves Adam Ant gave me, Boy George’s hats, Azealia Banks album cover outfit which I styled and thousands of things I found on my journeys around the world. The museum gave me free will to make the sculptures how I liked and nobody had any idea of how the piece would look. Three weeks later the museum had 32 life size versions of me with my face cast by their sculpture department. The exhibition launched and it got a lot of great press. SCAD asked me if I wanted to make a book with Rizzoli and of course I said yes. We shot the book over twelve days and Hilary Alexander and Paula Wallace wrote the main text of the book. It was launched at Miami Art Basel this year.
In this beautiful book you mention, among many other things, that Boy George is something of a mentor for you. In what way?
George is a mentor in many ways. First of all, he is my spirit animal. I think he even saved my life, not that he probably knows. I went through a very dark time and he was there to pick me up. He even put me on a health programme. He is by far the kindest and most caring person I know. I feel like I know nothing when I talk to him. I constantly learn and get inspired by who he is. He was the one that told me that I would spend my life for so many years looking to be someone else but in fact, what I am looking for is already there. He gave me hats and told me not to wear them like him, so I bent them a bit and they are in the exhibition. His style is iconic and he’s a true artist. He made it acceptable to wear hats as a man with a full face of makeup. He photographed me a few times and put me in his videos. Working with him was amazing. I realised he is one of the true original visionaries of today.
What other great style icons have influenced you along the way?
Isabelle Blow – I had the delight of working with her towards the end of her life, she excited me every time I saw her. She told me only to wear red lipstick and not to give a f#•k about what people think of how I dress. The Masai Tribes, anyone who enters the Sing Sing in Papua New Guinea, Queen Elizabeth 1 & 2nd, Oscar Wilde, Chevalier D’Eon, Klaus Nomi, Anna Piaggi, Marie Antoinette, Diane Pernet, Daphne Guinness. And I am always inspired by Vivienne Westwood, every time I see her she has done something interesting to herself whether it be her makeup or wrapped fabric around her. I once picked her up to go to a Cool Earth Charity fundraiser. She gave us all a theme, like it was the end of the world and she upstaged all 200 of us. My greatest inspiration is the work of the photographer David LaChapelle, his visionary mind inspires me more than anything.
Where else do you find your inspiration?
I find my inspiration from cultures, subcultures, the people around me but mostly in dreams I have. I have taught myself to be able to lucid dream and wake up to write ideas down on and off for long periods of time. It took me a while to get the hand of it but it is where I get my best ideas from. Usually shocked with the outcome of what goes on in my dreams. Studying to be a photographer I was always told to keep my eyes open. Find beauty everywhere you look. I see my life as a film playing out before me so I do things I probably wouldn’t do if I lived any differently and I discover more of my surroundings where I take inspiration. I am fascinated by people, I am thrown into situations a lot of people would either be scared of, or unable to access. I love to listen to people whether they are royals, artists or transsexual prostitutes in Soho. Everyone has something interesting about them and I like to find out what it is and take note. All the notes help me play out my life.
While recreating your outfits for the exhibition did you discover anything new about your style?
I didn’t learn anything as such about my style, for me it’s a ritual that I do every day. The sculptures were dressed exactly how I dress, from the base of black clothing underneath with head scarf and gloved and layered on top with nothing but safety pins holding it together. I understood the weight of things and carefully designed them as I would on myself. What I did learn was to stop shopping! But after the exhibition I didn’t have much to wear and gained a brand-new wardrobe which I will add to the exhibitions when it goes on tour later this year.
Speaking of shopping, most of your outfits are usually recycled or upcycled. What are your thoughts on sustainability?
I think it is very important. I am trying to help promote a sustainable fabrics company at the moment called Future Fabrics Expo introducing them to all my designer friends and companies I know. The fabrics are more interesting than others and I think it will be the future. I do my best when it comes to the subject. Although my best will never be enough.
A couple of years ago you featured in a controversial H&M sustainability campaign that attracted a lot of attention. Did it affect you in any way?
I really liked the campaign, I think the only thing that was controversial about it was that people thought it was controversial because they are so closed-minded to how others live their lives. I did it because it promoted recycling. The response was great. I was thrilled because my face wasn’t just in Time Square and Oxford Street, it was also all over the world even in countries where it is illegal to be gay. I felt it was a big fuck you to the closed-minded people of the planet.
Next stop for the exhibition Daniel Lismore: Be Yourself, Everyone Else is Already Taken is Gamma Gallery in Iceland later this year, then it goes on tour around Europe. It has previously been shown in Atlanta and in Miami. The book with the same title is published by Skira Rizzoli.
Interviewed by Susanna Strömquist