Helene Thian graduated from MA History and Culture of Fashion (now MA Fashion Cultures) in 2012 with a Distinction for her thesis on Japonism in Britain in the 1970s. It explored representations of fashion in Japanese and British magazines and the influence of Japonism in the costume and performances of David Bowie.
“For me, it all started in Louisiana. When I was 19, I had the opportunity to meet David Bowie at a concert through a boyfriend who was a music promoter. Bowie asked me to drive him back to his hotel! Later, as part of a Japanese Government scholarship, I ended up living in Japan for 17 years where I met the Business Manager of Kansai Yamamoto. I have been going back and forth to Japan since 1982. Since childhood, I wanted to be a fashion designer or historian.
I lost everything in Hurricane Katrina; all of my life’s memories; all the artwork I made, poetry books I collaged, books I’d collected, photographs, mementos, childhood memories… it dawned on me that I should do what I love as I had survived one of the worst natural disasters in US history. I had always loved fashion history, and fashion in general due to my mother and grandmother, who were both extremely fashionable, the first generation of Sicilian parents. So I was paying homage to the women in my family too and doing what they could not; pursue their dreams.
I found LCF online serendipitously. Although I was accepted for a place at the RCA, I decided on LCF. In the event, LCF was the rehabilitation therapy for my new life. I hope now to live out my fashion historian dream and am even thinking of getting a PhD. So far, it’s going in the right direction. If you want to follow your star regarding dress history then this course will give you the freedom to do so. There is guidance but you have to drive yourself forward and be very disciplined. The course has been so valuable and offered so many opportunities.
We were on a course trip to the Victoria and Albert Museum when Shaun Cole, (Course Leader, MA History & Culture) came up with a twinkle in his eye and revealed that there was a Bowie Exhibition in the planning. He said ‘you may have a chance to work with them’. It was like a twist of fate: the Bowie exhibition, the release of the new album, me being there. On Shaun’s recommendation, I contacted the curators and was able to share my research and knowledge of Kansai Yamamoto and Japanese symbolism which went on to inform the labels in that part of the exhibition.
I was then fortunate enough to receive the highly competitive and prestigious Pasold Research Fund MA Grant in summer, 2012 which paid for my plane ticket to Japan where I spent a month in libraries especially the Bunka Gakuen Library – thanks to the LCF librarians who helped to organise it. (It really helps to get to know librarians personally in research; they become like your best friends). I went through lots of magazines looking for material and at the end was gifted with a kimono. There are benefits to being a Research student! Last year, I presented papers at the first Bowie symposium in Ireland at the the Costume Society study day, 'Music, Fashion and Fantasy.'
All of this couldn’t have happened without the MA History and Culture of Fashion. It is the entrée, the calling card, the connections, the friends that I made while doing it. Working with the V&A, the Pasold, just to see my name in the acknowledgements have all been incredible. Shaun Cole has been a real mentor to me. I’ve been able to do the things I want to do. I believe in the value of academic discipline; being given the opportunity to study what you like…there is nothing like it."