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Meet: Helene Marie Thian

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Published date 14 March 2016
Helene Thian

Helene Marie Thian. Photo by Carla Hernandez, Tokyo

Helene Marie Thian studied MA History & Culture of Fashion, at London College of Fashion, graduating in 2012. After losing all her possessions during Hurricane Katrina, Helene came to London to pursue her dream to specialise in David Bowie and Japonism, after meeting her idol in the 70s. Read more about Helene’s journey… 

I always knew that I wanted to focus on David Bowie’s style and become a fashion historian. It all began in New Orleans, Louisiana, my hometown, from where I drove as a teenager for nine hours all the way to Memphis (Bowie-authored, Mott the Hoople song reference intended) to see him in concert for the Isolar tour in 1976.

Two years later, in 1978, I met David Bowie when I was 19. I was an undergraduate at university. My then-boyfriend asked me to go to a concert with him, but I had no idea that he had reserved special seats for us to see Bowie as he worked for a major rock concert promoter.  After the show in Baton Rouge and on the way home to New Orleans, he told me to stop the car at a bar and disco called Del Lago’s. We went in, and David and his band were all sitting there with no one else in the bar! My boyfriend had arranged the private gathering. We ended up dancing, talking and drinking all night.  Bowie then said in the wee hours that he knew I had a Mercedes parked outside (How he knew, I didn’t ask!), and asked if I could give him a lift back to his hotel. It was just Bowie, his bodyguard, my boyfriend and I in my burgundy Benz. Unforgettable, to say the least.

David Bowie is

From the early 1980s, I began living in Japan for many years. I studied for two years on a Monbushō scholarship from the Japanese government after becoming qualified as a lawyer in Louisiana. I connected with Kansai Yamamoto, who just happened to be the Japanese designer responsible for the Ziggy Stardust look.  He was my husband’s boss for nearly 30 years so I had the opportunity to socialise with Kansai–he even took us out boating in Tokyo Bay—and helped him with his Paris Collection fashion show on site in 1990.

In 2005, I lost all of my life possessions because of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, which had been shipped back from Japan and included my Bowie memorabilia, books, jewellery, photos, heirlooms and vintage clothing collection. In 2007, I began doing Japan-related legal work in the Washington, DC area, which I absolutely abhorred.  So I decided in 2010, whilst working in San Francisco, to do what I had always wanted and become a fashion historian. I had collected books on fashion history since childhood. My mother loved clothes and fine design and had inculcated a love of music, fashion, art and beauty in me. It seemed a natural progression. I serendipitously found London College of Fashion, after actually having been accepted to the Royal College of Art, and promptly applied. My supervisor, Dr Shaun Cole, really was and is the most brilliant mentor for whom one could wish. At the time, he had just been appointed interim director of the LCF Master’s course in the History & Culture of Fashion, having been the former Head of Contemporary Programming at the Victoria & Albert Museum, when I contacted him about enrolling.

In my first week of studies, I remember standing in the V&A on a class field trip, and Shaun asked me if I still wanted to specialise in the research on Bowie and Japonism. He informed me with a twinkle in his eye that as it turned out the V&A would in the near future curate a massive exhibition on Bowie on the occasion of the 40 year anniversary of Ziggy Stardust, and that I could likely work with the curatorial team. His prediction came true for I shared my research and got credit for it in the Acknowledgements in the eponymous, accompanying book David Bowie is… by Co-Curators Geoff Marsh and Victoria Broackes. I gave a talk during the Bowie Weekender during the run of the show in a Q & A format with style icon and LCF graduate and Lecturer Amber Butchart as moderator.

Enchanting David Bowie

During my studies I was fortunate enough to receive a rarely awarded MA travel grant from the Pasold Research Fund. So I took the opportunity to travel to Japan and interface with Kansai and do extensive research at the Bunka Gakuen fashion college library in Tokyo. In 2012, I presented at the first ever David Bowie symposium in Limerick, Ireland. I saw the advert soliciting presentations, and although there was lots of competition and I ended up applying just past the deadline for submission, I managed to get a spot.  I have also presented at the Costume Society in London at their “Music, Fashion and Fantasy:  from Masquerade to Lady Gaga” Study Day.  I have seen my research work published in the form of chapters for two books on Bowie, David Bowie: Critical Perspectives ( Routledge 2015), a collection of papers from the Bowie Symposium, and also Enchanting David Bowie (Bloomsbury, 2015) as organised by Deakin University.  I was granted permission by famed photographer Masayoshi Sukita to use a photo of his featuring Bowie and designer Kansai from the early 1970s for my book chapter for the former publication. Sukita is of course the photographer with whom Bowie collaborated for 40 years and who snapped the iconic “Heroes” album cover image. In an odd bit of synchronicity, the latter book was highly praised after review by a professor at Loyola University, New Orleans (I just so happen to be a graduate of that university’s law school), and his appraisal appeared on the Bloomsbury Publishing website. Dr Chris Schaberg told me my chapter analysing a jacket self-customised by Bowie in the 1960s for his shows with The Riot Squad band was his favourite in the book. I had during my studies been able to travel to Bromley near London to examine the jacket at the Bromley Museum, now sadly closed, and said jacket ended up being part of the David Bowie is… exhibition.

I also intuited (as part of my MA at LCF) after seeing Lindsay Kemp in a BBC documentary about Bowie, that this performance artist of renown, Bowie’s dance and mime teacher in the mid-1960s, might just be the person who had actually introduced the rock icon to Japanese culture, theatre, music and movement. I was fortunate to find a way to contact Lindsay, interview him and speak with him a few times, and to discover the factual basis for the contention that he had indeed been a mentor for Bowie on all things Japanese. In fact, Lindsay loaned me an extremely special photo for my book chapter on Bowie and Japonism in the publication David Bowie: Critical Perspectives (Routledge, 2015). It was an image of his sister Norma as a child dressed in kimono.  Their father had been a merchant sailor who had travelled to Japan, bringing back mementos for his children. Lindsay even graciously made some beautiful drawings for me in appreciation for my work on his contributions to Bowie’s Japan-inspired art! This story with Lindsay illustrates the joy of being a fashion historian and finding, in the manner of Sherlock Holmes, the cause and effect in dress history. And it illustrates how studying at LCF opened doors for me to encounter people who have shaped our world in monumental ways.

Just this week, a librarian at London College of Fashion who helped me greatly during studies—here’s a toast to the LCF librarians who are so critical to student success!—Peter Winning, told me that he’d ordered copies of the two books in which I have chapters. So things have come full circle with my research and studies now being made a part of the LCF library.

I have also seen my work analysing the framing by different photographers of the designs of Kansai Yamamoto published in the academic journal Dresstudy, a publication of the august Kyoto Costume Institute in Japan. Shaun jokingly said that I, his student, had trumped him by getting published first by KCI.

Following David Bowie’s death recently, which was quite a sad event for me, I was contacted by members of the press in the US and abroad to discuss the rock god’s connection with Japan. I was interviewed by the very respected radio journalist Marco Werman of Public Radio International’s The World programme, which was broadcast nationally in the US.  I was also interviewed by the BBC Singapore for a lengthy online article.

Henri Bendel

Henri Bendel portrait

As an aside to the tale of Bowie and me, in 2014 I presented a talk at the Science Museum in Lafayette, Louisiana for the Center for Louisiana Studies on fashion designer/retailer Henri Bendel, founder of Bendel’s department store in New York City in the early 20th century. Bendel is a native of that city but catapulted to New York and ended up revolutionising the fashion industry, introducing designers such as Schiaparelli, Molyneux, Vionnet and Chanel to the US. I was responsible for uncovering a long hidden oil portrait of Bendel under a bed in the Alexandre Mouton House, Lafayette Museum. The portrait was discovered right before I gave my talk so Henri, no doubt, was desirous of coming out from under the bed!

And the frosting on the cake is that I have now learned in 2016 from Bebe Buell (iconic model/rock star muse/singer and Friend on Facebook), that she introduced Bowie to Bendel’s, her favourite store, when she was living in NYC in the early 70s. So I guess that all roads lead to Bowie in my life in the most inexplicable and amazing ways!

I plan on returning to Japan this year to reside and hope to organise an exhibition some day at the Kobe Fashion Museum featuring British and Japanese magasine images of Japanese fashion and culture in London from the 1970s, which I uncovered during extensive research in Japan and the UK for my studies.  There are so many other topics in Japanese dress history to investigate, too. Thanks to my time at LCF, I have been on a journey of my heart’s desire, the very best thing imaginable.

Helene enjoys collaborations with all sorts of individuals and institutions. She can be reached at