An interview with: The man who owns over 6000 garments - Daniel Lismore, one of London's most eccentric dressers
one month ago
Photo by Colin Douglas Gray
A stalwart of London's most expressive nightlife and excessive parties, Daniel Lismore has been named many things: including the best, most iconic dresser in London. While the link between fashion and art is so often hotly contested, Lismore is one of the few people who actually dissolve this link seamlessly. When you behold another of Daniel's creations you don't think fashion, you think walking art... with a Birkin.
After fifteen years of turning some of the most memorable of London's looks, we caught up with Lismore on his book and exhibition, where he gets inspired and how the London club scene has changed.
When did you first start to live your life ‘in art’?
There are a few incriminating photos in family albums of me as a young child, covered in shoe polish from head to toe, wearing obscure items from the garden. I guess it all started there. My parents were antique dealers so they often brought a lot of fun stuff home that me and my brother would pick out of our dressing up box to create amazing ensembles.
Aged 15 I started to wear makeup, discovered the world of David Lachapelle, started questioning why my life didn’t look like his work and got involved in goth scenes: many of whom were pretty extreme dressers. I then had a stage of wanting to channel a cyber hollywood alien and just after I moved to London aged 17 to become a model, found myself surrounded by the who’s who of fashion. I hit the clubs and discovered all of these wonderful people I had read about in magazines. My makeup got more extreme and at around 18 I started to live my nights as art. In the day I went to castings in tight Versace or Versus clothing often ripping a crotch out of my trousers or tearing a hole for my nipple to show. At that time it was frowned on to be a gay model and I found that pretty frustrating as I was told ‘don’t make it obvious’. My agency told me to go to Topman and buy myself some new ‘normal’ clothes. I just couldn’t – the whole thing made me so angry that I couldn’t be myself. I had just started to grow my hair and was obsessed with Oscar Wilde so my mother and I went on the hunt for clothes that resembled Oscar. I would channel him by day and go all out at night.
Photo by Colin Douglas Gray
Where do you draw inspirations from?
I grew up in a medieval village called Fillongley, in Warwickshire. I became interested in history learning about its past, the kings and queens of England who stayed there. Maybe my inspirations started there. I draw inspiration from everywhere I go whether I am walking down the street or living with tribes in Kenya. Anyone can be interesting. Difference for me is the key.
It started in my high school art class. I became fascinated with Warhol and celebrity, making all my favourite celebs in clay, it was then I learned about magazines like Vogue and Tatler. I am very drawn to eccentrics, I have had the honour of spending time with many of my idols and learning from them. I sit for hours talking to them, asking all the questions I want to know. Some people inspire me with how they look and other on an intellectual level, I often might interpret a look from one of their stories.
I have always surround myself with interesting, positive people who keep me inspired on a daily basis. They keep my mind buzzing.
I’m very much inspired by tribes of the world, histories from other countries, cultures and religions. I think that we still very much conform to ways of living laid down in Victorian times in the western world. At 17 my photography teacher told me to look at everything and never close my eyes. I try to do that.
What is your favourite look or piece you’ve ever worn?
I think the funnest piece I have worn is an orange dome which was made for a pop star who never picked it up from the studio. I have three of them. Its a huge orange inverted Perspex dome, that looks like a satellite dish. I think I first wore it to the MTV EMA awards where it flashed whenever a light hit it and became the centrepiece for any room I walked into. Then I wore it to Coachella and on a night out with Lady Gaga in London who poured champagne into it whilst biting the edge.
Some people watch TV shows and movies. I like to watch the world unfold around me when people respond to what I have on. It's like a film. The psychology is very interesting to me and the reactions, not that I ask for them, have been vast. I've been beaten up and spat on and flown around the world on private jets and invited to royal palaces. Dressing up is the greatest tool in my life and has opened and closed doors to dreams and nightmares.
Photo by Colin Douglas Gray
How do you think your looks have changed over the years?
The looks constantly evolve from day to day. I am working on my photo archives for exhibitions and I have found some looks I don’t even remember wearing. I have been posting some on my Instagram as throwbacks. The more spontaneous the better for me, evolving through the night. I wear things for a period of time then they go away to storage and make an appearance a while later. I have never thrown anything away, although a lot of some of my key stuff has been stolen over the years. I have over 6000 items so I had a lot of choice until it went to my retrospective exhibition. When I gained a bit of weight and my hair got to waist length I started to wear head scarves which frame my face and hide my hair and neck, I always wear something long so it looks like I float and build on top holding everything together with safety pins. I never sew things together because then I can always use them in other ways. If something has had its day it goes to my exhibition, I restore and embellish them and they are ready to turn into sculptures. I am not into throw away fashion.
You recently left your position as Creative Director of Sorapol, what’s on the horizon next?
I have had the most beautiful offer for a dream project which I won’t be able to announce for another year. But for me it’s the biggest thing I can imagine doing as a visual artist. I’m so excited.
Next year I am taking my exhibition “Be Yourself, Everyone Else Is Already Taken” on a tour, staring at Gamma Gallery in Iceland who have offered me an in-house art residency, so I can make my next collection of art. I have also been offered a 2 month residency in LA and I am working on creating commercial art. I have been working with Tate as their Circuit Ambassador, so we are just starting the legacy programme and I have a role in a new film. I also have some work coming out which I shot with David Lachapelle which was my ultimate dream come true.
I try to keep busy, a day of not making art or working on a project is my worst nightmare. I struggled for so many years and suffered silently like most artists I know so now I jump on every good opportunity thrown my way.
Photo by Colin Douglas Gray
Your exhibition at SCAD Atlanta looked incredible. How did it feel to see outfits you’d made exhibited for others to see?
The SCAD exhibition, and the book that was published by Rizzoli about it – Be Yourself, Everyone Else is Already Taken - has been such an amazing experience, and in many ways it is this that finally gave me the confidence to say that I live life as art. I was at a point in my life when I felt very down - everything was in turmoil and I felt completely in limbo. I had to move storage at the time because I couldn’t afford it and I just didn’t know what to do with my massive clothes archive – over 6000 pieces. I loved the idea of turning my archive into an exhibition but couldn’t figure out how I would do it until I thought of my favourite sculptures - the Terracotta Warriors. On a daily basis I go to war, fighting against discriminations off all types I decided I would create an empire court of splendour, each figure would become a character that related to me.
I left the house after 3 days and went to a Vivienne Westwood party where I met Rafael Gomes, a fashion curator who told me he was going to work at SCAD Fash Museum in Atlanta. I told him about my exhibition idea. At this point I had just done an H&M campaign and he presented the idea to SCAD. They said yes. Rafael came to my mother's house a few days later and then to the storage where all my pieces were in boxes, jumbled up. Most of my life, when I come up with creative ideas, I have heard a resounding ‘no’…. But he said yes to everything and we ended up with 4000 pieces, everything had a memory attached.
It opened and I went to sit in the bathroom, as far away as possible, terrified of what people would think. I did my makeup and got ready. I went into the room and everyone was fascinated. I freaked when I walked in as Violet Chachki and Jonathan Becker were talking, they told me they had never seen anything like it and it completely settled me. I was overwhelmed by the reaction and started telling everyone the stories of the pieces and where I had worn them.
The exhibition was successful and I was very fortunate that Rizzoli published a beautiful book based on it. It then opened at Miami Art Basel, I was TERRIFIED about the opening night!
Photo by Colin Douglas Gray
How do you feel when you wear an incredible look?
I forget what I have on the moment I leave the house, unless it’s cutting me up or digging into my head. For me, it’s like someone wearing a t-shirt and jeans – it’s just what I wear. I do have to think a little more about balancing my outifits and avoid tripping over in case I fall apart. Sometimes I feel like a walking buckaroo game!
If you could have a dinner party with anyone, living or dead, who would it be?
It would be quite a big gathering and I would invite my heroes from pop culture. Isabella Blow, Stephen Fry, Anna Nicole Smith, Boy George, Dali, Pam Anderson, Steve Strange, Vivienne Westwood, Klaus Nomi, Donatella Versace, Marie Antoinette, Queen Elizabeth I & II, Princess Diana, Anna Piaggi, Diane Pernet, Warhol, Lachapelle, Liz Taylor, Bjork, Leonardo DiCaprio, Quinten Crisp, Elon Musk, Oscar Wilde, Chevallier D’Eon, Naomi Campbell, Ellen Von Unwerth, Mariah Carey, Mae West, Whitney Houston, Lady Bunny, Julian Assange, Angie Bowie, Duchess of Alba, Kate Moss and I would plant four sculptures of me around the table so if people got uncomfortable they could turn away and speak to a voice recording. I did this at my opening dinner in Miami it was very amusing.
Photo by Colin Douglas Gray
You’ve witnessed so much of London nightlife, how has it changed over the years?
When I first moved to London just over 15 years ago, London was a breeding ground for creativity. Soho, Vauxhall and East London were booming with artists, the rich and poor were mingling and culture was being created. When I came onto the scene there were a lot of icons about, all superstars in club land from as early as the 70’s. The Ghetto was the place where you might see Kate Moss & Bjork on the dance floor and Pete Burns and Boy George on the DJ decks with Princess Julia and Tasty Tim. East London was full of some very strange clubs, like Stunners where creativity on a Saturday night was the finest and strangest in London. My first night was Kabaret Prophecy in Soho, Kirsten Dunst, Mathew Williamson and Julia Clancey were rocking the dance and Guns n Roses were in the corner with members of the royal family. I decided then, that this would be my future for a while. Since then, bit by bit, the best venues have been ripped down and turned into Cross Rail or shopping centres or apartments that the 99% of people could never afford. Soho’s vibrant culture has been destroyed and Westminster Council and Boris Johnson let it happen. The places for dressing up were once quite popular all over town, it was the cool thing to do and was a revival as big as the 80s. Everything West went East and merged with the fabulous drag scene that was happening. It started to get clicky when the nights started to be publicised, the fashion scenes caught on and then turned its back on it and said it was too popular and there was a clash of East End and West End. There has been a massive revival since, but for a few years I felt like a lone ranger flying the flag for the freaks, often cast out but that made it more fun. I recently opened a club night at an LGBT venue, Muse, in Soho which reminded me of The Ghetto. I was advised by all my friends not to go back into nightlife but I felt I needed to give something back to Soho. The club is a monthly for anyone to explore their inner identity and sponsored by Illamasqua Makeup who have supported most of the creative scenes in London over the last few years.
“Soho became a playground to me. I’d walk around the area in awe…”
It is mid-afternoon in Dean Street’s Groucho Club when Daniel strides up to the first floor to meet me. Strikingly tall, with impossibly long wavy brown hair, he’s draped in a long grey coat and insists that, today, he is dressed down. I suspect, though, that no day is really a dress-down day for the inimitable Mr Lismore. It’s evident when you meet him that dressing well is second nature, and that clothes, with all their nuance and detail, are at the centre of his life. Every ring, broach and thread of his attire tells a story as rich and vibrant as Soho itself. Daniel Lismore could be from a different era, almost another world, but when it comes down to it, he’s a Sohoite at heart.
Daniel’s work as a fashion designer, stylist and creative director has received international recognition. Self-modelling his own outfits and creations, from Masai tribal masks to baubles and chain mail, he has established himself as Britain’s most flamboyant dresser and a well-known face on London’s club scene. He first visited the capital in 2003 to join the protest against the war in Iraq, and it was then that the city first captured his imagination. Born in Bournemouth, he was raised in the Midlands, close to Coventry. He studied photography and fashion, moving to London to work as a model aged just 17. “I was scouted, so I moved here. It lasted about five years, all in all. I was young, and at 17 my first job was with Vogue,” he says. “Soho became a playground to me. I’d walk around the area in awe. The drug dealers, transsexual prostitutes and street urchins; I was instantly fascinated. A lot of my work was here, and the nightlife too. There was this Eastern European lady I would always see who had knitted her entire outfit. Every time I’d see her, it’d get bigger and bigger. Like a great many faces, she disappeared one day.”
Daniel found himself immersed in London’s noughties party scene, spending his evenings moving between Mayfair and Soho. “I met Jodie Harsh somewhere in the ghetto… she was starting a night called Circus and asked me to host it with her. At this point, Mayfair and Soho were a big part of my life. Agents were sending me all over the place, and that’s how it all started,” he recalls. “When Jodie started her night with me, we had everybody joining, from Amy Winehouse to Lee McQueen – everybody would turn up. It was a monthly night, moving from Soho Revue Bar, to Café de Paris and Paramount, which used to be at the top of Centre Point. It was the place. The scene was big back then, but it was also dying. It was my job to go out, find people and bring them to the club. I would meet people in the street who I admired, and truly thought were amazing, and bring them along to the night. Still, today, I don’t see my life as work: it’s living!” he grins.
Hand-in-hand with his endeavours as a scenester, Daniel had developed a unique taste in clothing and an eccentric sense of style. “I met designer Levi Palmer (now one half of Palmer Harding) and he began to dress me up. This became my introduction to, and education in, subculture and style. He took me to the club night Kashpoint, and it was really the start of my interest in nightlife” says Daniel, “We shared a flat together, and at the time I was beginning to try to make it as a fashion photographer. He and I would spend a whole week getting ready to go out on the weekend… of course, at this point I was already working with Jodie at Circus.” Daniel would search the streets for almost anything that was wearable and create the most flamboyant of looks – as he still does to this this day.
Daniel wears his astonishing, intricately detailed armour-like creations day-in and day-out: fearlessly individual, he’s always dressed for war. Standing six feet four inches tall, he was never able to avoid the stares of passers-by, so he’s made a point of giving them something to really stare at.
Now Daniel’s work has been presented in the aptly entitled book Be Yourself; Everyone Else Is Already Taken. From cheeky self-portraits to an array of brilliant and outrageous characters all played by Daniel, the book documents his vision of elaborate and extravagant ensembles. Retro accessories, ethnic jewellery, chain mail and shells: it somehow all comes together in a burst of creative energy, every detail working as part of whole that’s greater than its parts. Many would describe his style as eccentric. My take: it’s positively indefinable. “I’ve been attacked and had abuse hailed at me for being who I am. Everybody has an opinion, and I walk into danger constantly. Everybody has a view, which is great. Whichever view they take is their own assumption, and I can’t change that,” says Lismore. “What is art really? I don’t know myself. I don’t think anything about what I do is art. I am me. Who knows? It’s just a concept isn’t it? I know what I do. I love to create, and my art is myself. I’m a critic just as much as anybody else is when it comes to myself.”
Daniel continues to be one of the most recognisable faces on London’s fashion and lifestyle circuits. His talents have led him from the streets of Soho to becoming the creative director of ultra-couture label Sorapol. Whether he really has dressed down today, as he continues to insist, there’s certainly a kind of modesty about him that I admire. His mask of eccentricity could easily be interpreted as vanity, when in fact it is simply self-expression: the man behind the mask is anything but vain. And behind the mask and the mane of long brown hair, beyond the extravagant, armoured appearance, he communicates a simple, bold message: be yourself, everyone else is already taken. For this particular Sohoite, life is too short to be anyone other than Daniel Lismore.