Imagine an American teenager like so many others who, in rock music’s most glorious decade, drives for nine hours straight from New Orleans to Memphis just to go to a David Bowie concert. It’s the 6th of March 1976, and the Thin White Duke stops with his Isolar Tour at the Mid-South Coliseum. For Helene Thian, it’s then that, in a sense, everything begins.
Do you know what “serendipity” means? This word is a neologism in the English language, was coined by the writer Horace Walpole in a letter from 1758 and can be approximately explained as “an unexpected joy”. It was a sensation very like the one young Helene must have felt two years later after another of David’s concerts in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. A live date with an incredible tracklist, from Warszawa to Rebel Rebel. On the evening of the 11th of April 1978 her boyfriend, who worked for an important local concert promoter, not only had snagged some really good seats at the LSU Assembly Center, but he had also arranged things so that, on the way back to New Orleans, he and Helene would “accidentally” stop at Del Lago’s, a club which was almost empty at that time of the night. Almost empty, because inside there were David and his band. So that night Helene spent some hours together with her hero, chatting, dancing and laughing. Have you ever seen all those photos of Bowie in cars in the Seventies? Those cars are almost always a Mercedes-Benz because the Thin White Duke had a real passion for that car company, and it was a Mercedes that the young fan was driving that night. When it became really late David asked her something that for him was not so strange, but that was REALLY out of the ordinary for the 19-year-old girl: to take him and his bodyguard to the hotel. She describes that memory as “Unforgettable, to say the least”.
I will have to write something, sooner or later, on how much David Bowie as a human being has been influencing and actually changed the lives of lots of artists. There is a long list, not only great musicians like Dave Gahan, Madonna or Robert Smith, but also authors, screenwriters, painters and graphic designers who met David in the flesh and were enormously influenced by him, even if not immediately. Helene is one of them.
“Serendipity” is a word which can be used also when speaking of science and knowledge: when someone understands and interprets correctly a significant element which has been unexpectedly and accidentally discovered. Helene has another great passion: Japan. Her mother passed down to her a love of music, fashion, art and beauty so after her graduation from law school in the eighties she went to Japan to do further postgraduate studies. There she met Kansai Yamamoto, the fashion designer who created those astonishing dresses for Ziggy Stardust. Helene also worked with Kansai for a fashion show in Paris in 1990.
Unfortunately, life is also made of dark moments, and in 2005 Helene was back at home in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina passed just east of the city limits, wiping out everything, including her collection of books, photos, vintage dresses, jewels and memorabilia (much of it from the Land of the Rising Sun).
Some years later, she was looking for another moment of serendipity and found it when she enrolled at University of the Arts London/London College of Fashion, specializing in a very specific field: Bowie and Japonism. Some fortuitous events led her to collaborate with the Victoria & Albert Museum, contributing her knowledge in order to help create a great and successful exhibition. The curators are Geoffrey Marsh and Victoria Broackes, and the exhibition is David Bowie Is…
In the last few years, Helene Thian has been credited by the V&A in the exhibition catalogue; she has also contributed chapters for some important Bowie books, like Enchanting David Bowie (Bloomsbury, 2015) and David Bowie: Critical Perspectives (Routledge, 2015); and she knows Masayoshi Sukita and Lindsay Kemp, former collaborators of David Bowie who certainly need no introduction. She lectures and has been tapped by national radio broadcast station Public Radio International in the US and by BBC Singapore as an expert in Bowie, Japonism and Fashion History. And to think that many of these things perhaps happened because she gave a lift to an alien rockstar who fell to Louisiana.
From next week, Helene Marie Thian, whose mother’s family is entirely of Sicilian descent, will officially be one of our collaborators. Her first piece on our pages will concern no less than Ziggy Stardust! Stay tuned…
Text by Matteo Tonolli, translation by Rachele Mura