Naturally, David Bowie’s eye-popping, mouth-watering, outfits are an unavoidable and unending topic in the discussion of his artistry. Quickly names and looks come to mind, like Freddie Burretti’s powder blue suit from Life on Mars? and Kansai Yamamoto’s Space Samurai worn throughout the Ziggy tour. These esteemed designers were further exalted by their responsibility for the scandalous outfits of the eccentric performer, and their influences on fashion were memorialized in pop culture. But a factor frequently taken for granted in the remembrance of Bowie’s visual force is one without which the show could not have gone on: the makeup.
Prompted by footage in the 1975 BBC Documentary Cracked Actor, of Bowie toying without his own makeup before a performance, I came to wonder who was behind the many faces (literally) of David Bowie.
Pierre La Roche. Little credited and seldom spoken of, one fashion blogger calls him “the most influential makeup artist you’ve never heard of,”—and he may be right. La Roche was born in Algiers, but later acquired a position at Elizabeth Arden in London, which he left after a few years as to escape the company’s conservatism. Working freelance gigs, it was during this period that La Roche was contracted into the world of rock music.
As it turns out, La Roche is the hand behind some of the most recognized images of David Bowie. While Bowie surely weighed in on all the decisions made in his complex costuming, La Roche’s influence is not to be ignored. Bowie began working with La Roche in 1972, just in time for his dramatic launch into stardom as Ziggy Stardust. The makeup artist played a key role in developing the face of Ziggy, from the golden third-eye emblem to the heavily painted electric blue eyelids in Life on Mars? And later, the iconic lightning bolt featured prominently on the cover of Bowie’s 1973 album Aladdin Sane.
This dynamic mark ascends make up, rather using Bowie’s face as a canvas—evidence to La Roche’s artistry. The diagonal lines split Bowie’s features with a reference to electric and unpredictable energy, echoing the schizophrenic persona of Aladdin Sane. The colors are perhaps a choice of Bowie’s: a tribute to the American culture that had so influenced the album following Ziggy; but their contrast speaks also to the split personality of the character. The bolt has since become arguably the most legendary identifier among Bowie fans.
Another significant element of La Roche’s influence was the heightened sense of androgyny and gender-play provided by the makeup. La Roche emphasized Bowie’s thin face and sharp features, accentuating his prominent cheekbones and jutting jawline, while softening the lips and eyes, but stressing the lashes. And though Bowie obviously pushed his cross-dressing to the next level, La Roche’s androgynous work was forefront in his career. He was hired by Mick Jagger just the next year for the Stone’s Tour of the Americas, and gave Daryl Hall and John Oates their glamorous look for the Silver Album. Also in 1975, La Roche served a commendable role as the original makeup designs creator for the cult film Rocky Horror Picture Show.
La Roche’s work for David Bowie helped define the characters that would make the young performer an international star. The stage sets, the costumes, the theatrics would have fallen utterly flat without the proper faces to head it all. The makeup serves as a testament to Bowie’s commitment to his characters and to the details that brought them to life. But also reminds us of the many minds, like that of Pierre La Roche, who played a role in making it all happen.