In a season of over-the-top future-baroque influences, designers have found their muse in a classically trained German operatic countertenor who fell to earth with white face paint and Dadaesque ensembles. Klaus Nomi's out-of-this-world look — an androgynous amalgam of intergalactic wanderer and dejected punk clown — could be seen in collections as diverse as Boudicca (stiff triangular skirts), Givenchy (New Wave splashes of red over white) and Paco Rabanne (space-age jackets with important shoulders).
It's only natural that Nomi's artificial life form should resonate in fashion — his affect was entirely self-created. When Klaus Sperber crash-landed in New York in the early 1970's, he could have been mistaken for a stylistically challenged exchange student. Fortunately, outsiders were in. Upon meeting the performance artist Ann Magnuson, he belted out an impromptu aria, and she recruited him for Irving Plaza's New Wave Vaudeville show, where freakishness was de rigueur: a flier from the time sought other "acts" like Egyptian slaves, B-girl hostesses, robot monsters, geeks, Nazis and emotional cripples.
Sperber morphed into Nomi, in clothes that Judy Licht, then a 10 o'clock news reporter, would describe as a "Weimar tuxedo spaced out in future shock." Sadly, this description omitted his accessories: full-face makeup, gloves, a pointy bow tie and a blond ephebe called Boy Adrian.
Nomi's rocket truly launched after a performance at the Fiorucci store on 59th Street. The shop, which often featured round-the-clock window displays with live mannequins, was a gathering point for underground scenesters and performers. (Nomi emerged sideways from a giant vinyl-covered "N" to protect his outrageously oversize shoulder pads.) Soon after, David Bowie tapped him for an appearance on "Saturday Night Live," for which Bowie wore a Tristan Tzara-inspired tuxedo that closely resembled what would become Nomi's signature look; Nomi took his bows in a dress that would not have looked out of place on Pierre Cardin's runway.
But it wasn't his looks, if you can believe it, that truly mesmerized the fans: it was Nomi's high-pitched, angelic voice. It's why he is remembered as an icon and not just as an eccentric. Before performances, an announcer would often remind the audience that his singing was real. Nomi's career played out like a frenzied cybernetic opera with a crashing finale: after issuing just two albums, "Klaus Nomi" and "Simple Man," he became one of the first celebrities to die of AIDS, in 1983. He was 39.
"Klaus brought the transcendent into the transgressive," Magnuson says. "We are living in such a conservative climate that what he did 25 years ago still seems radical. Whether it's in art, music or fashion, the pinnacle of success is always to leave people absolutely speechless — and who better to make you feel awe than someone who claimed not to be of this world?"
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