Transformation is invested / With the mysterious and the shameful / While the thing I am becomes something else / Part character, part sensation.” — Bauhaus, from “Mask”
They call him the Godfather of Goth. Peter Murphy is best known as the vocalist of legendary sonic pioneers Bauhaus, whose 1979 single, “Bela Lugosi’s Dead,” is largely considered to be the beginning of the Gothic rock genre. But like any true innovator, Murphy has proved himself unafraid to leave behind the worlds he creates, to tear down the walls of his own dark castle in the post-punk underworld and go in search of unknown creative terrain upon which to rebuild. After he disbanded Bauhaus in 1983, Murphy embarked on years of exploration as both a solo musician and a painter. Nearly a decade later, in a sign of his lasting brilliance, he created American pop anthem “Cut You Up” (1990), which sat at the top of the Billboard Modern Rock charts longer than any other number one hit that year. The musical descendents of Murphy and Bauhaus are well documented, and the artist’s style has been a force no less powerful.
“Bauhaus popularized an image of black-clad Goths which continues to influence mainstream fashion,” writes Valerie Steele in her book with Jennifer Park, Gothic: Dark Glamour. “Mask is irrefutable evidence that Bauhaus pioneered the dark theatrics characteristic of the Goth genre,” continues Park, referring to the band’s 1981 album. “Bauhaus was a band that understood the power of image early on…the erotically androgynous good looks of Peter Murphy well suited the Goth emphasis on beauty, and [his] attention to style again reiterated fashion’s ultimate status in Goth subculture.”
A Muslim who has called Istanbul his home for the past twenty years, Murphy cites family as his earliest style inspiration: “My father, Michael Patrick, who in the 1930s was a natty turnout in wide Trilby and a swathing woolen beige long coat.” The e-mail he sends me from California while on tour supporting his recent record, Ninth, is written in a beautiful Joyce-meets–Anthony Burgess vernacular. “My near twin brother Christopher’s ’70s Ben Sherman shirts,” he continues. “Then his full testosterone black three-quarter Crombie coat, dancing to Northern Soul and Reggae at our youth club, all pubescent and checkin’ out the girls—cool. Not to forget my mother Margaret Ellen’s own makeup sessions in our sunflower concave dinner room mirror, the pinnacle of the wist being as she applied her just right, deep crimson, strawberry red lipstick, rendering her own natural beauty just so!”
His influence permeates several generations and genres of fashion designers. It’s of course present in the more devotedly Gothic, such as Rick Owens, Ann Demeulemeester, and Yohji Yamamoto (and the subculture of artisan darkwear born thereof, like Carol Christian Poell, Carpe Diem and its disciples, and Paul Harnden). But it’s also visible in the work of preeminent designers Alexander McQueen, Marc Jacobs, Martin Margiela, and John Galliano, as well as today’s young pioneers, such as Riccardo Tisci, Olivier Theyskens, and Alexander Wang. And yet, Murphy says, “What I look like and what I wear is not fashion. What I wear is an integral part of my whole. In relation to my music and my work—I see my clothes as part and parcel of the same movement. As I write a song, I write upon myself, too. It’s all interrelated.”
It’s been almost three and a half decades since Murphy’s cellar-door voice first cried out its declaration of a new melancholic unity. Lasting victor of the countless culture wars since, Murphy sits on the dark throne built by his successors—the artists and fans who continue to inherit, reinterpret, and bequeath his influence—his legacy forever undying.