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Madonna keeps her feet firmly off the ground

6 July 2023

Introducing Rakewell, Apollo’s wandering eye on the art world. Look out for regular posts taking a rakish perspective on art and museum stories.

Some readers of Apollo will be aware that Madonna – towering creative figure of the late 20th century; moderately productive popstar of the 21st – has cancelled her ‘Celebration’ tour because of ill health.

A subset of those readers may also be aware of the announcement by Guram Gvasalia, creative director of Vetements, that he had designed the costumes for the tour. Madonna, whose reputation rests as much on her image-making as on her music, has form when it comes to choosing exactly the right designer and transforming them into a star. She did precisely this with Jean Paul Gaultier, whose conical bra bodysuit she wore for the ‘Blonde Ambition’ tour in 1990.

Most interesting to Rakewell is not the fact of the partnership nor its timing (in the middle of Couture Week in Paris), but what could also be seen in the picture accompanying the announcement. Taken in Madonna’s apartment in New York, the photo shows singer and designer hard at work. And what should be on the table before them, but a copy of The Complete Reprint of John Willie’s ‘Bizarre’ (1995)?

Mr. Gvasalia and Madonna have been working on the looks for her ‘Celebration’ tour for months. Photo: Ricardo Gomes

John Willie was the pseudonym of John Alexander Scott Coutts (1902–62), a Brit who moved to Brisbane in 1926 and there discovered the High Heel Club, a community of shoe fetishists, and met his future wife and muse, Holly Anna Faram. He started making his own illustrations and photographs for the club, often using Faram as a model. Eventually Willie founded an exotic footwear company with a name that Rakewell thoroughly enjoys: Achilles.

Following a move to New York, he launched the magazine Bizarre in 1946. The magazine is most famous for the marvellously named character Sweet Gwendoline, whose adventures are very much on the B side of BDSM. Bizarre lasted until 1956, though its publication was far from regular (perhaps Willie enjoyed keeping his readers in a state of suspense).

Artwork by John Willie for Bizarre magazine (1946–59). Photo: Wikimedia Commons

There is something extraordinary about seeing such activities illustrated in the wholesome style of a Norman Rockwell painting, but maybe the discrepancy between appearance and subject offered a sort of frisson. It is certainly a different approach to that taken in Madonna’s book Sex (1992), packed as it is with provocative photographs by Steven Meisel and Fabien Baron. However, Rakewell can’t help but be impressed that Madonna takes such a conscientious approach to researching one of her favourite subjects: outré sexual practices as a form of self expression – as she so famously sang, ‘Express yourself.’ Perhaps we underestimated just how much she likes to master an art before she celebrates it in public.

Got a story for Rakewell? Get in touch at rakewell@apollomag.com or via @Rakewelltweets.