Michael Costiff's Cats

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Leigh Bowery and Michael & Gerlinde's cat Susie, 1986
Leigh Bowery and Michael & Gerlinde's cat Susie, 1986© Michael Costiff

We speak to fashion maestro Michael Costiff about his retrospective book, and find out more about his and his late wife Gerlinde's beloved cats, Gulliver and Susie

Fashion maestro Michael Costiff has had an amazingly varied life and career. Along with his late wife Gerlinde, he took London's cultural scene by storm in the 70s and 80s, running the iconic West End boutique World, starting the infamous drag club Kinky Gerlinky, and designing album artwork for Siouxsie and the Banshees. On top of this he is an accomplished photographer and filmmaker, has designed his own collections (shown in Japan in the 80s) and has modelled for Martin Margiela and Commes des Garçons – a close friend of Rei Kawakubo, he opened her A/W07 show. Kawakubo also invited him to open up his current WORLDarchive spaces in Dover Street Market London, Tokyo and Beijing – constantly changing collections of whimsically wonderful one-off pieces.

The perfect candidate for a retrospective book, Costiff was approached by friend and Louis Vuitton Men’s style director Kim Jones a few years ago about producing just that and, after much editing and rifling through myriad photo albums, Michael & Gerlinde’s World: Pages from a Diary was finally published to widespread acclaim earlier this year. The book is a brilliant visual documentation of the burgeoning creative environment that Costiff and Gerlinde embodied in their London heyday, and is filled with a captivating array of famous faces and outlandish parties. But two images in particular piqued The Pets' attention: those of a typically kooky, face-painted Leigh Bowery cuddling Costiff and Gerlinde's cats. We were keen to find out more, and so we contacted Costiff to discuss his beloved kittens – Gulliver and Susie – just in time for National Cat Day.

"We spotted Gulliver, alone in a cage – it was love at first sight"

Where did your cats come from?
Gerlinde and I would get up early on Sunday mornings and head over to the market in Brick Lane. We always came home with bags full of 1920s, 30s and 40s beaded dresses, chiffon gowns, fox furs, bags, hats, shoes and feathers – all sold by formidable women from gigantic heaps of stuff inside the bombed out buildings. At the end of Brick Lane was the Club Row pet market with kittens, puppies, rabbits and canaries piled high in cages and all for sale. It was a slice of East End life and how things were done in those days, but pretty sad to see with all those tiny faces looking up at you awaiting their fate. We certainly hadn't intended to buy a kitten and on this one Sunday, as we were making our way home through the stalls, we spotted Gulliver, alone in a cage. It was love at first  sight. The tiny kittens – looking far too tiny to be away from their mothers – in the other cages were all priced at 10 shillings each, but next to Gulliver was a hand written sign saying, "HALF PERSIAN – £5." Gerlinde told me to go away while she talked to the stallholder, then appeared with Gulliver in her arms. She had talked him down to £3! We leapt into a taxi with Gulliver who struggled, scratched and growled all the way back to Kensington.

What were your cats' characteristics?
Gulliver grew into a very beautiful cat, always adopting the most striking of poses around the flat, but he was troubled and fierce – we were always covered in scratches. We always wondered what his life had been like in the months before we got him. It's good to know that pet markets of that type are no longer permitted. We always felt a little guilty that we had encouraged them in a way by shopping there. About a year after we got Gulliver, we were invited to dinner over at our friends Steve Hedley and Lorraine Kinman. Their cat had given birth a few months earlier and they had one kitten remaing from a larger litter. This was Susie, a cute little black and white kitten who spent the whole evening on Gerlinde's knee. I could see what was coming, but Gerlinde persuaded me of the need for a friend for Gulliver – maybe he was lonely and maybe Susie would be a calming influence? So now we had a second cat, but with a completely different nature. Both of them lived for over 20 years.

What do you like about cats?
I loved our cats, but realise I have little interest in other people's cats. I actually prefer dogs and often look after friends' dogs when they are on holiday. I think dogs need a more regular lifestyle, but our life was never regular as we travelled a lot. So around every trip we made, finding friends to stay in our flat and take care of the cats was a big part of the planning.

"I kept giant Stick Insects in my bedroom as a child, much to the disgust of my mother"

Did you have pets as a child?
My parents had two cats, Tish and Tosh, who spent their days out in the fields, only returning at night with their trophies of voles, shrews, field mice and occasionally baby rabbits. I was besotted by my grandfather's border collie, Meg; she was super intelligent and loving. I spent as much time with her as I could. Sheepdog trial outings featured heavily – I loved to go with my grandfather who seemed to know every farmer and landsman in the Peak District. As to pets of my own – I kept giant stick insects in my bedroom, much to the disgust of my mother.

What did you enjoy doing most with your cats?
In the summer of 1976, Derek Jarman invited us to stay in his warehouse flat in Butler's Wharf overlooking Tower Bridge while he was away in Sardinia filming Sebastiane. We stayed there for three months and of course Gulliver and Susie came with us. Each time we arrived home, they had found a new piece of Derek's sculpture to drape themselves across. On hot summer afternoons they would use the rusty cranes and bridges over shady Shad Thames as a climbing frame.

Could you tell us about the wonderful images of Leigh Bowery with your cats?
Our flat was often a hive of activity – lots of visitors, dinner parties, friends coming over for drinks or to get ready before a club. It was quite a scene. I also used the flat as a studio for making Super 8 films and for photo sessions. The cats were completely unfazed by all this and always managed to be in the centre of things, Susie usually on someone's knee. Over time, Gerlinde and I had worked out the best way to approach Gulliver – he would never leap onto our laps, but when lifted up he would gladly stay there purring wildly. Friends knew or were warned of Gulliver's fearsome reputation. Of course, some took this as a challenge and took their chance – but even the great Divine went home with a few scratches! The photographs in the book were taken when Leigh and Rachel Auburn came around for drinks before the opening night party at the Limelight. Gerlinde and I were taking them as our guests... it was a mad night!

Tell us a bit about your decision to create Michael and Gerlinde's World and the process of compiling it.
Since Gerlinde and I met in the early 70s, we had always kept photo diaries and scrapbooks. We would fill in a diary over the whole year – it would sit around as a work in progress, then at the end of the year be put away as we started on a new one. We always did so many different things, so it was a good way of reminding us what we had been up to and for our own amusement. A few years ago, when Kim Jones was over at my flat, we were talking about a designer and I mentioned that I had some photographs of them in an old diary. I took out one of the diaries to show Kim and he was fascinated and amazed, much to my bemusement. He asked to see more and suggested the idea of putting some of them together and making a book. I had 30 or 40 books to choose from, so it was hard to select specific images and pages, but I wanted to find things that would interest others. I also wanted to include as many people as possible. I chose all the pages and details from the pages while Kim's friend, Simon Paris, resized and cleaned up the images to make them suitable for publication. I talked at length with my friend James Anderson, who was brilliantly able to write some background text for the book, to help explain a little what Michael and Gerlinde's World was all about. Our shop was called World, and so the title of the book has a link to that, too.

Michael and Gerlinde’s World: Pages from a Diary is published by Slow Loris. Stockists include IDEA Books; Dover Street Market, London; Dover Street Market Ginza, Tokyo; Donlon Books, London; Claire De Rouen Books, London; Victoria & Albert Museum (80s Exhibition Shop) and Bookmarc, London, Tokyo, Paris & New York. Michael Costiff will be attending a book signing at Bookmarc, New York on Tuesday November 5 from 6pm - 8pm.

Text by Daisy Woodward