Sarah Hyde discovers the kaleidoscopic colors and exquisite patterns of Queen frontman Freddie Mercury’s spectacular collection of 50 vintage kimonos, gathered over years of visiting and falling in love with Japan.
Freddie Mercury wears Japanese kimono on stage in California, 1977. Photo © Brian McLaughlin/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images.
From 1975 until 1985, the British rock band, Queen - fronted by the inimitable showman, the late great Freddie Mercury - were on a hugely lucrative but punishing global schedule, touring a new album every year. Their first visit to Japan - in 1975 for The Sheer Heart Attack Tour - was big news. The band was an instant sensation in Japan and, for Freddie Mercury in particular, the adoration was mutual.
Contemporary footage reveals the mullet-haired glam rock stars in tight vests feigning disinterest as they step in and out of limousines in front of banks of flashing lights and swooning fans. Notably, it was during this period that Queen added the extra second verse to Japan's favorite song, “Killer Queen,” a ballad about a mysterious, fantasy, femme fatale from Mittleleuropa who seemed to have it all.
All images courtesy Sotheby's London; The Freddie Mercury Collection.
If Japan loved Freddie, Freddie loved Japan, developing what could be described as galloping Japanomania. Over the next decade, six Japan tours followed in quick secession. Now, as the Freddie Mercury collection comes up for sale at Sotheby’s next month, we are offered a unique insight into the real and private side of one of the world’s greatest showmen.
For it would seem that Freddie Mercury was a serious connoisseur and collector, and in particular of Japanese textiles. Sotheby’s removed boxes and boxes of auction catalogues from his house, all in meticulous order with prices recorded. One aspect of this collection is his set of 50 beautiful kimonos.
According to Sotheby’s expert, Jon Adjetey, this passion for all things Japanese was encouraged and enabled by Misa Watanabe, the band's Japanese agent; Wantabe not only booked the lucrative gigs and took Freddie shopping, but also educated Mercury in Japanese art and design.
The pair visited museums and galleries together, and at the end of each tour came an almost insatiable shopping trip. It’s hard to resist imagining Mercury’s delight as he strutted and pranced around Hayashi Kimono, which closed especially for the star, carefully selecting the latest additions to his growing kimono collection.
Mercury consistently chose the deep-sleeved full-length kimonos designed for young girls, Furisode, and usually at a winter weight. These kimonos are full-length crepe and thickly lined in silk, but, considering the collection as a whole, it would seem that once Mercury had satisfied this criteria, he chose whatever caught his eye.
This included bold abstract graphic designs of clouds, pines and flowers (Mercury had studied graphic design at Ealing College), and figurative and narrative scenes often inspired by nature and traditional Japanese art. The glorious designs were achieved by special highly skilled tie-die bokashi-zome, and painted onto the silk with stencils.
The Mercury Kimono collection ranges from divine gold grounds with soaring cranes, to purple silks with stylised clouds and plum blossoms on a ground of swirling water.
At Sotheby's, Adjetey was especially keen to show me the one "black sheep" of the collection, a pure black ankle-length silk with the simple Queen logo on the back, worn by Freddie himself, one would imagine.
Other Kimonos in the collection are more figurative; to wear one of these is to be enveloped in a romantic narrative, cavorting barefoot with butterflies in the dew-covered grass as a rosy dawn rises and the base color of the kimono gently graduates from a soft green to rose aurora. Soar over a beautiful olive-green lake with cranes or enter the moonlit garden, where bamboo plants frame a nocturnal scene illuminated by fireflies, as twinkles of moonlight shimmer on each shoulder.
Was it a weary Freddie Mercury who brought these treasures back to Garden Lodge (his home in London) to share with his friends? Who knows, but it was an inspired way to introduce his nearest and dearest to his grand passion for all things Japanese.
Sadly, the details of the kimono parties remain a mystery. Did Freddie toss kimonos at friends like Robert Redford’s Jay Gatsby to Daisy Buccnanon and Nick Carroway?
We can only hope so.
A candid photograph of Freddie Mercury in Japan, courtesy Sotheby's London.