European fashion house pays tribute to Baltimore-born drag icon Divine

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A portrait of Divine shot by Greg Gorman. Courtesy of Loewe.

Loewe, an upscale retailer based in Europe, is paying tribute to Divine, the Baltimore-born performer and cult figure who once played “the filthiest person alive,” with a fashion collection and an online exhibition of rarely-seen memorabilia.

The fashion company has also introduced a face filter on Instagram that can make anyone look like Divine did in John Waters’ 1972 film “Pink Flamingos.”

As part of its initiative, called Loewe X Divine, the company announced that it’s making a gift to Baltimore Pride, the organization that puts on the annual Pride festival and other LGBT-oriented events in Divine’s hometown. It’s also donating 15 percent of all sales from its Divine collection to Visual AIDS, a New York City-based organization that supports artists living with HIV and AIDS.

Divine “has had a huge impact on popular culture,” said Jonathan Anderson, a British fashion designer and creative director of Loewe, in a lengthy statement about the effort. “He preempted the glorification of trash, the mix of high and low, the fantastic erasure of gender barriers. I thought it was time to celebrate him, the LOEWE way: with a capsule collection inspired by his looks and a museum exhibition honoring his artistry.”

Noah Brodie, the CEO of Divine Official Enterprises LLC, a California-based organization that manages the estate of the actor, recording star and drag icon, said Divine would be “thrilled” with the line.

“He loved fashion,” Brodie said.

Based in Spain, Loewe is a subsidiary of LVMH, the French conglomerate that was created from the 1987 merger of Louis Vuitton and Moet Hennessy and also owns Sephora, Dior, Fendi, Givenchy, Celine and Bvlgari, among others.

One of the T-shirts in the Loewe X Divine collection. Credit: Loewe.

Loewe has more than 200 stores around the world, in some of the priciest shopping districts. Anderson, its creative director since 2013, has been credited with transforming it from a “stuffy old” leather goods retailer, as one publication put it, to one of today’s most sought-after global brands.

Divine, also known as Harris Glenn Milstead, was born in 1945 and died of an enlarged heart in 1988, just after Waters’ film “Hairspray” was released. Waters, a friend since high school, gave him the name Divine and cast him in the roles that first made him famous, including “Female Trouble” and “Multiple Maniacs.”

Through his appearances as an actor and singer, Divine became known for his distinctive look and larger-than-life persona, and he developed a following that has lasted long after his death. In 1999, People magazine named him “Drag Queen of the Century.” He would be 74 today.

In Baltimore, Divine has been honored with an IPA from Union Craft Brewing, a 10-foot-tall sculpture by British artist Andrew Logan that’s in the permanent collection of the American Visionary Art Museum, and the four-story “I’m So Beautiful” mural in Mount Vernon.

Loewe’s initiative takes the tribute to Divine far beyond Baltimore. The company has the blessing of Divine’s estate, as opposed to retailers who sell bootleg T-shirts, handbags and other items. “This is the first time Divine has worked with a major fashion house like Loewe,” Brodie said, referring to the estate.

Divine deserves to be honored as a renegade and a trailblazer, Anderson said in his statement.

Divine was “quite simply larger than life,” Anderson said. “He was in every sense – as a man, a woman, a performer, a personality and a body. To me, he is the embodiment of self-determination.”

The Loewe X Divine fashion collection includes three T-shirts and a cushion tote bag. Two of the T-shirts say: “Is this ‘woman’ the FILTHIEST PERSON ALIVE?” on the front and cost $250. The third one sells for $355 and has a Richard Bernstein graphic from an Off-Broadway play Divine starred in, “The Neon Woman,” showing the actor cracking a whip, with the words “Divine is Divine” and other phrases. The tote bag comes in canvas and calfskin and also has the Neon Woman graphic and a Loewe label. It sells for $1,350.

Available at loewe.com and the company’s Soho store in New York City, the pieces are part of a larger collection that was created in Divine’s honor but wasn’t rolled out because the fashion house halted production at its facilities to protect employees at the start of the COVID-19 outbreak.

Unmade pieces include maxi T-shirts, miniskirts, dresses, handbags, an apron and patent platform pumps in several colors. Loewe’s website shows the clothes photographed on mannequins wearing Divine’s signature makeup look.

The pumps look like they could be a 21st century answer to the cha-cha heels Divine wanted for Christmas and never got in “Female Trouble.”*

Anderson calls the collection “a merging of [Loewe’s] sense of ease and Divine’s proclivity for camp.”

It’s unclear whether the full line will ever be produced. Anderson has called it the “collection that never was, due to COVID-19,” but he’s also hinted that the unmade items may eventually come to market.

In addition to the fashion collection, Loewe collaborated with Divine’s estate to create an online exhibit of Divine-related items that were owned by the actor or associated with his movies or other appearances.

According to Brodie, Divine Official Enterprises, which includes members of Divine’s family, has been assembling an archive of Divine materials over the past five years, calling it the Divine Museum.

Another T-shirt in the Loewe X Divine collection. Credit: Loewe

The collection has been displayed periodically on the West Coast, at events such RuPaul’s DragCon LA and Palm Springs Pride. It’s scheduled to be shown in September in a John Waters- and Edith Massey-related event at the Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo, California, if that’s not canceled. The collection has never been shown on the East Coast.

As part of its effort to honor Divine, Loewe and the estate arranged for celebrity portraitist Greg Gorman to photograph more than two dozen items from the collection. With Gorman’s photos and information from the estate, Loewe posted a virtual exhibition of Divine memorabilia on its website and plans to leave it up until the end of September.

The exhibition includes items ranging from Divine’s 1963 diploma from Towson Senior High School to record sleeves, posters, magazine covers and his personal makeup case, still filled with makeup. There are photos from his CD covers and stage appearances, including Studio 54.

Other objects include a jacket from Divine’s 1986-1987 World Tour; a gold record from Mexico for “Hot Plate”; cufflinks; earrings; a 1987 bust of Divine by Andrew Logan; a white dress that Divine wore in “The Neon Woman”; and Divine’s personal picture album.

Gorman was one of the last people to see Divine alive, because he had dinner with him in Hollywood the night before he died.

“It was great to see his makeup kit, which I’d seen many times on all of the shoots we’d been on together, and his diploma was really cool to see,” Gorman said in an interview with Dazed. “A lot of the early records and discs I’d never actually seen in person before, outside of the photos I took myself, and of course the gowns were amazing too.”

Brodie said many of the props and clothes from Waters’ earliest movies have been lost over the years. For example, he said, Divine’s mother, Frances, threw out his “Jackie O” gown from “Eat Your Makeup”–the film in which Waters reenacted the assassination of John F. Kennedy, with Divine as the First Lady–shortly after that movie was made.

“My understanding is that Divine had it hidden under his bed and Frances found it [and] threw it in the trash,” Brodie said, noting Divine was still living at his parents’ home during that time.

The estate continues to collect memorabilia and has expanded its scope to include items associated with Waters and other Dreamlanders.

Brodie said the estate recently acquired the phone that Mink Stole used in “Serial Mom,” in the scene where her character, Dottie Hinkle, gets an obscene call from Kathleen Turner’s serial killer, Beverly Sutphin.

The estate is also getting the bar cart Divine used to fix Elmer a drink in “Polyester”; curtains that were hanging in the Turnblads’ living room in “Hairspray”; Dasher’s bed from “Female Trouble”; and the “Baltimore Chronicle” newspaper with the headline that reads “FOOT STOMPER RELEASED: INSANITY,” from “Polyester.”

Brodie, who’s originally from Washington, D.C. but is now based in southern California, said he’s delighted with the attention Divine is receiving.

“We’re doing our best to perpetuate Divine’s legacy,” he said. “It’s such an honor!”

It’s been an “creative challenge” for Loewe, Anderson said.

“I think it is a timely initiative, in that it is a celebration of creative freedom and challenging the world order,” he said. “That’s what Divine was all about: creating his own incredible world, no matter what. Now more than ever, what’s what we all should do.”

*Correction: An earlier version of this story said Divine wanted cha-cha heels in “Multiple Maniacs.” It actually happened in “Female Trouble.” Baltimore Fishbowl regrets the error.

Ed Gunts


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