The doors of the elevator slide smoothly open, and Daniel Lismore emerges into the fractured sunlight of Harpa’s fifth floor. He cuts a distinctive figure, dressed head to foot in jet black clothing, with a tall hat and a cape draped around his shoulders. A faint smile plays over his lips, and his eyes are hidden behind large sunglasses.
Imposing appearance aside, Daniel has a beguilingly down-to-earth charm. We walk through to Harpa’s exhibition space, where his exhibition—”Be Yourself, Everyone Else Is Already Taken”—is in the process of being installed. The network of rooms is teeming with large cardboard boxes, and the strong scent of mingled perfumes hang in the air.
“I’ve scented the exhibition,” says Daniel, softly, as he picks through a box of jumbled jewellery and swathes of shimmering material. “One of the pieces smells like Joan Collins on acid; another one is like plastic on poppers. I wanted people to feel this plastic, spacey feeling. Another is like gladiators: death, blood, guts, horses, soil. I made a new perfume, too, which I’m wearing now. Some people love it, and some people hate it.”
Tapestries of life
Daniel’s artistic world is a sensory overload visually, too. The exhibition comprises a series of his “looks”—extravagantly maximalist outfits, layered onto mannequin-like sculptures with only a cast of his lipsticked face visible. They’re instantly appealing and dizzyingly detailed; a technicolour remix of pop culture, high street clothing, ceremonial garb, high fashion, and lots more besides.
“They’re 3D tapestries of my life,” says Daniel. “There are so many different things in there. This is from the Queen of Thailand, and this top is from the tribes of the north. There are Indian paintings, then embroidery I’ve designed… this one is a £90,000 crystal dress. Around the back is Rita Ora’s Coca-Cola dress, which should be in a fashion museum, not pinned around the back of here.”
“Here’s some Massai stuff, and some hand-painted silk next to expensive fabrics that I’ve cut up. This is from Nicki Minaj—she wore it in the “Freedom” video. This a 2,000-year-old necklace from China. Then my mum bought me this kimono. This is a £30,000 dress. And this is from Primark.”
Build me up
The results are a collage of Daniel’s personal history alongside his work, friendships, influences and travels, mixed together into a vivid personal aesthetic. It feels like the culmination of a fascinating journey. “I’ve learned a lot from different people, over the years,” Daniel explains. “I’ve worked with the best people on the planet, I think. I was a model, so I was always backstage with the designers, and they’d build me up and we’d just go out for dinner, or to a club.”
As his presence became more established, people started gifting clothing to Daniel, adding to his vast and ever-expanding catalogue of source material. “A lot of people have done that,” he says. “Adam Ant, Boy George, McQueen, Vivienne Westwood, Steve Strange… I’ve had lots of gifts.”
Explore, embrace and learn
Daniel has been to Iceland several times. He first visited for a friend’s birthday party and was immediately smitten. “There was a moment when I looked around, and all these Icelandic people I’d heard of were there,” he remembers. “Björk was there. Then I did a bit of tourist stuff, and just I loved it here.”
A frequent, almost habitual traveller, Daniel picks up visual inspirations along the way. “Everywhere I go I like to explore, visually,” he says. “I like to see everything, and meet everyone. I go on a search for culture, and I explore it, embrace it, and learn from it. I’ll see something on the street and think ‘That would make a great headpiece!’ It’s human instinct, really.”
This approach means there are sometimes culturally significant artefacts mixed into the explosion of reference points, whether Christian, Muslim or tribal. To some, their inclusion is contentious, but to Daniel it’s a process of cultural evolution. “Sometimes people will ask ‘Why are you wearing our culture?’ and I’ll say: ‘because it’s beautiful!’” he explains. “It would be at home in a drawer otherwise. If I wear something, I’m embracing it, and celebrating it. I reflect what I see. I take things from my travels, and put them back out into the world.”
Uniforms and armour
As well as being decorative, Daniel has put his style to practical use. His eye-catching nonconformity has, over time, become a source of strength. “It’s like dressing in armour,” he says. “I’m at war with the world. I don’t know what I’m trying to do sometimes… mostly good things. And this helps me do it. Over the years, I’ve felt like a knight fighting a battle, and I thought maybe this exhibition could be my army.”
If Daniel’s sculptures are an army, then their mission is noble. The overall message of the show is to celebrate beauty and promote an unencumbered approach to self-expression. “My message is that you can be yourself, as long as you work hard for it,” he finishes. “You can do what you want to do, and be who you want to be.”
Daniel Lismore’s “Be Yourself, Everyone Else is Already Taken” is available now, published by Rizzoli. The exhibition of the same name is at Harpa from June 2nd-30th as part of Reykjavík Arts Festival.