Since he first came into the spotlight in the 1970s, the fashion industry has always shown a keen interest in the styles of British musician David Bowie (1947–2016). Few would argue that the singer’s image didn’t contribute to the popularity of his music at the beginning of his career. Bowie adopted numerous looks, ranging from “mod rocker” to “androgynous folk singer,” before acquiring worldwide notoriety with his Ziggy Stardust persona. Ziggy was shaped by a mixture of Japanese kabuki theater and unconventional sexuality that was expressed through outlandish clothing, hair, and makeup. Bowie would continue to develop a variety of distinctive looks throughout his career, which reflected his wide-ranging interests in history, futurism, art, and challenging gender divides, while perpetually serving as a proponent for individualism. Although many of his choices in dress didn’t immediately influence fashion on a mass scale, his daring looks often influenced select groups of tastemakers working in fashion design and the media, which helped to spread his influence to a wider audience.
David Bowie (1947–2016) performs on stage during his Ziggy Stardust/Aladdin Sane tour in London, 1973.
Bowie’s use of fashion was unique in that it allowed him to create characters through which he channeled new musical ideas. By publicly presenting new aesthetic ideas through fashion, Bowie informed his audience that he was exploring fresh musical territory as well. From stage to photography to video, Bowie’s career and visual impact have permeated many aspects of popular Western culture, making him one of the most widely recognized musical artists of the twentieth century and thus an ideal reference for the fashion industry.
In interviews, Bowie often denied having a personal interest in keeping up with fashion throughout his lifetime, solely attributing his choices of clothing to an interest in visual art and performance. However, his links to the fashion industry are undeniably present, including his marriage to the supermodel Iman and a long list of collaborations with fashion designers, photographers, and illustrators throughout his career. Bowie’s influence on fashion is significant because he was able to introduce high fashion to millions of people as well as channeling street and subcultural styles in a way that would inspire mainstream fashion. His affinity for questioning gender roles in his music and through fashion has allowed him to be cited as inspiration by fashion designers for both menswear and women’s wear, as well as those looking to bridge the gap between both.
Growing up in 1950s London, Bowie was influenced by the musical and sartorial styles of the artists he admired, including the flamboyant stage presence of Little Richard. By the time Bowie released his first record in May 1964, it was apparent that the young performer was keen to adopt styles and experiment through changes to his appearance. Like many young people living in London at this time, Bowie wore styles that were the trademark of mod fashion, including a haircut with bangs, bold floral shirts, hip-huggers, and other marks of the revival of dandyism in youth culture. Bowie’s style would take a more daring leap when he began working with mime artist Lindsay Kemp in 1967. Under Kemp’s artistic training, Bowie began to appreciate the craft of performance, embracing edgier styles that included the use of makeup and other forms of costume that suggested sexual ambiguity.
Bowie adopted a controversial new style around the time of his third album, The Man Who Sold the World, in 1970. This was Bowie’s first experiment with exploiting his aptitude for creating an androgynous appearance, adopting a flowing, shoulder-length hairstyle and feminine clothing that was far more daring than what most British men were willing to wear at the time. Often compared to the dreamlike imagery of the pre-Raphaelite paintings of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the album cover for the United Kingdom release of The Man Who Sold the World featured the long-haired musician spread effeminately across a chaise longue shrouded in shimmering blue silk while wearing long, block-heeled leather boots and a cream and blue velvet maxi dress by designer Michael Fish. Bowie used this look to attract attention and subvert gender norms, which led to the record cover being deemed too inappropriate to be sold in United States and other areas of the world.
Bowie continued to experiment with androgynous styles with the album art for his next record, Hunky Dory, which was released in 1972. The album cover features Bowie in a close-up portrait that was inspired by publicity photos for female stars in studio-era Hollywood, and it emphasizes the appearance of makeup on the singer’s face. By adopting androgynous styles on both records, Bowie was putting his chances of widespread commercial success at risk, as such cross-dressing modes were not widely accepted at the time. However, none of these looks would compare to the far-reaching impact of the look he created for his next album: The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.
Of the multitude of styles and personas that Bowie adopted over the years, the character known as Ziggy Stardust and his provocative dress practices have undeniably produced the most lasting impact on fashion. This performance alter ego coincided with a shocking new look that included vibrant hair, shimmering makeup, and an array of skintight clothing that would come to epitomize the music and fashion style known as glam rock. Glam rock performers were characterized by flamboyant and camp styles that subverted traditional gender norms and emphasized performance and artifice. Although Marc Bolan (1947–1977) of the band T. Rex is often credited as being the first musician to be associated with glam rock, Bowie was the first one to bring the genre into mainstream culture.
Bowie’s own take on glam rock was notable for fusing visual tropes from traditional Japanese theater with futuristic silhouettes and materials that coincided with the character of Ziggy Stardust’s origin story as an extraterrestrial being. This bricolage of styles is the reason why Bowie’s looks are often seen as transcending fashion trends, cultural influences, and gender roles, forming an unusual amalgamation of styles that have defined his influence on popular culture. Later in his career, Bowie told interviewers that the success of the Ziggy’s androgynous style had less to do with his own sexuality and more to do with the feeling of that time in history, when binaries were being broken and art was becoming more pluralistic.
Bowie’s flamboyant hair and makeup from this era have been continually referenced in fashion shows, ad campaigns, and magazine editorials throughout the years. The most defining attribute of the Ziggy style is the flaming red, mullet-like hairstyle that Bowie adopted in 1972, which made him one of the most easily recognizable music stars of the era and the decades to come. Like Elvis’s pompadour and the mop-top haircut popularized by the Beatles, Bowie’s distinctive red hairstyle came to represent youthful rebellion and shifts in societal norms during the early 1970s. The look was made all the more striking by the heavy makeup Bowie wore onstage, which often consisted of bright red hues, metallic lipsticks, and golden discs painted on the performer’s forehead.
Bowie’s signature red hairstyle also appeared on the cover of his 1973 album Aladdin Sane, which has become one of the most referenced images in the history of popular Western culture. The image was shot by fashion photographer Brian Duffy and is best remembered for the red and blue shimmering lightning bolt across Bowie’s visage, painted by makeup artist Pierre La Roche. The shape of the lightning bolt, which Bowie also incorporated onto a few jackets and jumpsuits, is a symbol that numerous fashion designers have used to reference Bowie’s career and style. The musician also released his seventh studio album in 1973, titled Pin Ups, which featured an image of Bowie alongside British supermodel Twiggy on its cover. According to photographer Justin de Villeneuve, the image was originally intended to be used for the cover of British Vogue, which would have made Bowie the magazine’s first male cover model.
Soon after Bowie began touring for his Ziggy Stardust album in 1972, international fashion periodicals began to report on the relatively unknown singer, never missing the opportunity to remark on his appearance and irreverent fashion choices. His name is first mentioned in British Vogue in the issue of 15 August 1972, where the magazine describes his Ziggy Stardust album as “silver-vinyl decadence.” One month later, the high-end fashion periodical featured a photo of him dressed as his Ziggy Stardust persona, with a caption that describes his look as part of “what’s now being called ‘drag rock.’ ” Women’s Wear Daily also reported on the musician’s first American tour, announcing on 11 September 1972 that he would be coming to New York with “dazzling makeup” and “gowns” to entice their fashionable readers. By 1973, the periodical was regularly reporting on what he chose to wear to parties and other social events. It’s clear from these press mentions that Bowie was already having an impact on popular style during his initial ascent to fame. While most men were far from comfortable with wearing the effeminate looks adopted by Bowie, the women who read these fashion periodicals were more likely to take inspiration from his style. Perhaps the earliest example of the fashion industry appropriating a look from Bowie’s signature stage costumes can be found in an issue of Women’s Wear Daily from 28 August 1973, in a feature on the “Electra” or “Bowie suit” by designer Carol Paulson. The text reads: “Rainbow of California … spotlights the holiday season with ‘David Bowie zap.’ … Rainbow’s electric Bowie look.” It was assumed that readers would know what the “Bowie look” signified, and the term continues to be used as a way to describe almost any clothing that evokes glam rock.
While mainstream fashion designers had already begun to cash in on Bowie’s aesthetic in 1973, the most notable impact of his style was on the wardrobes of his young fans. The term “Ziggymania” was coined to describe the hordes of young fans who embraced Bowie’s unconventional approach to sexuality and style. Many cultural theorists believe that Bowie’s concerts and other glam rock shows provided the opportunity for teenagers to practice rebellion and escape from the drudgery of working-class life. In order to prepare for Bowie’s theatrical concerts, fans would apply heavy makeup and scavenge in vintage shops in search of attire that would emulate the bricolage of looks that Bowie wore onstage. Some fan magazines and fashion periodicals, including Elle Paris, also featured articles that shared “how to make a Ziggy Stardust leotard” and other tips for obtaining the musician’s look. Although these styles weren’t widely accepted at the time, Bowie’s costumes had a lasting influence on young people in the generations to come, encouraging them to be more experimental and transgressive with their choices in fashion.
Released in 1974, the album Diamond Dogs marked the end of Bowie’s glam rock period and heralded a new phase in the artist’s career. The change was marked by a shaggy hairstyle that was intentionally different from the spiked look that he had popularized as Ziggy Stardust, although the hair remained dyed in a bright orange hue. By the time he released his album Young Americans in 1975, Bowie had fully transitioned away from his space-age, androgynous aesthetic in favor of a more masculine look that was inspired by his music’s new emphasis on rhythm and blues and the styles he noticed while spending time in New York’s Puerto Rican and African American nightclubs. On and off the stage, Bowie was primarily seen in double-breasted suits that were notable for their short jackets, padded shoulders, and wide trousers that were worn with suspenders and a long pocket chain, evoking the zoot xuits of the 1940s. At the time, New Musical Express advertisements gave young fans the opportunity to send in money to receive replicas of the short jackets and eight- and twenty-pleat trousers that Bowie wore on the cover of his LP titled David Live, but the style never caught on the way it did with Ziggy Stardust.
Although Bowie had already moved away from the more effeminate styles that he adopted in his early career, women’s fashion magazines continued to reference and be influenced by his style in the context of female beauty. Alongside the faces of Marlene Dietrich, Katherine Hepburn, Grace Kelly, and Lauren Hutton, a photograph of Bowie during his Ziggy Stardust era was featured in a beauty article by Susan Sontag that appeared in the May 1975 issue of US Vogue. He is the only male featured in the three-page article, and Sontag uses him to talk about “unisex beauty,” thus showing that his influence on women’s fashion remained long after he traded his makeup and leotards for fedoras and three-piece suits.
The next incarnation of Bowie’s style came in the form of another constructed persona known as the Thin White Duke. The character’s look was a drastic departure from anything seen on Bowie before, consisting of monochromatic but impeccably tailored three-piece suits designed by Ola Hudson and slicked-back orange hair with yellow highlights at the front. This classic look, which characterized Bowie’s Thin White Duke period (approximately 1975–1976), also served as the costuming for Bowie’s debut acting role as the lead in Nicolas Roeg’s film The Man Who Fell to Earth (1975). His severe appearance in the movie trickled over into his image as a musician—he wore the dark tailored suits with crisp white dress shirts by Paul Smith during his 1976 Isolar tour, often paired with tilted fedoras for offstage appearances. Leaving a truly lasting impression, Bowie’s Thin White Duke style has inspired a countless number of modern fashion collections and magazine editorials, including the cover of the August 2011 issue of W magazine featuring Tilda Swinton shot by Tim Walker in a look that mimics Bowie’s character from The Man Who Fell to Earth.
From a theoretical standpoint, what makes the Thin White Duke such a consistent reference point in fashion history is possibly the cool, faraway attitude of the character and the mysterious public image of the musician himself. Bowie’s remarkably thin physique at the time was primarily caused by an ongoing struggle with cocaine addiction, although it’s possible that the svelte appearance is partially responsible for how well the Thin White Duke style translates onto the long and lean female runway models of today.
Toward the end of the 1970s, Bowie moved to Berlin in order to escape fame and address his growing drug problems, which would result in a set of music albums known as the “Berlin trilogy”—Low (1977), Heroes (1977), and Lodger (1979). Throughout this time, Bowie returned to his natural mousy brown hair color and adopted relatively “normal” clothes such as jeans, leather bomber jackets, and button-up plaid shirts, allowing all of experimentation and artistic expression to be channeled through his music and not his choices in fashion.
However, the debut of MTV in 1981 and the rise in music videos made the visual representation of any musician’s work more important, and Bowie was quick to pick up on the power of this visual medium. At the start of the 1980s, a new fashion and music style emerged from the Blitz club in London, which took a great deal of influence from Bowie’s looks in the decade before. Eventually known as the New Romantics, the young followers of this style were characterized by outlandish costumes and makeup worn by both sexes. Bowie asked kids from the club to appear in costume for his “Ashes to Ashes” video, in which Bowie wears an opulent silver Pierrot suit and heavy makeup. Bowie is also seen wearing the flamboyant Pierrot costume in a portrait by fashion illustrator Edward Bell, which was superimposed against photographs of the same look by fashion photographer Brian Duffy and used for the cover of Bowie’s album Scary Monsters in 1981. In this album, Bowie seems to acknowledge his prolonged influence on the fashion world with the song “Fashion,” while also making a statement about the incessant drive of the industry itself.
In 1983, Bowie released his best-selling Let’s Dance record and began to adopt more flamboyant looks in the form of brightly colored suits and bleached blond hair. These colorful looks were in line with the ostentatious clothing that is associated with 1980s fashions, but were closer to the status quo when compared to Bowie’s previous stage wear. Despite Bowie having fully outfitted himself in masculine attire by this time, Vogue magazine continued to herald his androgynous beauty, particularly in a 1983 article titled “David Bowie and the End of Gender.” The article features a two-page spread of black-and-white images of Bowie photographed in masculine attire by fashion photographer Helmut Newton. Despite the lack of overt femininity being expressed in these images, the article once again places Bowie’s beauty in the context of the female fashion elite. By September 1987, Women’s Wear Daily had published a series of photos to show all of his different looks that had influenced fashion over the prior years, stating: “David Bowie’s had more looks than Macy’s windows.” Acknowledging that the musician often started trends that would later been seen frequently on the street and catwalk, the article adds: “Bowie’s kept one step ahead of everybody.” This type of tribute, using photographs of Bowie to describe current fashion trends, would continue to appear in fashion periodicals in the decades to come. It is often noted in such features that the pertinent fashion trends have been influenced by a multitude of Bowie’s looks spanning across years, emphasizing the impact of his career as a whole rather than just one look.
Bowie married Somali supermodel Iman in 1992, which earned him further exposure in the world of high-end fashion. In 1995, Vogue published a twenty-page fashion editorial shot by Bruce Weber featuring Iman modeling an array of the latest styles, with some shots of Bowie alongside her wearing pieces from his own wardrobe. By this time, it was evident that Bowie had transitioned from inspiring the fashion industry with his avant-garde stage wear to being a respected figure associated with mainstream fashion and culture.
For his Outside and Earthling tours (1996–1997), Bowie sported a bright orange spiked haircut and increasingly theatrical costumes. However, his stage costumes from the 1990s and early 2000s were always functional and rooted in historicism and masculinity, contrasting with the glamorous stage looks of his earlier career. In Bowie’s later years, he faded from the public spotlight, but his cultural impact remained. After the musician passed away from cancer in January 2016, the fashion world paid a number of tributes to his long career, indicating that his influence would last long after his death.
Bowie’s longstanding influence on the fashion world would not be possible without the many collaborators that he used to bring his sartorial visions to life. Although he remains relatively unknown in the history of fashion, the British tailor Burretti conceived a number of bespoke suits for Bowie during the Ziggy Stardust era, many with dramatic lapels, bold patterns, and nipped waists that make these suits a continued point of reference in menswear and women’s wear. The most notable is the ice blue suit that Bowie wore in the promotional video for his song “Life on Mars” in 1973. Filmed by photographer Mick Rock in a fashion shoot setting, the video features Bowie wearing extremely heavy makeup that, along with his long, flame-colored hair, contrasts his wide-legged suit and its masculine connotations. The ensemble was accessorized with a silver patterned necktie and high platform shoes that epitomize the style elements of glam rock.
Burretti also created the colorfully patterned and quilted jumpsuit that Bowie is seen wearing on the album cover of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. The look was said to have been conceived by Bowie himself, inspired by the dystopian gang costumes worn in the film A Clockwork Orange (1971) by Stanley Kubrick. Burretti rendered a similar quilted ensemble cut from an exotically patterned Liberty of London fabric that was famously worn by Bowie during a performance on the British television show Top of the Pops on 5 July 1972. This is considered by many to be Bowie’s seminal public appearance and a significant source of sartorial inspiration for the young fans who watched the performance. Later on, Burretti would also be responsible for designing some of the retro-inspired suits that Bowie wore when recording and performing his Diamond Dogs and Young Americans albums.
The Japanese fashion designer Kansai Yamamoto was already at the forefront of contemporary Japanese fashion when he first met Bowie in 1973. Before then, Bowie had become fond of the designer’s theatrical styles and purchased a red leather playsuit by Yamamoto with hand-drawn winged rabbits, which would later be worn by Kate Moss when she accepted a BRIT award on his behalf in 2014. After becoming aware of the musician’s admiration for his designs, Yamamoto worked with Bowie to create a number of stage costumes for the Ziggy Stardust tour in 1973. Produced for maximum visual impact on a concert stage and often worn with towering platforms, these costumes have been the foundation of Bowie’s influence on fashion history. Examples include a white satin cape adorned with kanji characters that could be torn off during performances, an asymmetrical knitted bodysuit that left one of Bowie’s arms and legs provocatively exposed, and the “Tokyo Pop” vinyl bodysuit that is known for its wide, record-shaped legs.
Bowie continued to work closely with fashion designers and media artists to craft his image throughout his career. Among his best-known collaborations is the one he had with British fashion designer Alexander McQueen, who created a number of stage looks for Bowie in the 1990s. The musician had reached out to McQueen in 1996 after seeing his postgraduate work in the British indie press, and commissioned him to make a frock coat from a Union Jack flag. McQueen burned and distressed the coat in a manner that added theatricality to the look, which was used on the cover of his Earthling album in 1997. McQueen had also cited Bowie’s cult vampire film The Hunger as part of the inspiration for his spring/summer 1996 collection of the same name.
In the early 2000s, Bowie favored the slim, tailored suiting that was popularized by French designer Hedi Slimane for Dior Homme. Bowie acknowledged that he trusted Slimane to create his suits in the same way that he had favored Berretti’s bespoke suits in the 1970s. As an expression of gratitude, the performer presented Slimane with an award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America in 2002. Slimane has often claimed in interviews that his early designs for the House of Dior were directly influenced by Bowie. After the designer took over as creative director of Yves Saint Laurent in 2012, Slimane continued to use Bowie as a point of reference for his menswear and women’s wear collections, mixing slim, dark suits that echoed Bowie’s costumes in The Man Who Fell to Earth with spangles that evoked the glamorous appeal of Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust costumes. After the musician’s death, Slimane wrote a personal tribute for V&A Magazine, citing the moment that he first saw a Bowie album as having shaped his entire career and aesthetic from the age of seven.
Bowie also collaborated with a long list of photographers and filmmakers throughout his career; such collaborations have helped to instill his artistic legacy. In addition to notable work with photographers Mick Rock, Terry O’Neill, Brian Duffy, and Masayoshi Sukita, Bowie bridged the gap between music and fashion in 1993 when he used British fashion photographer Nick Knight to shoot the cover of his Black Tie White Noise album. Knight told Dazed magazine that Bowie had been one of his biggest influences ever since seeing the musician’s pivotal Top of the Pops performance in 1972. For a music-themed issue of British Vogue in 2003, Knight shot supermodel Kate Moss in a number of Bowie’s original stage costumes and used an image of her face with the Aladdin Sane lightning bolt makeup for the cover. Almost a decade after Knight’s Aladdin Sane cover, Kate Moss once again appeared in the guise of Bowie, this time dressed as Ziggy Stardust for the December 2011/January 2012 cover of French Vogue, shot by Mert Alas and Marcus Piggott.
It is easy for a vast number of fashion designers to cite Bowie as an influence for their collections, since he himself was citing a vast array of influences that could be interpreted and reinterpreted by future generations. Direct references to Bowie in the fashion industry, from advertising campaigns to online shopping features, have become ubiquitous over the years and his name has become synonymous with fashion that is reminiscent of glam rock or that explores androgyny. Season after season, his style is credited as the inspiration for some of the world’s biggest fashion designers, including Raf Simons, who told Style.com that he thought of Bowie as “more than a man—an idea.” Considering the fact that so many of Bowie’s fashion and beauty choices have become deeply ingrained into popular culture, designers know that these references will be easily recognized and their associations with Bowie’s work and related themes can be transferred into their garments rather effortlessly. It is possible that that these designers are using Bowie’s validation as an artist as a way to heighten the cultural value of their own work.
In September 2000, Vogue published an article titled “Tracing a Trend: King David,” which drew connections between recent runway shows and some of Bowie’s most famous looks. In the article, couture collections by Emanuel Ungaro and Givenchy are likened to Ziggy Stardust’s appearance, while Ann Demeulemeester and Ralph Lauren’s looks are compared to the Thin White Duke. “Who wouldn’t want to look like him?” asks author Amy Larocca. “He’s androgynous, he’s sexy, he’s a rock star.” The appeal of referencing Bowie’s appearance was nothing new in the year 2000, but there would be a huge influx of collections inspired by the musician in the decades to come, particularly in the years after he had completely retired from the public spotlight.
In September 2011, The Financial Times reported: “Fashion has had a four-decade love affair with Bowie that’s only getting stronger.” This theory is proven by the long list of runway shows and magazine editorials that directly referenced Bowie’s multitude of styles between 2011 and 2013. For fall 2011, Christophe Decarnin’s collection for Balmain paid an overt homage to Bowie with a glittering lightning bolt jumpsuit; Dries Van Noten directly referenced Bowie’s Thin White Duke look in both men’s and women’s collections for that same season. For his spring 2011 collection, Jean Paul Gaultier expressed his admiration for the musician through a collection that included sharper shoulder lines, reminiscent of Freddie Burretti’s suits for Bowie, along with sending models onto the runway with spiky red mullets and iridescent blue eye shadow that intentionally resembled Bowie’s look for the “Life on Mars” video. In 2013, Gaultier would produce a more literal homage to Bowie in the form of a one-legged and one-armed bodysuit that was intended to resemble Bowie’s iconic knitted bodysuit designed by Kansai Yamamoto. In that same year, Bowie’s influence was seen on the runways of a long list of other designers that included Alexander McQueen, Diane von Furstenberg, and Walter Van Beirendonck.
A model walks the runway during the Balmain ready-to-wear fall/winter 2011–2012 show during Paris Fashion Week at Le Grand Hotel on 3 March 2011 in Paris, France.
A model presents a creation by Belgian designer Dries Van Noten during his men’s fall/winter 2011–2012 ready-to-wear collection show on 20 January 2011 in Paris.
From these examples and many more, it is probable that Bowie has become the most referenced musician in fashion history. Bowie’s myriad of characters is rediscovered by each new generation entering the fashion industry, leading to a wide variety of new interpretations of the musician’s original dress practices. Furthermore, Bowie’s style is often characterized by his ability to pull from a vast number of influences, creating iconoclastic looks that did not fully align with any particular time period or culture. Because of that, designers can take influences from the myriad of looks throughout Bowie’s long career and these often don’t seem particularly dated since they never fully followed the trends of any given time period.
The enduring appeal of Bowie’s art and the full extent of his influence on fashion were made evident by the popularity of the exhibition David Bowie Is, a touring retrospective that was shown in twelve major cities over its five-year run, attracting over two million visitors. For the show, cocurators Victoria Broackes and Geoffrey Marsh were given unprecedented access to Bowie’s personal archives, which have preserved thousands of photographs, handwritten lyric sheets, and his memorable stage and screen costumes. The costumes were undoubtedly one of the key draws for the show and were used to demonstrate the lasting impact that Bowie has had on popular fashion.
Despite vast differences between individual looks, Bowie’s approach to style always aligned with the primary drives of the fashion industry—rebellion, sexuality, and the freedom to express oneself. Because of that, Bowie continues to be used as a point of reference for the fashion industry as his work still feels relevant as time passes. Moreover, the digital age has allowed more people to connect to Bowie’s work, indicating that the late performer’s influence on popular fashion shows no signs of diminishing.
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Find in Library Broackes Victoria, and Geoffrey Marsh, eds. David Bowie Is. London: Victoria & Albert Museum, 2013.
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