The thin white duchess: Tim Walker captures the mercurial appeal of Tilda Swinton

As Walker's stark, striking and weirdly stunning set of pictures show, the actress has long been inspired by David Bowie

If you were to bring to mind a former classmate of Princess Diana, the androgynous, sharp edges of Tilda Swinton would most likely be far from your mind. Born into an aristocratic Scottish family, Swinton has built a fine career – including receiving a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role in Michael Clayton – in which she has successfully straddled the worlds of both arthouse and more mainstream cinema.

Photographer Tim Walker's pictures, taken from the August issue of W Magazine, are imbued with an overtly alien quality, representing Swinton's singular position in an industry that often requires its female stars to be in possession of a particular style over any substance. A more immediate interpretation of the theme, however, becomes apparent upon reading the accompanying interviews, in which Swinton discusses her latest role in the adaptation of Lionel Schriver's novel We Need to Talk About Kevin. Swinton plays Eva Khatchadourian, a mother caught in the grip of nightmare when her emotionally distant son commits mass murder. When the film premiered at Cannes earlier this year, audiences were blown away by Swinton's performance – in which the actress is not afraid of expressing the ugly truth of an incredibly ugly situation.

Walker's images came about after Swinton created a mood board with long-time collaborator and friend, art director Jerry Stafford. It is through Stafford that Swinton first met the design duo Viktor & Rolf whom she famously collaborated with on their 2003 "One Woman Show", in which all the models were made to look like copies of Swinton. Stafford also introduced her to Lanvin designer Alber Elbaz as well as Haider Ackermann and Raf Simons of Jil Sander, all of whom she regularly chooses for red carpet appearances.

With more than a passing resemblance to David Bowie, Swinton cites the singer as a key inspiration. Ever since she saw The Man Who Fell to Earth, she's been drawn to his androgynous, extra terrestrial nature. Bowie is her perennial style icon, alongside her Scottish infantryman father from whom she has inherited a fastidiousness of dress and dedication to her work.

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