Worldwide Trend | The Evolution of the Leather Harness
How a piece of restraint-wear became fashion’s most wanted accessory
DSTM leather choker, harness and suspenders. Photo: Maxime Ballesteros
“Both collar and bracelets were fashioned of many layers of thin leather, the whole being no thicker than a finger, […] embedded in the leather was a metal ring. They fitted snugly, but not so tightly as to chafe or break the skin…” ‘Story of O’, Pauline Reage, 1954.
Between 1974 and 1976, Vivienne Westwood’s seminal King’s Road punk boutique was called SEX. It stocked hardcore bondage gear next to ripped t-shirts and clear PVC jeans. Today, if your friends’ Instagram feeds and parties are anything to go by, it seems as if these spunk-and-blood covered originals have fathered a generation of half-children, with BDSM ideas cross-pollinating fashion’s ultra-competitive accessories battleground.
The harness is key within this new genus of forms, and in the dextrous hands today’s luxury avant-garde designers like Zana Bayne, Fleet Ilya, Betony Vernon and DSTM, it has evolved from a constricting piece of corsetry to a statement piece of power.
“For some reason, harnesses and chokers can bring out a really strong reaction in a lot of people, even though chokers are really popular right now,” Zana Bayne tells Amuse, somewhat tongue-in-cheekily. “From press around celebrities when they wear harness pieces, [her pieces are regularly rocked by everyone from Madonna, Lady Gaga to Azealia Banks and Debbie Harry] to even fashion show reviews, there can often be a negative spin on it. But, if you think back historically, high heels were once considered vulgar, so you never know how attitudes will change over time.”
Zana, whose practice combines occult symbols and sacred geometry to specialised leather crafting techniques describes her output as “post-fetish” wear. “The first time I made something out of leather, it was an extension of the sort of belts I would like to wear,” says the New York-based designer. Having launched her label in 2009, Zana now counts concept stores like Dover Street Market and Opening Ceremony as stockists, and has collaborated with designers such as Marc Jacobs and Prabal Gurung.
“Leather as a material, right down to its texture and smell, will always have the potential to evoke a feeling of excitement” – Fleet Ilya
Does she design for the street or the boudoir? “In pieces like the ‘Bustle Belt’ ($725) we try balance the eroticism with the formalism – they could possibly be worn as clothing, depending on the styling,” she says. “When I talk to my customers, I am always struck by how they mention that the pieces make them feel powerful, confident. Some even say they feel ‘like a superhero.’ The leather itself, the shapes, the boldness; there is a strength. Maybe the tropes that would be normally considered in submissive in the S&M world, actually have the reverse effect here.”
When asked about her first ‘fetish-wear’ experiences, DSTM couturier Jen Gilpin recalls modelling in a fetish fashion show when she was 17. But it goes back further: “I was also riding horses when I was younger, and loved the bridles, spats, crops and accessories. I later went on to work at lingerie boutiques… I guess [within me] there has always been an element of fascination with fashion that is non-fashion.”
Founded in Berlin in 2010, DSTM—an acronym for Don’t Shoot The Messenger—is known for their all-black hosiery, catsuits, gowns, and harnesses (€405). Having moved to Berlin from her native Canada a decade ago, Jen feels she couldn’t have created DSTM anywhere else. “I love the freedom here,” she says of her adopted city. “With DSTM we walk between fetish, fashion and function. There is a new level of aesthetics that has been developing in the erotic world, where quality and craftsmanship are very important to customers. These are no longer throw-away items.” Already working with silk, leather, mesh and fringing, Jen is now excited about working with a “fine Italian woven rope” for a new shibari-inspired accessory line.
“There is a new level of aesthetics that has been developing in the erotic world, where quality and craftsmanship are very important to customers” – DSTM
Meanwhile, in London, Ilya Fleet and partner Resha Sharma have been working together since 2006 as Fleet Ilya. “We produce all our products in-house at our London atelier – the leather craft is at the core of the brand,” Ilya explains. As well as a full compliment of harness styles (£220 – £1395) and bags for both women and men, their range—worn by Kendall Jenner and Kate Moss on covers of LOVE magazine, and shot by photographers like Olivier Zahm and Bob Carlos Clarke—extends to a plethora of restraints including masks, leads, corsets, gags, visors and headwear like their infamous metamorphic sculpted-leather fox and cone-nosed dog masks.
On whether attitudes to ‘kink’ have changed since they started, Resha feels “there definitely has been a societal change; a nod to the risqué is far more abundant on the catwalk.” She also feels that brands like their own have helped bring this about: “Approaching these accessories from a ‘high end’ perspective in terms of the quality has aided their acceptance. Ultimately, I think the meaning given to objects is very personal and subjective. With the different creative interpretations of these pieces, the original functionality has become less apparent, making them more digestible to society. But leather as a material, right down to its texture and smell, will always have the potential to evoke a feeling of excitement.”
Of this shift in attitudes, Betony Vernon, the Paris-based erotic accessory designer and author of the seminal book The Boudoir Bible tells Amuse, “When I started designing erotic jewellery in 1992, there was not a single store that was interested in carrying my fine erotic designs, so I catered to private collectors alone. Today, there is not a single fashion designer who has not tapped into what used to be considered the ‘perverted,’ ‘kinky,’ ‘abnormal’ realm of the sexual underground.”
“High heels were once considered vulgar, so you never know how attitudes will change over time” – Zana Bayne
MyTheresa.com buyer Tiffany Hsu, a long-time harness wearer, recalls her own entry into the arena. “My first harness was my Zana Bayne Pentagram Harness ($375) in 2010. She was still making all her harnesses out of her bedroom! I also love Fleet Ilya’s designs.” Formerly a buyer for Selfridges and the Asian retail giant Lane Crawford, Tiffany has long put her seasonal budget where her heart was: “Fannie Schiavoni was the first ever brand I bought, and then it was Zana. But I also bought the harnesses from Alexander McQueen if it was part of the look.”
What did her bosses think? “I simply wore it myself so not much explanation was needed! The shop floor was a little surprised though at first, but once you show them the potential, you see everyone wearing it and buying it for themselves.” This kind of support opened the door to restraint-wear inspired accessories selling out from Oxford Street to Hong Kong. “I think people don’t think of them as kinky anymore but simply they’re a styling item that jazzes up your wardrobe and gives you an edge to your personality,” Tiffany says.
“Today, there is not a single fashion designer who has not tapped into what used to be considered the ‘perverted,’ ‘kinky,’ ‘abnormal’ realm of the sexual underground” – Betony Vernon
Fleet Ilya’s incredible interlocking, saddlery leather chandelier(£3000) can be seen as a cage harness taken to the next level, boldly taking restraint forms from the body into the home. Ilya explains how their design process led here: “The creative drive is a type of obsession, when you know there is a chance to make something you haven’t made before it stays in the mind until it’s achieved. It’s like a greed, not for possessions; but for creating. It started with a simple cuff and it evolved through a desire to create greater and more challenging pieces.” It’s a sentiment shared by DSTM’s Jen Gilpin: “there is still so much to explore in finding new ways of celebrating the body.”