Last March, during the autumn/winter collections, attendees at the Louis Vuitton show were greeted by “usherettes” in French maid’s uniforms complete with giant LV feather dusters; when the models marched out, their clothes were accessorised by admiral’s caps, handbags attached to their wrists by golden handcuffs, and the occasional riding crop. But before you roll your eyes and chalk it up to inside-fashion-world-weirdness, know this: at the moment passers-by in many cities in the world are being treated to Louis Vuitton window displays crammed full of doll armies clad in little black body suits, thigh-high black boots and those black caps, the life-sized mannequins nearby sporting Alice bands on their heads made of shiny black Zorro masks.
Is it a riff on the idea of costume? An inside joke about what it means to dress up? Actually, like most things associated with Vuitton designer Marc Jacobs, it is simply a pointed expression of a growing trend: the mainstreaming of fetish fashion. It’s not just for Halloween any more.
From a new show at the Helmut Newton Foundation in Berlin featuring polaroid images by the late photographer, which features models handcuffed and reined in with prosthetic devices (curator Matthias Harder says, “We have more female visitors than male ones”) to last month’s Alexander McQueen show, where designer Sarah Burton introduced delicate headpiece/bondage masks, not to mention a kinky body-suit and lace-up boots, fetish imagery is fast becoming ubiquitous. Look no further than the literal fabric of the trend for proof: rubber boots and satin baseball jackets with patent sleeves at Givenchy; glossy black surfaces with a latex or PVC shine at Mugler, Hakaan, Marc Jacobs and Giles Deacon.
“There has definitely been a nod towards fetish this season and we’ve seen this in designer fashion, lingerie and accessories,” says Helen Attwood, the buying manager at Selfridges in London. “And there are lots of skyscraper heels that complement the trend. Whether they come from Charlotte Olympia, YSL or Kurt Geiger, heels have been getting higher and higher over the past few seasons.”
“Everyone has a little fetishist in himself,” says shoe designer Christian Louboutin, who is known for his very high heels – he once worked on a fetish book specifically on the subject with photography by David Lynch, creator of Twin Peaks and director of the enigmatic thriller Mulholland Drive. After all, high heels are among the most accessible of all fetish objects. “They evoke a different body language, which men are very receptive to,” says Louboutin.
High heels make the legs appear longer and tilt the body into a more erect position that flattens the tummy and accentuates the female curves. And these days, recession or not, they are selling well: Louboutin has been showing double-digit growth year on year and will have 48 shops by the end of the year, up from 31 in 2010.
Similarly, the 29-year-old London based designer Ilya Fleet, who became a name after he made the leather harness Sienna Miller sported on a night out with Jude Law back in 2006, has observed growing demand for his work. This year the number of stores selling his detachable pink visor caps, turquoise corsets and black nubuck clutch with patent shoulder detail is up 35 per cent on 2010. “Sex is coming back,” says Fleet, by way of explanation. “It’s the new fun.”
Indeed, it’s probably no coincidence that two of the big museum shows of the past included fetishistic clothes, Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier, which opened at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and will be touring to Dallas, San Francisco, Madrid and Rotterdam until 2013. “The fetish element has always been important in Gaultier’s work,” says Thierry Maxime Loriot, the curator of the show, pointing out that the designer not only heralded the era of underwear as outerwear via the conical bra corset he and Madonna made famous but “brought fabrics from the sidewalk, or the sex shop, to the catwalk” – as well as into our closets.
Nor it is a coincidence that, on her current sold-out Loud tour, R&B superstar Rihanna sports a dress made of dog tags and a bondage body-suit. On her hit song “S&M” she sings: “sticks and stones may break my bones/but chains and whips excite me.” These days, retailers might feel the same way.
Trick or treat?
Fetishism isn’t the only area in which designers express their dark side. The skull motif has long since morphed from a gothic indicator to a fashion basic. And next month sees a gorgeous coffee-table book entitled, yes, Skulls, (£80), published by Farameh Media with four limited edition covers by cashmere king and skull-lover Lucien Pellat-Finet. Spookiness is having a moment, writes Martha Gill.
See by Chloe has a woollen sweater in a monochrome witch’s cat print (£220, Harvey Nichols); Ashish has produced a playful range of sequined skeleton garments, including a mini-dress (£1,025, Selfridges); and knitwear guru Markus Lupfer has emblazoned a cartoon ghost in French knot embroidery upon merino wool (£280, Markus Lupfer). Then there’s a limited edition blouse with the eerie silhouette of bats from Whistles (£175, Selfridges), and perhaps the ne plus ultra of the trend: Givenchy’s black faux fur Panther glasses (£390, Givenchy).
Department stores are clearly betting they will be catnip to consumers. “Selfridges has embraced Halloween on the largest scale to date,” says Gary Edgley, buying manager for the store. “We tried to amplify all that’s cool and edgy, which has tied in well given the gothic and fetish trends from the A/W catwalks.”
Meanwhile, Harvey Nichols asked young British designer Katie Eary to create a conceptual menswear installation for the store this month and she welcomed the opportunity to embrace the ghoulish, arranging her collection of graphic men’s T-shirts among rats, broken dolls and colourful jars of what look like body parts. “I hope people will be thrilled and intrigued,” says Eary, who describes it as, “Frankenstein’s Lab in Central London!”