Ink outside the box

With his face tattooed to resemble a skeleton, Rick Genest – aka “Zombie Boy”, the muse to Lady Gaga’s stylist – became one of the more unlikely characters to grace the Paris catwalk when he modelled for Mugler last week. However, while the label’s latest addition is hardly an obvious style icon, his sinister look does tap into a current trend for tattoos. Unlike Zombie Boy’s markings, however, they don’t have to be a look for life.

Tattoos as a transitory fashion statement came into the spotlight last year, thanks to a growing market for designer transfers. Beyoncé Knowles’ fashion line, The House of Deréon, is the latest label to release a range, but Chanel was the first. Its 2010 limited edition, called Les Trompe L’Oeil, cost £49 for a set, and featured chain bracelets and floral sprigs. They sold out swiftly and now a pack can fetch up to £100 on eBay. The secret to their success? Like the brand’s black nail varnish, they provide the typical well-heeled Chanel customer with just enough of a rebellious touch to stand out. “I might wear them instead of a piece of statement jewellery, for example,” says public relations consultant Rossana Tich.

Tattoos might increasingly be in the spotlight among celebrities, but there’s no doubt they can still be seen as controversial, especially on women. Witness the mixed reactions to Cheryl Cole’s latest addition, a butterfly and tribal design on her back. Fashion often thrives on this sense of the daring or taboo, however, and following tattoo transfers, tattoo prints are now making their way on to the catwalk this season.

While Jean Paul Gaultier’s use of tattoo patterns started the idea as far back as 1994, and the Ed Hardy for Christian Audigier sportswear pieces brought it to the masses in the mid-noughties, the latest interpretations are more sophisticated. At Louis Vuitton’s men’s wear show in Paris, designer Marc Jacobs roped in Scott Campbell – the tattoo artist behind Jacobs’ own tattoos – to handpaint tattoos on models, and collaborate on a bag design, the Utah.

Elsewhere, Christopher Kane’s spring/summer prints of carp and snakes, based on Japanese yakuza gang tattoos, were transferred to pin-tucked frocks, while Marios Schwab mixed Russian prison tattoos with Celtic symbols and Egyptian iconography across delicate slip dresses.

For a professional but fashionable consumer who wants an edgy look without the controversy or commitment of a real tattoo, especially one that suggests they’ve spent time “inside”, this trend is perfect. Unlike transfers, you don’t even have to rub them off when you’re done. “Like with so many things in life, one can get bored and go off something,” says Tich. “This allows you to change.”

Placing tattoo imagery in a fashion context also encourages you to look again. “We are all drawn to bad girls,” agrees Schwab, “but tattoos are also very personal. By putting the journey of a person on to the surface of the fabric, it reveals what is usually hidden.” Kane, meanwhile, transposes the violent gang culture associated with his yakuza-style tattoos on to ladylike shapes. “It looks elegant, not like other tattoo prints,” he says. “Most of the subversion has disappeared [with tattoos] but I think it’s subversive to have tattoos on a pin-tucked dress.”

A little subversion, however it comes, is the reason why this look works. Tattoos’ connotations with society’s outsiders – such as circus performers and even Hells Angels – are coded within these prints, and that’s what makes them different from, say, floral or plaid designs.

“Tattoo-inspired designs tend to reference vintage, lowbrow culture,” says Margot Mifflin, an American academic and expert on tattoos, listing “snakes, hearts, crucifixes, pin-ups and maritime imagery” as examples.

As well as Kane’s pin-tucked dresses, other printed pieces in his commercial collection successfully walk the line between respectability and edge, such as a T-shirt and easy summer vest dress with tattoos, or a twinset.

They’re certainly not obvious office wear but Catherine Nicolson, who works in publishing, believes they could be an option during summer months, “when people are wearing more brightly coloured patterned dresses anyway”. Political consultant Catherine Nicolls also thinks that tattoo-printed clothes could be appropriate. “I’d tone them down with something plain, otherwise it might be too much for a meeting,” she says. Rebecca Osei-Baidoo, women’s wear buyer at London boutique Browns, believes this will be a popular way of interpreting the trend. “At first, the collection looks a bit garish but it’s actually very wearable,” she says “It’s all about mixing pieces with neutrals from your own wardrobe.”

Osei-Baidoo’s initial reaction, however, suggests that more traditional work sectors will stay away. “I work as a solicitor and I don’t think I could wear something like that in the office,” says Jacqueline Ewers. Saira Hunjan, the London-based tattoo artist who famously created the swallows on Kate Moss’s back, believes this attitude even exists with her clientele – serious “collectors” who have extensive parts of their bodies tattooed. “They still have to cover them up when they go to work,” she says. That’s good news for fashion. For now, the frisson of danger that this look thrives on remains just about intact.

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