The former florist creates surreal pieces inspired by Victorian mourning jewellery
Upon first glance, Leo Costelloe’s work recalls everyday objects; a summer hat, a piece of ribbon. On closer inspection, however, and they verge on the surreal. The London-based emerging designer crafts accessories out of human hair and sells them to fans and friends on his Instagram account. An icy blond hat made out of human hair, for example, looks almost translucent or like it’s spun out of fine sugar. Another one of the designer’s pieces, a ribbon to be worn like a scarf or a necklace, contains inky black strands of hair linked together with stainless steel and velvet, giving off an almost medieval amour-like vibe.
Growing up in a commune in Australia with a taxidermist mother and a horticultural father, Costelloe dropped out of fashion school to move to London. Having always been obsessed with hair, it's no surprise that beauty is at the core of his work. “My best friend in high school would wear a full drag beat to school every day and dropped out early to go to hair college,” he remembers. “It was him who got me into hair and make-up. We used to shoplift hair dye and do each other’s hair and smoke Marlboro Golds in his mum’s laundry room and then tint our lashes and take Myspace photos. He taught me everything I know about hair. I still call him up if I need advice on hair stuff – we’re super close.”
After six years working as a florist in London, Costelloe was ready for a change. His hair pieces are the result of newfound inspiration, born just within the last year. The transition from florist to hair-based accessories designer came after research into the properties of different materials. But rather interestingly, you can see the same sort of delicacy with which one might approach flowers in his hats and ribbons — courtesy of his six years spent in the florist field. “I like materials that occupy the sort of liminal space between life and death,” he explains. “Flowers are always dead from the moment you cut them even though they look so alive, and from the moment hair hits the skin’s surface the cells are dead, so all the hair we see on our bodies is just dead cells and all the flowers you buy or pick are dead too, and I think that’s fascinating.”
When it comes to the creative process, Costelloe always starts with the material, forming a sort of obsession with it. “I love the humanity of the material, it becomes something totally different when you remove it from someone’s head. Almost like a maimed limb people don’t know really what to do with. It’s essentially wearing part of another human’s body, which is bizarre and beautiful at the same time.” Costelloe sources all of the materials from a thrifty mix of places: all the blondes are from online, the darker colours come from a local wig and weave supply shop in east London and some hairdresser friends who occasionally donate pieces. And yes – everything is made out of real human hair. For the hair ribbons he uses a Remy extension, the highest quality hair – the hair strands are completely aligned in the natural direction that it grew in, for a more realistic look. “It’s important if I want the hair to look like it’s falling “naturally” that the cuticle is intact, so Remy is best.”
One of the most unusual, spellbinding pieces he’s created is the aforementioned hat made of hair. It’s girlish and old school, perfectly weird in all of its glory. “I based the shape of the hats on those you see in private girls schools,” he explains. “It’s basically wet felted with a clear adhesive used throughout the process, and then moulded to a hat block. I use another chemical mixture to starch the shape so when worn it’s almost translucent.” Costelloe started focusing on these kinds of hats (and ribbons) after looking at Victorian mourning jewellery (which often incorporates a loved one’s hair). “It’s amazing how people have imbued so much meaning into something that is such a mundane part of the every day,” he explains.
As for who is buying the pieces, (the hair ribbons start at £285) Costelloe lives by the process of designing for himself first and foremost. “I make the work primarily for myself and then pray someone will buy it,” he says with a laugh. “There are currently only 15 hair ribbons in existence, six of which are sold, and one hat.” He also takes commissions from friends and fans and makes a limited run of each style.
For his next creations, Costelloe is looking into pagan rituals and Cornish witchcraft. He is also in the midst of curating his own arts publication and researching the idea of developing a new textile that combines hair weaving, raw silk and nylon; the results of which could lead to a handbag covered in embroidered hair. “Hopefully it continues to be something that sparks thought and makes people question the world around them,” he says.