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Fashion is having a fetish moment

From Gucci and Givenchy, to Christopher Kane and Y/Project, the runways feel kinkier than ever

Fashion has never been a stranger to fetish; from Mugler to McQueen, some of the industry’s brightest minds have experimented heavily with leather, rubber, and bondage codes. Gianni Versace’s seminal AW92 collection – controversially titled ‘Miss S&M’ – is a prime example. His supermodel-studded cast walked the runway in dog collars, leather harnesses, and BDSM-inspired bustiers worn over more traditional evening gowns, as part of a show that sharply dividing the fashion press. It wasn’t until an Aids benefit a few weeks later that the collection’s cultural impact became apparent. Versace summed it up himself the morning after: “Last night, there were 200 socialites in bondage!”

This year, Donatella has been looking to that very collection for inspiration for AW19. After dipping her toes back in for pre-fall with a recreation of Elizabeth Hurley’s famous dress, the following menswear collection in January featured t-shirts with harness prints, what appeared to be makeshift nipple clamps – in the form of bulldog clips attached to lapels – and semi-see-through vinyl macs. Soon after, at the Italian label’s womenswear show, a series of models took their turn on the runway wearing structured satin and leather bras and corsets featuring bondage straps and Medusa-head buckles, as well as sharply tailored suits with lace peepholes at strategic points. She wasn’t the only one to get kinky, though; from chokers and leather masks at Gucci to fetish-y waders and ‘sex necklaces’ at Y/Project, 2019’s shows have so far been distinctly NSFW.

Another prime example was Givenchy, which incorporated latex garments by London-based brand Atsuko Kudo into its Haute Couture collection in January. The brand’s skin-tight, wipe-clean garments have been spotted on everyone from Kim K to Lady Gaga over the years, but this season Kudo made its debut on Givenchy’s runway via seriously sexy jet-black latex leggings juxtaposed with sharp, tailored jackets; cut-out catsuits in bold reds and blues worn under structured lace ballgowns. The flashes of latex added a harder edge to the otherwise conventionally ‘couture’ looks, subverting the visual codes of a notoriously traditional practice.

It wasn’t just fashion critics that took notice, though. Just weeks later Rachel Weisz – now a bona fide queer icon following scene-stealing turns in Disobedience and The Favourite – wore a red latex gown from the same Givenchy collection to the Oscars. Twitter was immediately flooded with short, filthy declarations of lust from women worldwide, some of whom begged Weisz to spit in their mouth. ‘Everyone Wants Rachel Weiz To Dominate Them’ proclaimed The Cut, collating tweets from fans asking her to “step on them, and top them, and run them over, and rail them, and just generally sexually subject them.” The combination of Weisz’s pure sex appeal and the connotations of the latex made people genuinely horny for Couture – not exactly the norm in fashion.

The headlines were less risqué when Christopher Kane, a designer known for consistent references to sex and sexuality, turned to object fetishists for his AW19 inspiration, but his embrace of ‘looners’ and ‘rubberists’ still set him apart on the London schedule. “Some people don’t think human beings are sexy,” he explained backstage after the show. “They find other objects sexual.” This research spawned a collection filled with latex gloves, deflated balloons, and clear, colourful bags filled with undisclosed liquids. It was almost a continuation of his Joys Of Sex collection, but more specific; more kinky: crystal chains and shiny rubber were used throughout, alluding to the textural qualities of fetish gear.

“AW19’s runway kink feels appropriate for a time in which we’re having deeper conversations about sex, power, and consent”

Kane is one of a select few London designers known for subversion, but runways across all four fashion capitals were littered with BDSM codes this season. In Paris, McQueen showed a darker graduation of its leather SS19 looks, teaming laser-cut leather bustiers with chokers and slicked-back hair; Rei Kawakubo’s all-black collection featured architectural, almost armour-like rubber looks with buckles and straps; Y/Project went a step further with necklaces depicting lesbian couples scissoring; while at Marine Serre, models wore full-body gimpsuits. Gucci became the talk of Milan thanks to its leather twinsets and super-sharp spiked dog collars and masks – which looked so lethal designer Alessandro Michele doubted they could actually be sold. Their looks were deceiving though, as the designer spoke of protection as opposed to subversion and sexuality. “They seem aggressive but they are gentle,” he told journalists post-show. “They are warning masks: ‘Be careful because I’m here and I wanted to defend myself.’ As a young boy I had to defend myself. I had to use some spikes.”

AW19 also heralded a more considered, nuanced, and sensitively handled exploration of signifiers commonly associated with S&M. Just last season, Thom Browne sent women bound and gagged down the runway in the midst of the #MeToo scandal, and was immediately scorned for his misstep. His study of control, submission, and restraint felt at best clumsy and at worst disrespectful at a time when women were fighting so hard for autonomy, not just over their bodies and their lives, but over their stories and their right to tell them without being disbelieved or diminished. If we’re to believe Hollywood we’ve moved past #MeToo and into #TimesUp – and fashion, as cultural commentary needs to reflect that.

This season it seems that designers learned from Browne’s mistake. AW19’s runway kink feels appropriate for a time in which we’re having deeper, more nuanced conversations about sex, power, and consent. Where Gianni Versace’s S&M collection was overt in its message, in Donatella’s hands, many of the harnesses were worn over sweaters and silk camis, and under coats and jackets, while at Y/Project, the necklaces and earrings, though explicit in their nature, were hardcore yet sensual – as well as easy to miss, were you not looking closely enough. AW19 offered flashes of sex, but sex wasn’t the only story. 

Tellingly, kink is also about communication – it’s about safewords, mutual exploration, and desire, which is unrestrained to the exact extent that you want it to be. Sanitised mainstream depictions of bondage haven’t always communicated this perfectly, but in many ways the BDSM references in this season feel like a nod to a reclamation of power.

And it’s not just women – the same rings true with menswear. Earlier this year, Timothée Chalamet wore a ‘sparkly sex harness’ – which he later sheepishly explained was a ‘bib’ (sure, Tim!) – to the Golden Globes. Fans delved deep into the gay subcultural history of the harness for their thirsty tweets, and – perhaps as a result, perhaps not – an ASOS leather version sold out. We’ve long been fed the myth that men just don’t want to experiment with their looks, but the creativity recently seen on red carpets suggests otherwise.

When Versace showed his S&M collection, he did so in the wake of the Aids crisis. Sex was inherently political, and almost three decades later it still is: inclusive SRE (sex and relationships education) classes were almost scuppered by homophobic parents last month, access restrictions to online porn are getting stricter and sex workers – some of whom were recently pushed off Tumblr as part of a censorship crackdown – are fighting a conservative backlash to push for decriminalisation.

It’s still a stretch to say that normalising fetish gear could erode prejudice, but no longer are the archetypal fashion ‘sex kittens’ conceived through the lens of the male gaze good enough, and this message rings loud and clear on the runways. Bondage straps and harnesses are about so much more than fashion; they’re references to sex-positivity, consent and autonomy. Male or female, the fight for our sexual freedoms is ongoing, so perhaps Michele is right – maybe we all have to use some spikes.