Zana Bayne and Todd Pendu, who count Lady Gaga, Beyonce and Madonna as fans, talk about how dressing as a submissive can be empowering and what people misunderstand about the BDSM aesthetic in fashion.
When Lady Gaga, Beyoncé, Debbie Harry, Madonna, Katy Perry, Nicki Minaj and Gwen Stefani need to take a walk on the wild side with a bespoke BDSM-style get-up, they (or their "people") call on the design team of Zana Bayne and Todd Pendu.
Though the designing duo known simply as Zana Bayne demurred when asked if they have a safe word, they’re going bold this week with a new exhibition at the Museum of Sex in New York that showcases the bondage-influenced designs (some replicas) they’ve created for pop culture’s elite, alongside images and videos of the performances, appearances and videos in which the designs were worn.
But as this exhibition makes clear, bondage isn’t just for daring stage acts these days. Zana Bayne has also built a thriving retail brand around BDSM, which (for the unschooled, or those pretending to be) stands for the overlapping acronyms of Bondage and Discipline, Dominance and Submission and Sadism and Masochism. Bayne and Pendu also make skirts, tops, bustiers, shoes and hats, mostly for women — as well as limited styles for men (leather sock garters, gentlemen?). And they’ve also collaborated with big-time international fashion designers, including Prabal Gurung, Marc Jacobs and Rei Kawakubo (the subject of the current Costume Institute exhibition at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art) and Comme des Garcons.
For the curious, Zana Bayne wares are available online (bags are priced from $275 to $750; harnesses retail from $175 to $525), including through Net-a-Porter. If you want an in–person look-see, you have to hit Selfridges in London or Opening Ceremony in New York or simply wait for the occasional pop-up shop like the one in January in a spacious warehouse in the Arts District of Los Angeles, or the one at the Museum of Sex for the duration of the exhibition. But if you’re a bit reticent (read: repressed), their New York atelier will schedule private shopping appointments, and the company will be doing the same in Los Angeles starting later this year.
(Fun fact: Bayne, a curvy brunette who founded the company in 2010, has made headlines with another Hollywood connection as well. She is a Game of Thrones superfan whose fun Tumblr blog GoTRunway smartly contrasted costumes from the HBO hit with couture from the likes of Dior, Chanel, Gucci, Jean-Paul Gautier and most especially Rick Owens.)
Bayne and Pendu took time from the completion of the installation for the exhibition, which opens Friday, to talk to Pret-a-Reporter.
You two have designed for some of the most powerful and successful women in popular culture, yet these designs often play on ideas of women as slaves, chattel or the objects of sadism — how do you reconcile that?
Bayne: Our designs are meant to accentuate the power that these performers exude. It’s all about owning one’s presence and projecting confidence through what you wear. Wearing leather makes you feel strong and invincible, and the women we dress often tell us that’s how it makes them feel.
Walk us through the thinking behind how dressing as a submissive can be empowering.
Pendu: The term "post-fetish" refers to taking elements from traditional fetish wear and reimagining them into the accessories that we make for everyday wear. We apply this idea to all of our designs, from handbags to harnesses. Punks adopted fetish tropes, abandoning the original BDSM meanings, and we have continued in that way forward. By thinking of it as post-fetish, we acknowledge the inspiration but no longer see it as referring to submission at all. In fact, it’s the opposite — it’s a statement of rebellion and freedom to us.
How did the BDSM aesthetic become acceptable to wear in public?
Pendu: There are plenty of people who still don’t find it acceptable today, but it is an aesthetic that has existed outside of its traditional BDSM meaning for decades, going back to the punk rockers of the '70s in London. Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren really brought it to the forefront of fashion design, and so many designers have since incorporated the aesthetic into various collections over the years, most famously Thierry Mugler, Jean-Paul Gaultier and Alexander McQueen. One would be remiss to underestimate the influence of Versace’s “Miss S&M” show in fall 1992.
Describe your fashion and cultural influences.
Pendu: Who hasn’t been influenced by Marlon Brando in The Wild One or Marianne Faithfull in The Girl on a Motorcycle? Almost all of the original fashion houses began originally as brands producing quality leather goods: Louis Vuitton, Hermès, Loewe, Gucci, etc.
Bayne: Also, we are influenced by the early days of punk, glam rock and goth as much as by surrealist art and abstract sculpture. We are often digging through the archives of Paco Rabanne, Martin Margiela and Azzedine Alaïa. However, the street is our biggest treasure-trove. We are constantly finding inspiring ideas from people watching in New York, L.A. and various cities in our travels.
Bayne: These started as a personal project for me and my mom to wear during the Women’s March on Washington in January, since we wanted to show our resistance on the outside as much as we felt it on the inside. The response was overwhelmingly positive, to the point that we decided to offer them for sale, but only on the condition that a good portion of the proceeds would be donated to Planned Parenthood, since their services are life-saving for many women and their very existence is in danger due to our current political situation.
What is it that you think people misunderstand or fail to understand about the BDSM aesthetic in fashion?
Bayne: The versatility!
How much demand has their been for the studded leather fidget spinner?
Pendu: We sold out of our first production run in 24 hours.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Below, the designers recall designing for some of music's biggest names, including Beyonce, Lady Gaga and more.
"This was one of the first large custom projects. Lady Gaga was working with the stylist Nicola Formichetti, who gave us almost total creative freedom over the designs of the full body pieces. It was important that the lines created on Gaga and her dancers were visually striking from a distance, yet beautifully crafted for the close-up shots. This was so early in our company's history that there really wasn't much of a team in place to make the pieces for Gaga plus her eight dancers. All of the hardware had to be custom spray-painted black, and after all of the prep work was done, there was something like 36 hours to put everything together."
"The incredible yellow hand-crystalled dress is by our brilliant designer friend Adam Selman, and the whole thing was styled by Jamie Mizrahi. We worked together to conceptualize the belt and harness combination, and were inspired by the silhouettes and hard materials used by the 1960s futurist designers like Courrèges and Cardin. The clear PVC mimics the sculptural quality of leather but brings an entirely different feeling of lightness to the designs. The oversized buckle is a custom design that has been a staple in all of our collections since fall 2015."
"Madonna is a dream client for us to dress. She has spent her career challenging society's perception of sex and exploring sexuality through her costumes and performances, and it's an honor for us to be a part of that."
"We love designing for Beyoncé. We first started working with her in 2013 when she wore our 'Bat Belt' style for her 'Grown Woman' music video. We also worked intensively with her team, led by stylist Marni Senofonte, to dress Beyoncé’s 20 to 30 dancers on several occasions, including for Beyoncé’s iconic Super Bowl halftime performance, the BET Awards and Formation World Tour. We were in Stockholm for business when the Lemonade visual album premiered, so it was around 2 a.m. there when it started streaming online. Since we had prepared the custom pieces for Beyoncé’s dancers, we were keeping our eyes out for them and were actually completely surprised when we saw Beyoncé wearing our 'Bullet Bra' for the iconic statuesque scene in 'Sorry!'"
"Debbie Harry performed at the Glastonbury Music Festival in 2014. She is one of our favorite clients to design for. Besides being such an iconic performer she is also very involved with what she wears onstage. She knows exactly what she likes when she sees it. She's an incredibly charismatic performer, and always incorporates an element of subversion to what she wears."
"This Nicki Minaj performance in Johannesburg in 2016 was styled by Derek Roche. Nicki wore a full look from our 'Bossa Nova' collection. Movement is really important for her performances, so this Ipanema Skirt was a great solution. Because it is constructed with cascading links, it is able to flare around the body without restriction. We also constructed this skirt with plastic rings instead of metal, so it is nice and lightweight for moving around the stage."