Harnesses peeking out from low-cut shirts, jackets paired with floral dresses, and durable satchels to hold it all: leather is everywhere, and it’s bringing a message along for the ride. From Zana Bayne, who has crafted pieces for Beyonce’s music videos and live performances, to Yeha Leung’s cult designs as Creepyyeha, leather’s leading-edge mavens are eschewing gender and other fashion-industry norms in favor of radical inclusivity. For many of the designers working with leather today, as well as for their customers, the textile is more than a material. It’s a symbol of strength, craft, and independence.
Leather’s presence in the realm of alternative apparel seems like a given, but it hasn’t always been like that. The covetable bomber jacket got its start as military apparel, and edgier styles like collars and harnesses trace their roots to the queer and fetish communities — not to the runway. It was only after musicians adopted the long-lasting fabric with its dangling straps and shiny buckles that designers like Vivienne Westwood picked up on the trend, fusing punk with fashion in the 70s. The rest, as they say, is history. Kids who grew up watching icons like Debbie Harry and Madonna rock leather mini-skirts and spiked collars are now icons in their own right, and leather’s genesis as a gay culture mainstay plus its dalliances with aural countercultures have imbued it with a serious kind of magic. Today’s leather is one of the most intersectional fashion art forms. Who’d have thought it had a way to be even more badass?
So how did all of this happen? Here’s my theory: take platforms like Etsy and Instagram (which democratized fashion and fostered a culture around accessible, made-to-order goods) and combine them with people entering the job market right as the recession started. Mix it all up, and you’ve got side-hustle cranked to 100. Many of today’s most interesting leather lines launched right around 2010: Estonian jewelry and apparel line Anu Tera, millinery and harness brand Apatico, GNAT’s “femme-centric fetish and bondage gear,” and we’re just getting started.
Mateo Guadalupe, the self-taught femme trans latinx artist behind Leather Coven, believes that our accessories are like amulets. Leather Coven is inspired by fetish couture, witchcraft, ritual, and bodies, and creates designs “for people of all genders and bodies with durability, comfort, and functionality in mind.” In the leather accessory industry, especially in indie spaces, this kind of ethos is common. The people drawn to leatherwork often share a goal as well as a medium: to craft wearable art lovingly, and sustainably. Queer harness-makers Switch Leather Co “are fortunate enough to purchase scrap leather pieces from a local company, minimizing waste of a finite and coveted material,” and style crush Blackhorne “makes an effort to utilize every part of each hide,” often selling hand-painted key fobs and other one-offs made from leftover material.
And since much of what’s on Etsy or Bigcartel — the third-party sites for buying and selling homemade goods where most independent designers get their start — is made-to-order, everything can be customized to fit just right. Seriously. There are traditional size guides too, but how incredible to fill in your measurements and receive a product made exactly for you. “I’ve been designing my own clothes and accessories since I was a broke fat teen femme because often, if it was in my size, I couldn’t afford it,” says Guadalupe in a 2014 interview for Feministing. “When I started looking for leathergear for myself, I found items either totally outside my price range, or within a mass-produced aesthetic not designed for my body.” This DIY spirit and attention to ethics and representation is visible everywhere in the realm of leather accessories, from promotional editorials to social feeds populated with reposts and user-submitted photos that proudly display customer style and diversity.
Representation, however, is only part of it. Leather-work’s ties with the queer and fetish communities have also given birth to dialogues about fashion’s intersections with identity, as well as nurturing an atmosphere of freedom and risk-taking — even around fashion formerly seen as taboo or inappropriate. After watching videos of the Blonde Ambition Tour as a child, designer Yeha Leung asked her parents about the outfits worn by Madonna and her dancers, wondering why the haunting and provocative silhouettes weren’t something she saw more often in real life. “They would say those looks were only for performance purposes,” she remembers. “I never understood why such clothes could not be worn outside of that context. In my mind they were literally just beautiful clothes, I never considered the clothes as being sexual, I just saw beauty.” In a similar vein, Zana Bayne calls her products “post-fetish,” a term that pays homage to their kinkier roots while also reaffirming the fact that in 2017, leather is for everyone.
Header Image: Anu Tera