It is 10 a.m. in the quiet southern Mexico City neighborhood of Coyoacán and the single most epic piece of clothing that I have ever seen is hanging in front of me.
It’s a floor length PVC gown, blessed with an utter, 100 percent transparency. It’s held together by silver piercings. I’m lost imagining what it would be like to be covered in its hundreds of tiny panels, held together by single loops of silver chain. It looks sharp.
The scene in Alice in Wonderland where she grows up so fast that she’s suddenly wearing the house she was inside comes to mind.
This is a dress you wear to restrict your own movement. To be looked at. To make people want to touch you. To let them know that they had better not.
In fact, the entire studio of fashion designer Manuel Díaz is filled with beautiful dreams, weaponry and self-torture devices. Hinging silver arm guards and chain link shift dresses hang on racks. One shelf houses a grouping of dummy heads wearing masks made out of crystal, overlapping sheaves, even one of wickedly sharp black acrylic nails.
In between cigarettes, Díaz presents a story of how he got into designing these wildly sensual yet almost unwearable creations — as a matter of class necessity.
“In my university in London [Instituto Marangoni], most of the students were really rich kids,” he says. “So, for your collections, you could make them or you could get them done by a seamstress. But that was really expensive. So in my head I was like, okay I need to find a way so that I don’t have to send the materials to a seamstress. Because the teachers would be like, I don’t care, you have to send it to a seamstress. I would be like, I don’t have money!”
His first collection, he tells me, was dominated by boning, with some neoprene for good measure. (“Neoprene is actually really easy to work with,” he says, though he now makes up for that fact by designing his short dresses in that material with over 200 panels that must be stitched together.)
On a wall behind me hangs swatches of the materials the designer uses. Artificial and black is the dominate vibe, but you can find chain link as well, faux fur, the aforementioned PVC, strands of crystal beads. He’s also fond of hardware store screws and nuts, some of which stick out threateningly at right angles from a strappy corset hanging alongside the PVC dress.
His lookbooks give clues to the designer’s motivations. They are mainly shot by Alberto Lanz, a Mexico City photographer who is one of Díaz’s close friends and who photographed the designer’s first photoshoot, for his “Divine Trash” collection. In it, models invert their chests within transparent corsets and organically formed harness-cages of boning — abstract renditions of dresses worn by Divine in Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble. Small wedges of the sweeping mirrored folds of Carlos Slim’s Museo Soumaya is the charismatic backdrop.
Later shoots focused closer on the otherworldliness that peeks out of the initial shoot. “Reinas del Narco” features models encased in what gives the visual appearance of black latex. Chain link face masks and dresses become an extension of the model’s frightening form, the thing visually marked as accessory, tall beauty queen tiaras.
“When I talk to him, when he talks to me, we understand each other perfectly,” Díaz tells me of this symbiotic relationship between artisan and photographer. “We speak the same language.”
In more recent years, the two have begun using muscular male models in the womenswear shoots. “In the non-binary gender culture there’s no such thing as masculine and feminine, just human being,” says Díaz. “Nothing is masculine, feminine, it just is what it is.”
I had always considered Díaz’s work to be in the same league as Zana Bayne. But in a conversation we had when we were setting the date for our interview he told me that he doesn’t consider his work to be fetish wear.
In his studio, I wondered how else to explain full length, long sleeve chain mail dresses, like the one [shameless plug ahead] photographer Alan Balthazar used in his shoot for the vampire issue of my magazine 4U last year?
“My work is really sexual,” he said, thinking his answer out as he spoke. “And that’s on purpose. Sex is a big inspiration for me. Definitely there’s a lot of sex in our inspiration and designs. When I do photos with Lanz we try to do these creatures of the night. There’s violence, they’re sexual, they’re goth. I love sex, yeah. But I want it to be more implicit than explicit.”
Díaz showed me a rack of his “commercial” line, pieces that could feasibly be worn on a regular basis, if you are a chain metal tank tops, shift dress or hoody kind of person.
But the high fashion looks he’s known for are not what you’d call highly functionaI. So I pushed.
“One of the things that really makes me think about fetish is the restrictive quality of the clothes.”
“I love restricting the body,” he said. “I don’t know why. I love that.”
“So in a functional way some of your designs are like, bondage.”
“There’s a lot of inspiration from BDSM. I love Marquis de Sade and Leopold Von Masoch. Sadism, masochism, sado-masochism. I really love it, and I read a lot about it.”
“Okay. So then how did you start making these kinds of clothes? Ornate, not for everyday use. How did you gravitate towards that lack of functionality?”
“When I was young I did a lot of musical comedy.”
So here’s the key, then. As a teenager, Díaz’s mom dragged him to dance classes that culminated in a show, in a real theater with lights and costumes, the whole deal. And he loved it.
“When you are on stage and you’re kind of acting, pretending to be someone else, and there’s people there and you become another person,” he remembers. “I was like, it’s so fake, but it’s so amazing. I relate that a lot to fashion.”
I planned to convince him to let me try everything on, but in the studio that day the intricacy of the pieces intimidated me — his crystal dresses, Díaz told me, feature up to 22,000 beads each, and take up to three months to create, by hand of course.
But I did manage to try on a chain link hoodie.
Díaz envisions his dream customer for this line, unexpectedly, as a working mom, a superwoman who is married but, he emphasizes, “independent,” who knows fashion and the work that went into the pieces she buys.
“It’s going to be really cold,” he tells me as he puts the hoody on, raising the hood over my bald head to prove his point.
And it was. And it was heavy. The kind of garment that you cannot forget that you are wearing.
I regard myself in the mirror. The hoodie clings to my body in a way that makes me keenly aware of my curves. It’s heightening them, molding them out of metal, lending its heft and protection to me. I feel grounded and yeah, maybe I could wear this every day.
At one point, I ask Díaz, who has a dark, self-deprecating voice on social media, if these creatures he builds with his clothes, the Reinas del Narco that he and Lanz pull out of the ether, aren’t manifestations of something living inside him. His darkness, brought out into the world, something like that.
“I’m an insecure person,” he starts. “If you want to know about me you just have to look at my work, my pictures, things like that. They can look aggressive, but at the same time they are vulnerable, transparent. You can see the body underneath, the structure. They are an armor to go out and protect yourself, but at the same time the clothes are something you put on to pretend to be someone else. Sometimes you put things on to be who you would like to be. Or you put on something else because you don’t like who you are.”
And in this brave new fashion world, where we can wear waist trainers to work, dog collars to the club, harnesses on a first date, maybe that is the trick. We’re all figuring out whether these fantasies we have inside us are characters we’d like to try on, or real parts of ourselves that before, we had to mask.
Photo Credits: Caitlin Donohue