With her piercing blue eyes and voluminous raven hair, Zana Bayne is striking, even before you factor in the fact that she is usually wearing a harness.
The self-taught leatherworker has made quite a name for herself since launching her namesake label in 2010, dressing celebs like Madonna, Lady Gaga and Chloe Sevigny as well as fashion insiders like Taylor Tomasi-Hill and Sally Singer.
At just 24, Bayne has already been part of the fashion industry for years. She first got recognition through her popular fashion blog Garbage Dress, which documents her style evolution from high school and college to a stint in Berlin and finally New York, where she settled in 2009. She initially designed herself a harness just for fun, and got such a positive response that it eventually turned into a full-fledged business. And while it’s impossible not to acknowledge the fetish references throughout her collection, Bayne also approaches her designs pragmatically, “At the end of the day a harness is a belt with suspenders.”
Hanging in her midtown studio, it’s easy to strip away those bondage connotations and focus on the impressive intricacy of the leather craft. The walls are lined with rivets and tools that I wouldn't begin to know how to use.
With everything made by hand, last-minute requests often result in Red Bull-fueled all-nighters, which is exactly what happened when last week's Met Ball commissions started rolling in. It certainly paid off: Derek Blasberg, Taylor Tomasi-Hill, Constance Jablonski and Sally Singer were all snapped rocking Zana Bayne designs.
Read on to learn more about what inspires this up-and-coming talent.
Tell me about your relationship with fashion when you were young. My mom worked in the fashion industry, so she has always had great style. Unbeknownst to me, she had all this Ann Demeulemeester and Yohji Yamamoto in her closet. She has impeccable taste. I always liked dressing different and wanted to wear what people weren’t wearing, so of course that had some awkward stages. I try to destroy those photos. I was really young during the whole blogging thing and was part of Live Journal’s Fashion Community and shared my outfits that way, so I’ve been posting photos to the Internet since I was like 13.
You decided to study fine arts rather than fashion though… When I was in college I really tried not to make clothes. I was doing a conceptual Fine Arts major in New Genres. But at the same time I was working at a store in San Francisco that focused on avant-garde fashion like Yohji and Commes and Margiela. I think I really needed to have that separation between school and job, and at the same time my mind was really in the fashion world. You’re only 24 now and you’ve accomplished so much! I started college when I was 16 though. I really wasn’t into high school. It wasn’t the right place for me so I tested out after 10th grade and started college right after and graduated by the time I was 20.
Tell me about starting your blog. It was in 2008 when I was working in the store during college, so I was documenting things in the store and nightlife I was doing. I saw what a couple of my fashion peers were doing and I felt like blogging at its best could be a portfolio of personal taste. So my goal was to mostly to focus on original content and showcase all the amazing people in my community and what they were doing and what I was doing. One thing lead to another with that, because I really started documenting everything I did.
When did you start to realize the blog was a gateway to a career? When I first got to New York I was doing a lot of party photography and working with Refinery29 for a second. I would be invited to certain things because of blogging, but I never thought that would be what I did. Every year that I had a blog I would think, will I still be blogging next year?
So, the harnesses—how did they come about? So we have to rewind back to San Francisco. I made a harness for myself while I worked at that store and people there and in blog-land loved it. So then, I moved to Berlin and I didn’t bring my supplies, so that kind of was put on hold, but when I moved to New York and was super broke I thought I could make a couple bucks in the harness business again. From there, in about a year and a half’s time, it really blew up.
Did you know how to make a harness just like that? Well I thought if I could make a belt I could make a harness, it’s just a few extra straps. I’ve always been crafty and made things my whole life.
What would surprise people about process of making the harnesses? How long to make one? Anyone who knows the technical process for leather would just be shocked at how I make my patterns. I’ve never been trained in how to make things so all my techniques are my own. Everything is drawn with pencil, I have some patterns on scrap paper from three years ago that I still use. I can do the most basic one in 20 minutes because I’ve been making it for so long, I can do it with my eyes closed. But that’s just me. My most complicated piece, the skeleton, is a two-day endeavor.
So where did you sell them in those early days? I started on Etsy because it was a low-cost easy way to put things up online, and I had a big enough blog following that I drew customers through there. Then I started attracting the interest of people in the industry mostly because I have so many fantastic friends that want to wear my stuff out, and one pair of eyes sees something and suddenly the interest is spurred.
Any early examples of that kind of attention? I think my friend Kristin Gallegos who is a super star make-up artist is one of the most stylish people I know, and she wore harnesses on sets. Then of course the stylist and everyone there sees and would suddenly know about it.
How did you decide to segue it into a career? It must have been winter of 2010 when I created my first official lookbook. I had a new online store up and running for January 1, 2011 and quit my job then too.
What was in that first collection? It was all harness pieces. A lot of woven thin straps and seeing how far I could go still having the harness as a base.
What were some of the early challenges with your business? Well that New Year’s Eve right when I started my business I slipped and sprained my wrist. I had my new website and got over a hundred orders in that first month, and I was going to Europe for a week and a half too. I had flown my best friend out to New York to help me, but then there was a blizzard and she was stuck in my apartment and I was stuck in Europe, and she had so send out all these orders. That showed me that you have to know that you can produce when you take on orders. To any small designer that is a major challenge.
How many people do you have helping you now? Daniel is here full-time, and we are auditioning new interns. I have brought my samples to factories and they just shake their heads, like, "I don’t know what to do with this." There is still so much hand-craft involved.
How have the collections evolved since that first one? Actually, I brought back a couple of pieces from that collection. I am always referencing my archive. Since then I've worked a lot with dye-cutting techniques and curves, not just straps. I really got into belts, because as much as I love harnesses belts are so easy to wear. Each collection I start to cover more of the body.
Why harnesses? I mean you’re so far beyond the whole bondage connotation, but it will always be there… It really transforms whatever you’re wearing. I mean, leather plus strap plus ring and rivet people instantly have a certain association of what that means. But if you’ve never tried one on you feel so secure and held in, which is nice sensation to have. I’ve had guys try on my pieces and say they feel like they’re standing up straighter. With my pieces I try to promote movement, whereas with traditional bondage maybe harnesses are for restricting and such.
Who are your muses? Since the beginning my friends have really been my biggest inspirations. I always imagine how they would wear things and what they would feel comfortable in. In New York there are the most interesting and talented people.
Have you had an ‘I've made it’ moment? I’ll always remember the Lady Gaga ‘You and I’ video. I had made about ten pieces for that, nine for the dancers and one for Lady Gaga. It was a super last minute request and very intensive. My only intern was out of town and I was up for a day and a half straight. It was for Nicola Formichetti, and I love working with him and his vision. It was one of those things where I was hoping losing all that sleep was worth it, and it was!
How did you first team up with Prabal Gurung? I have a mutual friend with his fashion director, and he mentioned to my friend that they were interested in some harnesses for his spring summer ’12 collection. My friend introduced us, and it was just a really great fit working together. Prabal has such strong ideas for his collections and strong aesthetic decisions. I’ve worked with him for four seasons.
Tell me about this year’s Met Ball, were those requests last-minute too? I knew about the theme and was hoping that someone would be interested. The first person to contact me was Sally Singer’s assistant, and I thought that was amazing cause she is so major. Then Amy Fine Collins’ stylist Freddie Leiba got in touch, and he told me that she had a couture dress that couldn’t take a belt or collar, but he wanted one of my cuffs. But of course even when you lend out you never know if someone will wear it. Then on Instagram I saw Taylor Tomasi-Hill was wearing one of my harnesses to dinner a few nights before, and the night before the Met Gala one of Moda’s team members got in touch and asked me to make one for Derek Blasberg for the next day.
Tell me about some of the more out there pieces in the collections, like the face masks... At the end of the day I do like to design for myself, but I won’t really wear a face harness, so sometimes I have to change the way I’m thinking to more editorial or graphic, like what would look amazing on the body. It’s not always about the most easy to wear. The face pieces were a bit last-minute from the last collection; I just thought something was missing. They’ve turned out to be really popular. People have emailed me asking when they are going to be available for purchase—I never thought that would be a bestseller!
Is there anybody that you’re dying to dress? I mean I just love when people with different styles wear what I make. I’ve had people going to weddings wearing a light-colored harness over a champagne colored dress. I love that. As far as collaborations, yes I would like to make things that fit with another designer’s view that aren’t necessarily what I would make but that really opens up my eyes to a new type of design.