Dress in the Dark: Horror in Haute Couture By Ives Hovanessian

Alexander McQueen. Gareth Pugh. Iris Van Herpen. Rick Owens. John Galliano. Jun Takahashi. Riccardo Tisci. Yohji Yamamoto. Ann Demeulemeester. Olivier Theyskens. Eiko Ishioka. Jean Paul Gaultier. Thom Browne. Kermit Tesoro.

These names may mean nothing to you. In fact, you may have never heard of them. But if you’re a horror writer of any renown, chances are they know you.

Horror has gone mainstream. That much we know. Just turn on your television or drive to the local Cineplex, and you’ll be inundated with The Walking Dead, American Horror Story, Dexter, Twilight, Grimm, and True Blood. Sparkly movie stars play sparkly vampires who fall in love with humans and have dream weddings under a Preston Bailey inspired canopy of flowers and whimsy. To say that horror has lost its edge would be an understatement, but when your average mid-western housewife is waxing poetic about how sexy it would be to date a vampire, horror may very well be in danger of jumping the shark.

Most writers and fans of the genre would agree that, while horror has been given the Vaseline lens treatment and pussified to appeal to the squeamish masses (they don’t want to kill you, they want to make love to you. See? And they have abs!!), it is also experiencing a return to its true gothic tradition in the dimly lit writing rooms of modern masters like Laird Barron, Gary McMahon and Thomas Ligotti, whose works satisfy hordes of die-hard fans with nary a brooding, coiffed loverboy in sight. Collections like Barron’s Occultation, Ligotti’s Noctuary, and McMahon’s How To Make Monsters hark back to a time when horror was actually, well… horrifying. And it seems they’ve got some help from a group of horror masters in their own right, although a group they’d likely least suspect – Fashion designers with equally horrifying collections of their own.

No longer limited to black nail polish and Halloween costumes, horror has slithered onto the runways of Paris, New York and Milan, and is being worn by everyone from A-list celebrities to teenage girls on a Hot Topic budget. Fashion heavyweights like Anna Wintour and Andre Leon Talley are singing its praises, making superstars of the masterminds behind the trend. Turns out, horror is not only in vogue, it’s actually IN Vogue; and wouldn’t you know it, it’s the chicest thing going since Karl Lagerfeld pulled the bouclé crop jacket out of Coco’s dusty quim and stuck an $8,000 price tag on it. And just so we’re clear, we’re not talking your run-of-the-mill Victorian Mourning Gowns of Anne Rice era bloodsucker wannabes, or even the revamped (sorry!) versions donned by Japanese Lolita Girls either. No. This new wave of designers are dragging the monsters out from under their beds and putting them in the closet, where they belong.

Constructed with nontraditional materials such as aluminum, plastic and bone, these architectural beasts are stitched to such aberrant proportions and dramatic silhouettes, they would give R’lyeh a run for its money in a non-Euclidean dustup.

Although horror elements have always been present in fashion, albeit only in conservative doses, the haute couture gatekeepers hadn’t really taken notice nor doled out the unprecedented level of respect and adoration until the late, great Alexander McQueen hit the scene. Followers of his early career could have probably sensed it coming from the very beginning. When a fashion student names his graduation collection Jack the Ripper Stalks His Victims, you know he’s not going to put out lines of pantsuits and double knits.

McQueen – backbone

McQueen – Antlers

McQueen – Savage Beauty

Alexander McQueen


Inspired by the nineteenth century, and drawing especially on the Victorian Gothic, McQueen has said of his work, ‘There’s something … kind of Edgar Allan Poe, kind of deep and kind of melancholic about [my] collections.” Critics, journalists and fashion addicts seemed to agree. NoéMie Schwaller of Style/Clicker describes McQueen as, “A designer whose dazzling creativity and startling originality validated powerful emotions as compelling and undeniable sources of aesthetic experience. Like a painter or writer of the Romantic Movement, McQueen associated unfettered emotionalism with the appreciation of beauty. Over and over again, his shows elicited an uneasy pleasure that merged wonder and terror, incredulity and revulsion, feelings associated with the Romantic concept of the Sublime. Like the Victorian Gothic, which combines elements of horror and romance, his collections often reflected paradoxical relationships such as life and death, lightness and darkness. Indeed, the emotional intensity of his runway presentations was frequently the consequence of the interplay between such dialectical oppositions. The relationship between victim and aggressor was especially apparent within McQueen’s collections.”
Throughout his very short yet prolific career, (he hung himself in his London home a month shy of his 41st birthday) McQueen established himself as a master of design, winning “British Designer of the Year” four times between 1996 and 2003, and International Designer of the Year by the Council of Fashion Designers; and put out an impressive number of collections with titles that could be easily mistaken for volumes of eldritch prose.

For his debut collection, he sewed locks of hair into the clothes, in remembrance of the hair the prostitutes (victims of the Ripper) would have sold in nineteenth century London. 1993’s Taxi Driver showed bloodied and bruised models wrapped in latex. His next collection, Nihilism, featured garments splattered in blood and mud and earned him the nickname ‘enfant terrible’. The Independent called the show, “McQueen’s Theatre of Cruelty”, stating, “Alexander McQueen’s debut was a horror show.” 1994’s Banshee was inspired by Irish folklore about banshees who were heard wailing when a boat sank. 1995’s The Birds was the first of many McQueen collections based on the films of Alfred Hitchcock. 1996’s The Hunger, inspired by vampires, featured prints that looked like veins and plastic corsets filled with live worms. 1998’s Spring/Summer Golden Shower gave us silver ribcages and spines inspired by the horror film The Omen, and Fall/Winter’s Joan was based on the brutal murders of the Romanov dynasty. 1999’s The Overlook collection paid homage to Stanley Kubrik’s The Shining while 2000’s The Eye turned the runway into a bed of nails. 2001’s VOSS, an extremely costly undertaking at which the audience sat around a mirrored cube and were forced to stare at themselves until the show began, at which point the cube lit up to reveal a mental hospital setting on the other side of the mirror. The following two years, What A Merry Go Round was a nightmare circus while The Dance of the Twisted Bull impaled its models with bullfighter spears. For 2007’s In Memory of Elizabeth How, Salem 1962 the designer took inspiration from his own mother, who discovered that one of her ancestors had been a victim of hanging during the Salem Witch Trials. The theme, of course, was black magic, fire and brimstone.

And so it goes, on and on… each one of McQueen’s over 40 collections inspired by darkness, death and decay, never neglecting to convey just how very beautiful he found these things to be. “I want to be the purveyor of a certain silhouette or a way of cutting, so that when I’m dead and gone people will know that the twenty-first century was started by Alexander McQueen,” he said before his tragic demise. And indeed it seems he made the mark he intended, as the fashion world felt his absence in a most profound way and inspired a new crop of highly imaginative and talented designers who emerged to follow in the footsteps of McQueen’s haunting aesthetic.

And perhaps no other designer has been compared more to Alexander McQueen than 27-year-old Dutch prodigy Iris Van Herpen.

Iris Van Herpen

Inspired by McQueen himself and the sculptures of American artist Kris Kuksi, Van Herpen’s collections employ 3D printing techniques and the use of unconventional materials such as woven metal, silk blend, fiberglass, synthetic boat rigging, plexiglass, whalebones from children’s umbrellas and shiny hair threads to create wearable sculptures that change the body while simultaneously adapting to its forms. Her collections are often based around such unlikely themes as invisible radiation, telecommunication, neurological phenomenon, and microscopic organisms.

Herpen – Skeleton dress

Gareth Pugh, a 31-year-old English graduate of Central Saint Martins who is known for experimentation with form and volume, uses nontraditional materials such as PVC, parachute silk, foam, synthetic hair and electrically charged plastic to distort the human body almost beyond recognition and create ‘nonsensically shaped, wearable sculptures.” His collections consistently obscure the line between sculpture, sci-fi, and cyberpunk. Pugh describes his designs as being “about the struggle between lightness and darkness.”

Gareth Pugh

Rick Owens, a 51-year-old California native and Otis/Parsons dropout, launched his own label in 1994. He has been awarded the Council of Fashion Designers of America Perry Ellis Emerging Talent Award in 2002, the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Award in 2007 and the Fashion Group International’s Rule Breaking award. Of his work, he says, “I try to make clothes the way Lou Reed does music, direct, with minimal chord changes, and sweet but kind of creepy. It’s about an elegance tinged with a bit of the barbaric.”

Promo ad for Rick Owens’ London store opening featuring the designer’s decapitated head on display (left) Suicide scene with the designer as subject, the image screened on silk scarves and other Owens accessories (right).

Fashion legend John Galliano, another graduate from London’s Central St Martins College of Art and Design, is a groundbreaking designer acclaimed for his fusion of romantic historicism with extraordinary technical skills and progressive aesthetics.He has served as head designer for both Givenchy and Christian Dior, and been awarded British Designer of the Year in 1987, 1994 and 1995. In 1997 he shared the award with Alexander McQueen, his successor at Givenchy. Galliano tells fashion stories that range from the elegant to the grotesque and is credited with being a bellwether of the Haute Goth movement.

Who’s Afraid of John Galliano? I am.

Ghostly white apparition and Executioner on the Galliano runway.

Jun Takahashi, the reclusive designer behind the cult label Undercover, started his own fashion label in 1993. Although at the time a relative unknown outside of Japan, he began showing his collections during Paris Fashion Week in 2002. His runway presentations feature straightjacket-like coats and hooded, pierced masks, with a skull and crossbones motif running throughout. He is perhaps best known for the Black Grace creatures he constructed for Louis Vuitton.

Jun Takahashi for Undercover.

Jun Takahashi – Black Grace for Louis Vuitton

Riccardo Tisci for Givenchy – Photographed by Steven Meisel.

Riccardo Tisci has been called the God of the Gothic to McQueen’s Master of Malevolence. The 38-year-old fashion prodigy with a penchant for the dark baroque, hails from Italy and graduated from the Central St Martins college in London. After an impressive 2004 showing at Paris Fashion week, he was offered the position of creative director at Givenchy. Tisci’s aesthetic juxtaposes religious iconography and fetishism. He is considered one of the premiere champions of the dark in haute couture.

Yohji Yamamoto

Yōji Yamamoto, a 69-year-old designer of Japanese descent, has been dubbed one of the purveyors of New Goth. Born in Tokyo in 1943, Yamamoto graduated Keio University with a degree in law before embarking on a career in fashion, attending the Bunka Fashion College in 1969. He has won numerous prestigious awards including the Japanese Medal of Honor, the Odre National du Merite, the Royal Designer for Industry and the Master of Design award by Fashion Group International.

Yohji Yamamoto Fall 2010

Although Ann Demeulemeester rejects the ‘goth’ label, associating it with the ubiquitous skull accessory, the 42-year-old Belgian designer’s aesthetic seems to tell a different story. After graduating from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in 1981 with a degree in fashion, she and her fellow classmates went to London to showcase their collections. As a result, she is often referred to as a member of the Antwerp Six, a group of radical designers of the 1980’s known for their deconstructionist style. With a close attention to detail and use of cutting-edge techniques and materials, Ann Demeulemeester consistently produces pieces that are distinctive and instantly recognizable. She draws influence from the gothic, punk and Japanese aesthetics and her work is described as ‘funereal.”

Ann Demeulemeester – Menswear

Olivier Theyskens, appropriately called the prince of dark romanticism, is a 34-year-old Belgian designer who studied fashion at Ecole Nationale Superieure des Arts Visuels de la Cambre but dropped out in 1997 to begin his own label. His first collections, which he created out of his grandmother’s bedsheets, were often referred to as “gothic extravaganzas.” He has served as head designer and creative director for Rochas and Nina Ricci, and in 2006, he was awarded the International Award by the Council of Fashion Designers of America. Theyskens’ lines have been lauded for evoking the torturous emotion, conflict and tragedy of 18th century romanticism.

Olivier Theyskens

Olivier Theyskens

Eiko Ishioka was a legendary designer of Japanese descent who is perhaps best known for winning the Academy Award for costume design for the Francis Ford Coppola directed film Bram Stoker’s Dracula. A graduate of the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, Ishioka is hailed as Japan’s leading art director and graphic designer. Her work is on display in permanent collections in museums throughout the world, including the New York Museum of Modern Art. She has designed the costumes for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the Tarsem Singh directed films The Cell and The Fall, the recent Snow White retelling Mirror, Mirror, Richard Wagner’s opera Der Ring des Nibelungen, Cirque du Soleil: Varakai, and the Broadway musical Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.In 1992 she was selected to be a member of the New York Art Directors Hall of Fame.

Sadie Frost in Bram Stoker’s Dracula – costume design by Eiko Ishioka ;

Eiko Ishioka – Dracula