Style: Skin in the Game

Music and leather have had a long love affair, but now - to meet rock star demand - designers are using the rough-and-tumble material in new and unexpected ways

Nothing comes between rock stars and their leather. And the truism seems even more so today than ever.

Why? "Leather is just badass," says Jonny Cota, the designer of Skingraft, a 7-year-old, Bali-based clothing line known for its custom leather pieces made for the likes of Marilyn Manson, Britney Spears, Missy Elliott and Usher. Besides, Cota points out, there's a rich history to the pairing, citing old photos of The Ramones and Madonna in biker jackets. "There's magic between leather and music."

This era's taste for skin stretches far beyond the motorcycle jacket - though there are still plenty of variations on the punk classic available, from inky Saint Laurent zippered styles to Perfecto classics from BLK DNM to cherry-red Balmain versions that recall Michael Jackson's "Thriller." On recent runways, leather was shown as practically multipurpose. It has been cut into overalls (from 3.1 Phillip Lim, worn by Lissy Trullie), spliced into louche sweatpants (from Alexander Wang, though Kanye West might protest - he once claimed to have invented them) and encrusted with gold paillettes to make sleeves (from Fausto Puglisi, spotted on Janelle Monae). Rita Ora, in a recent appearance at New York's SiriusXM studios, wore a one-armed, cropped and contorted version from Jean Paul Gaultier.

The demand for novel uses of leather in the music world is such that a number of indie designers are jumping in. Cota has created everything from a leather hooded corset for Nicki Minaj to a patched overcoat pieced from thrift-store leather finds for Manson. The designer chalks up the current laissez-faire style - both loud and comfortable - to ­hip-hop's grip on fashion. "With the influence of streetwear, which is about ease, there are so many different ways you can wear leather," says Cota. "Now, it works for all types of musicians."

But the modern look isn't all about loose, sporty shapes. Urban fashion has "a balance of masculine and feminine," says Malakai Hom, the milliner behind House of Malakai, a year-old accessories line, also based in Bali, that's known for its bold leather hats. Those athletic cuts, says Hom, are juxtaposed with styles that scream sex appeal. His own work, which has decorated the famous domes of Minaj, Beyonce and Rihanna, is rife with kinky references to bondage, military uniforms and medieval headgear (read: Game of Thrones). "I tried other materials, but they didn't have the same edge or feel as leather, which is always sexy - almost primal," says Hom.

Indeed, leather can act, well, like a second skin. Of-the-moment examples include BLK DNM's cropped, super-slim biker jackets, which have a sharper attitude than the oversized punk originals, notes Johan Lindeberg, the line's founder; Rubin Singer's itty-bity, laser-cut leather bodysuit for Beyonce's Super Bowl XLVII performance; and Norisol Ferrari's curve-hugging pants that the designer says easily zip up (and down) from the back.

Perhaps even more intriguing is leather's ability to come off as both alluring and tough. When Ferrari designs custom leather stage costumes for her musician clients, they're "almost like armor," she says. Similarly, Singer's creations for Bey were inspired by the Valkyries, female characters in Norse mythology that decide which soldiers die in battle and which can live. Cota, too, likes the idea of leather taking on a tenacious character. His latest collection, for fall 2014, interprets streetwear for a future Ice Age, he says, featuring protective shapes like high-necked coats and caped jackets. Perhaps this explains Justin Bieber nestling into his Skingraft "Sub Zero" bomber jacket while being swarmed by media as he turned himself in to police (for an expected assault charge) in January.

In fact, Cota believes we're in a moment where nearly anything leather goes. "A lot of designers are embracing leather because of where musicians are willing to take it," says Cota. "There's a real synergy right now."


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