Pleasure Principle

Why Beyoncé and Gaga Love Zana Bayne’s Bondage Couture

Zana Bayne is best-known for her high-end fetishwear as worn by the likes of Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, and Madonna. Now, appropriately, she has an exhibit at New York’s Museum of Sex.

They’ve designed high-end bondagewear for the likes of Madonna and Marina Abramović, and are credited for popularizing the fetish aesthetic in fashion. Now, the design duo known as Zana Bayne is giving the public a chance to see their sculptural creations up close with a new exhibition at the Museum of Sex in New York City.

There, in a dimly lit dungeon of sorts, Zana Bayne and her co-creative director Todd Pendu greet me beside the exhibition’s centerpiece: four mannequins in red leather bodysuits, adorned with black harnesses and leashes that extend up to the ceiling in an intricate web.

A handful of bespoke pieces worn by their famous clients are displayed like Batman’s suits along the left wall of the museum’s basement: Beyoncé’s cone-shaped leather bra from her “Sorry” video; the full-body black harness Lady Gaga wore in her 2011 “You and I” music video; the pentagram-shaped white harness Debbie Harry rocked over a black tee at Glastonbury in 2014, and other custom designs worn by Madonna, Nicki Minaj, Gwen Stefani, and Katy Perry.

Bayne left high school at 15, and enrolled in the San Francisco Art Institute to study fine arts. She also worked at a high-end boutique, but her true passions were visible in her blog, Garbage Dress, in which she captured the fashion and folk of clubland in Berlin, New York, and San Francisco (where she lived until 2009 when she moved to New York full-time). “It was about documenting everyone and everything around me. I was in the Mission, Tenderloin, Castro, wherever the party was: everything from drag shows to noise shows and punk.”

Somehow, Bayne, says stylists found out who she was, “through the blog or through the ether.” Once in New York City, the stylist Nicola Formichetti rang her up to commission 10 pieces for Gaga’s “You and I” video—nine of them for dancers and one for Gaga.

“Those were the early days when it was just me and an intern making pieces out of my apartment, so I was still experimenting with whether or not I could even turn it into a brand,” says Bayne, 28, who created her first lookbook in 2010 and officially launched the brand in 2011.

Pendu, who is 43 and worked as a stylist and the manager of a record label before teaming up with Bayne in 2012, is now co-creative director of the company.

It’s an interesting dynamic: Bayne and Pendu are partners in business and in life, though they decline to go into much detail about how they met (“the full story is too cheesy,” Bayne insists) and are reticent when pressed about their romantic relationship.

“We try to stay away from conversations about our personal life,” says Bayne.

Pendu doubles down: “The pieces we make that go out in the world have nothing to do with us.”

My persistent questions about whether they’re intimately familiar with BDSM are mostly met with awkward silences and smiles. “We’ll leave that to the imagination,” Bayne allows at one point.

Beyond this tantalizing non-admission, Bayne and Pendu are all business. They betray nothing of difficulties others might face when running a company with their significant other or spouse. “You see people in a similar position trying to separate life from work, but neither of us does that,” says Pendu. “If we’re awake, we’re working.”

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It was Pendu who coined the term “post-fetish fashion” to describe the Zana Bayne brand. “We wanted to acknowledge the underlying inspiration but also convey that there’s much more to what we’re doing,” he says.

Just as E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey franchise brought BDSM to the mainstream, Zana Bayne has elevated accessories traditionally associated with underground fetish and punk scenes to pop culture and high fashion.

Bayne only began making simple harnesses by hand out of her apartment in 2010, and within three years had designed pieces for Gaga, Blondie, Madonna, and fashion insiders at the Met Ball. Beyoncé’s army of dancers wore Zana Bayne harnesses during her politically charged, Super Bowl halftime show last year.

“By the time the designs were confirmed for production, we only had a few days to make everything—and even at that point, we didn’t know for sure that the pieces would be worn in the show,” says Bayne. “The moment all of the dancers came out in the leather that we designed was completely surreal.”

She and Pendu have also collaborated with fashion legends like Marc Jacobs and Comme des Garçons. CDG designer Rei Kawakubo owns several Zana Bayne pieces herself, and Debbie Harry is not just a client but a friend. Jill Kargman, creator of Bravo’s Odd Mom Out, is also Zana Bayne superfan.

“She wears some of our biggest, most intricate pieces because she totally gets what we’re doing and embraces it,” Bayne says of Kargman.

Beyond the star credits, Bayne and Pendu have built a successful retail brand of bondage-inspired clothing and accessories: tops, bustiers, skirts, shoes, hats, bags, lingerie, belts, suspenders, and sock garters, with prices ranging from $90 for a pair of pierced leather pasties to $925 for a studded handbag. (Most of these pieces could be considered genderless, though Bayne and Pendu distinguish their women’s collections from their men’s.)

The line is sold in department stores like Selfridges in London and Nordstrom’s in the U.S., as well as at high-end boutiques like Opening Ceremony and Dover Street Market. Bayne and Pendu hinted that several other retailers will soon carry their pieces, which are also available on the Zana Bayne website and on Net-a-Porter.

Remarkably, they have accomplished all of this without advertising and with a small team: four full-time staffers and a rotating cast of interns in the atelier. The brand’s continuing growth has precipitated an imminent move from the Garment District in New York to the Arts District in Los Angeles, where atelier spaces are bigger and more cost-effective.

But Bayne and Pendu say the line’s “major presence” will remain in their New York City showroom.

Conceptually, the brand hasn’t changed much in the six years since it launched.

“It’s about rebellion and using one accessory to transform an entire outfit,” says Bayne, adding that their more complex pieces are a result of “expanding on a simple concept,” like a strip of leather on a basic harness. “If one line can be transformative, why not turn it into a pattern for a bag or a skirt?”

Bayne and Pendu say they’re following in the tradition of designers like Vivienne Westwood, who first introduced fetishwear to fashion in the 1970s with her “Sex” boutique in London that catered to the city’s punk scene. In the ’80s and ’90s, designers like Jean-Paul Gaultier, Thierry Mugler, and Alexander McQueen incorporated the bondage aesthetic in their collections.

“The ‘post-fetish’ thing is meant to break a lot of traditions associated with BDSM,” says Pendu. “Fetishwear has a very specific meaning to people in that culture, but we want our clients to bring their own meaning to our accessories. And people don’t seem confused by that. It’s very clear what we’re trying to do.”

The Zana Bayne Collaboration with the Museum of Sex is on view at the MoS until Sept. 30. Details here.