Even by Lady Gaga's meteoric standards for strangeness, the harnesses that adorn the singer in her new "Yoü and I" video are mind-bogglingly complex. Like many of her most vivid looks, they seem like S&M contraptions at first glance—the sort of ensemble fans probably imagine her wearing at the Berlin techno clubs she frequented while writing Born This Way. "That's part of their immediate appeal," says Zana Bayne, the talented young designer responsible for those fearsome looks, "but it's all about tweaking those concepts, elevating their elements into something else." Her words echo Gaga's simpatico sentiments on the role of context-morphing and appropriation in pop music, so this particular meeting of the minds feels cleverly matched. For a video Gaga describes to MTV as "slightly twisted and confusing—the way love is," a smartly subversive design treatment seems apropos.
Bayne's status as a leathercrafter extraordinaire in the competitive world of fashion editorials is gaining traction after a two-year journey, with Gaga's espousal of her line representing a career-escalating milestone. The designer's initial reaction to discovering that her wares made the final cut for "Yoü and I" was an exclamation of "Oh, fuck!" according to her blog. But as with anything Gaga-oriented, it was a joyous moment of profanity. In today's exclusive, Bayne tells Rolling Stone her role in the design story behind the "Yoü and I" video—in all its leathery glory.
How did Lady Gaga and her team originally encounter your work?
Out of nowhere in February, I got an email from [fashion director] Nicola Formichetti's studio to lend some pieces for a Vogue Hommes Japan shoot. That was exciting, as I respect Formichetti's work and had never lent to a shoot of his before. None of my pieces ran in that editorial, but the next month I got an email with the subject line "LADY GAGA X ZANA BAYNE" from his studio and almost had a heart attack. That time, it was to lend pieces for the "Judas" video. They weren't used then, but in May I was asked to make Lady Gaga's dancers custom gold harnesses for their performance on Saturday Night Live, which was the beginning of my custom work for Team Gaga!
Obviously, she liked what you do since she's now wearing your work quite often, including in "Yoü And I."
I was soon approached to outfit Gaga's dancers for an award show, and create a more intricate piece for Lady Gaga herself. They didn't wear the pieces for the show, but the dancers ended up wearing those harnesses all throughout the tour across Asia and Australia, and Lady Gaga wore the custom piece for a Japanese television show. Then, during the first week of July, I received an email requesting new body harnesses for Lady Gaga and her dancers for an upcoming video shoot. The only guidelines were to basically do what I did for the dancers before, but more! So, I really got to take creative liberty. I sketched out a few different options, and sent them to team Gaga before I began crafting the samples—nine harnesses in total. This time they were used—and quite prominently—in "Yoü and I."
What were some of the unique challenges accompanying dressing Team Gaga?
The main goal for this project was to create something dancers can move in and something that could fit a variety of different sizes.
You used to live in Berlin. Did that inspire your aesthetics the way Gaga claims it has influenced hers?
No. [Laughs.] I never had the stamina to go to Berghain at 4am, to be honest. There's definitely a lot of cool style in Berlin, but there is in New York, too. That's my home.
How does the Zana Bayne aesthetic compliment Lady Gaga's?
Everything is rooted in the traditional S&M harness context. But I'm inspired more by the lines on the body that those harnesses can create than their usage. I am inspired by the formality of the harness, the idea of strips of leather with rings through them. I take it out of the lines and constrictions that are normally done, and experiment with the materials. I take that base form and apply it into different shapes. With Gaga, everything I do is completely customized for her. It only helps my own work! I get to try things I wouldn't normally do, take it to a new level.
As a result, you've evolved what could easily be viewed as a sexy novelty item into something more versatile and sophisticated.
Anything with an S&M root can be very evocative and somewhat controversial. But with what I do, it's about twisting those connotations into a new form. Using what a harness is and turning it into a belt, or a boot strap. One of my most popular pieces was the necklace harness—it uses all the components of a typical harness, but it's not binding at all and can be worn many ways. I guess you could say these are "harnesses as you've never seen them before!" [Laughs.]
How does someone less shock-inclined than Gaga pull off the harness look convincingly?
Styling is incredibly important. In my lookbook, I like to show the looks paired with a white dress shirt or tank top—I always present it as a classic, clean way of dressing. It really is a belt with a suspender. Showed in that form, it truly becomes an accessory, and less of a costume piece. In the summer, I wear the belts! It's a bit too hot for harnesses.
How does having someone like Gaga wear your work translate to your sales?
There's always an aftershock to any media event. The amount of support I receive when I post new media work or collaborations is phenomenal. But with music videos, the average viewer sees a harness; they may not track down who made it. The biggest influx of new requests actually comes after a major fashion editorial has been published, because people seek out the specific looks that intrigue them. That said, more and more musicians are requesting my pieces for their videos and performances. My dream is to someday dress Beyoncé. It almost happened already. Maybe next time!
How long have you been in the leather business? What's the evolution process been like for you?
It's hitting the two year mark. I started messing around with harnesses when I first moved from San Francisco to New York City. It's been a natural evolution since then, going from making one piece to five to having 10 designs. From starting on Etsy to launching an online store, to having a real collection to a showcase. There was never an overarching plan, no beginning or end. It's hard to start something by accident, as I did here, and then keep it going once it takes off!
How are you managing it all?
It's not easy; I'm still more or less doing this myself. I still run the whole operation out of my apartment! Right now, I am dealing with an amazing balance of editorial requests, making new designs, making showroom pieces, shipping new orders. I'm trying to figure out how to shift production in a way to fill the new higher volume of orders—about 40 or more a month. I do have a few lovely interns who help, but it's absolutely still very much a DIY process for me. I kind of love that.