If you're not into wasting hours of your life every night trawling through Wikipedia looking at movie trivia and inane facts about serial killers, then you probably won't be that familiar with Ed Gein. However, you should get to know, as ol' Ed had arguably the most relevance to fashion out of any of history's notorious killers. Instead of disposing of the bodies, he decided to channel some of his venomous passion for killing into a kitschy sideline of arts and crafts, turning victims into charming belts made out of their nipples and face masks made out of their skin.
French artist Olivier Goulet's work looks alarmingly similar to how I imagined Gein's creations, only Olivier makes all of his SkinBag range out of synthetic human skin, rather than savagely butchering people and using their remains in demented power rituals. Let me just reiterate: Olivier Goulet makes high concept art fashion out of synthetics, he doesn't kill people for kicks. I had a chat with him to see why he chose human skin as his art medium and not something more normal like, say, paint, or literally anything else.
The Domestic Slough aka a full-body skin suit.
VICE: When and why did you first think it was a good idea to start manufacturing clothes out of synthetic human skin?
Olivier Goulet: Well, I started SkinBag in 1997 with an art project called The Bone Bag where I split up all the matter that makes up human beings, until I managed to divide it into two distinct artistic propositions: The Relic of the Bionic Man and SkinBag. The Relic of the Bionic Man explores the relationship between man and machine and SkinBag explores everything that surrounds that. So, on one side you have the skin – a flabby container without a structure, on the other, a skeletal structure without an envelope. Then I started really developing SkinBag into what it is now in 2001.
Have you ever thought about using real human skin in any of your work?
No, human skin just wouldn't work, even if I wanted it to. It's too thin and brittle when it's dry and too big and unworkable when it's alive. I mean, it's used in a medical domain to cover damaged body parts and stuff, but not as leather. It just wouldn't work.
Ah, that's a shame. What about using leather or some sort of treated animal skin? Or can you not be bothered with the inevitable PETA issues?
Well, the whole idea of the SkinBag project is actually to propose an alternative to fabric and leather, so no, I've never wanted to use any animal products. I have no ideological engagement with PETA, but thinking about it, SkinBag could weirdly become quite a good symbol for them because it demonstrates you can make great synthetic skin without harming any animals. Although, I suppose it might be a bit too close to the flesh for them.
_SkinBag's original skin bag. _
*True. Do you think using synthetic skin makes your products kind of primal and sexy at all? Was that your intention? *
I see SkinBag as an unusual mix of something primal – coming from our origin, somewhere deep in us—and something futuristic, with the idea of mutation and everything. In either case, sex isn't far away. But one of the most important SkinBag concepts is that, while traditional garments try to turn the natural appearance of our skin into fabric, the SkinBags remain looking as lifelike as possible.
What about the horror element of it? The first thing I thought when I saw them was 'Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs'. Surely there was a bit of that in there when you first started designing the SkinBag stuff?
Yeah, you're right. I've noticed that I often work with materials or concepts that provoke a feeling of disgust and I think it's because my natural way of communication is a kind of mix of provocation, irony and concept, because that seems to be the best way to start a reflection on complex thoughts. Provocation is the best way to be attract attention, irony adds a funny side to whatever happens, and there has to be a concept to give a rational ground to the emotional reaction.
*So what kind of responses have you had from the products? Do people generally find them quite dark and morbid? *
Well, the material is intriguing and is inviting everyone to interpret it in their own way. Some women see the bags as a "portable placenta" and the handles as umbilical cords. Others completely refuse any contact, even any discussion in some cases, because they just get dominated by their disgust for it. Luckily, most people feel naturally attracted to them and have an instinctive desire to touch them, which is what I was hoping for. SkinBag has to be a sensual vehicle, I want it to provoke the desire to caress.
The Social Condom, which can be worn as a cape, coat, or skirt. It also doubles up as a sleeping bag, if you're into sleeping inside faces.
What's the Social Condom about?
I think there's a level of poetry to it: a cloak of sleeping faces surrounds you and acts as a network of friends or guardian angels – a cape dreamed by gods or fairies, if you will. I suppose it's a kind of an alternative to Facebook, but instead of clicking a button to become someone's friend, you cement your existing friendship by having their face cast.
So do people have them custom-made with their own friends' faces implanted?
Well, it’s a very long and difficult process from the cast of the models' faces to the definitive mold, but if enough people are interested – round 30 – then I'd make a new cape for anyone. A few days ago I met a manager who wanted a cape with all his workers' faces on it, so we'll see what happens there.
The skin burqa.
*Ha ha, whoa. What about your skin burqa? You're based in France where burqas are banned, was it intended as some kind of statement against that? *
Yes, I’m completely against it. It's an entirely demagogic law that just seems to be there to divide people and pit one against another on a very low level, which is something our pseudo-president excels in. Saying that, the more I worked on the burqa project, the less I saw a link with the Muslim community. I actually became more interested in a global non-humanoid shape and the possibility of creating a new geography for our body.
And what about the wedding dress? It's quite a statement, do you know if anyone's ever worn one at their wedding?
A woman from Luxembourg contacted me because she wanted to get married in an incredible dress and she liked the provocative side of SkinBag. She visited me two or three times to talk about her dress, but her idea of “incredible” became more and more mainstream so I stopped the project because she just wasn't ready for something that out there.
Ah, that sucks. Those wedding photos would have been amazing. Lastly, how do you go about pricing your stuff? Do you view it all as art and price it accordingly?
I consider them all as complete pieces of art, just like the rest of my work. Of course, I have to find the right balance – not so high that no one can afford anything and not too low because the raw material is very expensive. I need a lot of time to produce them too, because I don’t want to end up being a slave to my work.