Photo courtesy of Toxic Vision
As was made more apparent than ever by this week's kerfuffle over H&M's hideous new line of faux metal wear, mainstream fashion brands are absolutely garbage at appropriating heavy metal's style (as well as those of multitudinous other cultures). We get it, you know? Heavy metal's aesthetic rules—black leather, studs, spikes, bullet belts, and tight denim look really fucking cool (...usually), and it makes sense that some fashion designers may take some inspiration from that world. Black metal especially gets a lot of attention, thanks to its monochrome palette and oh-so-versatile use of corpsepaint. Fashion and metal have intertwined in interesting and clever ways before (with even punk goddess Vivienne Westwood horning in on the fun), but results vary wildly.
"Take some inspiration from" is not quite the same thing as "rip off and completely screw up," and unfortunately, the latter is almost always what big brands do—with a generous price markup, of course. You can purchase a sick T-shirt from almost any metal band you can think of for under twenty bucks and line their pockets in the process; instead, these companies charge hundreds of dollars for cheap-looking, half-assed "edgy" junk.
Remember when this abomination from Urban Outfitters hit the interwebs? How about these astonishly unflattering metal logo-ish sweatpants from Kokan Dozai gracing the bums of Kanye and Rihanna? Metal even shows up on high fashion runways... kind of (fashion people really love corpsepaint). As much fun as it is to see Chris Brown being taken to task for his Cro-Mags couture jacket, one does wish there was a happy middle ground. The jeans-and-a-black-T-shirt uniform can get a little boring, especially if you've been wearing it religiously since you first nicked your Dad's CD copy of Ride the Lightning in seventh grade. What's a fashion-forward metalhead to do?
Photo courtesy of Actual Pain
Nowadays, those of us who are fed up with altering our own shirts actually have some options, and small, independent clothing lines are the way to go. Brands like Actual Pain, Cvlt Nation, Toxic Vision, Blackmeans, Kylla Custom Rockwear, and a solid handful of others are created by people who not only give a shit about metal, they come from metal—and that shows in both their designs and their company policies. TJ Cowgill, founder and head stuff-doer at Actual Pain (as well as frontman for neofolk favorites King Dude), takes a pragmatic approach. "I play music, so it would be weird to rip off other musicians or co-op a look if I didn't feel that I was personally involved in it," he explained via email. "I first started by making logos for shirts for this brand called Rockers NYC. They would pay me $100 per design. Then I saw that they were selling shirts for like $50 to kids in Japan and thought I'd better get in on the action myself, so that's why I started Actual Pain."
Photo courtesy of Cvlt Nation
Cvlt Nation had a similar start, its founders Meghan McRae and Sean Reveron caught up in a perfect storm of passion for metal, punk, art, fashion, and DIY. The brand has blossomed, bolstered by its eponymous website (a now-crucial resource for underground music) and the sheer enthusiasm and drive behind the husband and wife team. "It all started in 2010, when we found Doomsday Graphics on MySpace," Megan McRae recalls." We commissioned a couple of awesome punk-influenced designs from him for the last season of our old clothing company, and they were our favorite shirts from that season. Later the same year we went to the first Power of the Riff in LA, and we were really feeling the disconnect between the culture/community we loved and the clothing we were making. When I got pregnant a couple months later, we decided to start a new company that we could run from home with our kid. We realized that we should be making the clothes that we wanted to wear, inspired by and supporting the music and culture we were a part of, so we came up with CVLT Nation."
The brand has a history of enlisting the talents of photographers like Samantha Marble and artists like Rainbath Visual and Mark Riddick in their designs, too, giving back to the world they're inhabiting (and making a profit from) thanks to their own big hearts and strong ethics.
"The majority of our designs, when they're not done by us, are commissioned from artists who are a part of the global metal and punk communities. They are tattoo artists, musicians and illustrators who live to create and whose aesthetic goes deeper than just a style of drawing, it's who they are in their life," Megan McRae explains. "Some other examples of people we work with on designs are Arik Roper, the artistic genius behind bands like Sleep, High On Fire and Weedeater; Daniel Corcuera, tattoo artist and member of Chilean black metal band Slaughtbbath; Alexander Brown, who has drawn for a ton of bands, like Nails, Witchrist, Mitochondrion, Bolzer etc.; Norot, not only a sick illustrator, but also a musician in his own right. The idea is that the clothing isn't just inspired by metal and punk, but that it's supporting artists in the community. Plus, if someone likes a design we put out, it may inspire them to check out the artist, and in turn check out the bands he or she has drawn for. We want the brand to be symbiotic with the community."
Photo courtesy of Toxic Vision
In keeping with metal's fierce individualism, two of the most intriguing new metal fashion brands are run by singular women. Sharon Ehman of Toxic Vision is a lone wolf, hand-sewing each and every aspect of her ultra-limited, often malevolently fanciful collections, and modeling each piece herself. There's a definite exclusivity about her pieces, and some of her more otherwordly creations would look more at home in Milan or Paris than up front at a Marduk show, but that's part of their appeal; Ehman bridges the gap between haute couture and heavy metal in a way that's seldom seen, incorporating a seamstress' keen eye and a hesher's love of dark, spooky looks to create an incredibly popular cult favorite of fans and musicians alike.
Photo courtesy of Kylla Custom Rock Wear
The distressed denim-heavy Kylla Custom Rock Wear (helmed by Kim Dylla, a.k.a. Vulvatron of GWAR) follows a similar solitary approach. Dylla painstakingly whips up her made-to-order distinctive garments from scratch at her home in Virginia and often travels across the globe to deliver them in person to the rockstars and metal fans who swear by them.
Photo courtesy of Blackmeans
On the pricier end, Blackmeans from Japan is a fine example of how high fashion and heavy metal can coexist; the people behind the products actually understand the aesthetic and how it all fits together, and it shows in their creations. The label skews more towards the higher-end of ready-wear fashion, designing around a dark, hardcore punk-inspired palette. Though some of its recent looks run riot in studs and jewel tones, the backbone of the line is denim and (beautifully-crafted) leather.
Photo courtesy of Actual Pain
If H&M et al were clever, they'd cop a little of that sweet, sweet subcultural cachet for themselves by licensing designs from companies like these (or directly from bands, like they did with Slayer and Metallica); as it is, you've seen where they went instead. "I think it's pretty funny, to be honest," Cowgill says. "I always try and imagine who are the types of people that buy that sort of stuff? Or punk shirts from Urban Outfitters? Pre-studded leather jackets? C'mon, who buys it? We made a conscious decision a long time ago not to sell to them or other stores that we felt betrayed our message with the brand... That was probably not the best decision for my pocket book ,but at least I have no trouble sleeping at night."
McRae is less charitable in her take. "Metal and punk are very community-based and supportive of each other's creativity, and at their core they are anti-mainstream culture. Not only that, they're not just fashion trends, they are cultures with a way of life and worldview tied to them," she states firmly. "To boil all that down to a stereotyped 'look' to sell for a season or two is fundamentally ignorant and insulting to people who have dedicated their lives to these cultures. It just shows a lack of culture and ethics on the company's part."
Photo courtesy of Cvlt Nation
One does wonder, though, if there is a way that mainstream fashion (or even high fashion) can access metal's aesthetic without coming across as predatory or clueless.
"A few years back we were gonna do a collaboration with Pentagram and I was pretty excited about it. But one thing I think Bobby and I both quickly realized is that if a brand makes a shirt for a band it sort of immediately becomes overpriced merch. Because merch for that band already exists. When you buy something from a brand you are buying a piece of art, something hopefully more unique and interesting than band merch," Cowgill opines. "Although now I think some bands are making merch that is more interesting that some clothing brands that are making clothes for the sake of 'fashion'."
"For mainstream or high fashion? No. By their definitions they are the antithesis of what metal stands for. I mean, how many Gucci bags have I seen at metal shows? Zero," McRae laughs. "But there are brands that are creating some really wonderful metal and punk-inspired clothing. They're mostly smaller companies, run by people who have been a part of metal and punk and are passionate about these cultures. These are people who have been a part of the underground and truly appreciate the music and culture that inspires the clothing they make. But their clothes don't appeal to the mainstream for exactly that reason."
McRae's positivity is inspiring, but Cowgill's ultimate summation of the whole things is hard to argue against—and a pretty fucking metal way to look at it.
"At the end of the day though, who really fucking cares. It's a fucking coat. Buy it or don't."
Kim Kelly is sorely tempted to blow her next paycheck entirely on black leather - she's on Twitter.