Ever since Jean Paul Gaultier’s Les Tatouages collection in 1994, tattoos on the catwalk have been a mark of rebellious artistry. But it’s not just designers who are celebrating ink. In an industry that once encouraged its poster girls to keep their bodies as blank as canvases, models with tattoos like Cara Delevingne and Freja Beha Erichsen are proudly displaying their art on their sleeves.
Tattoos on the Catwalk
Jean Paul Gaultier's Spring ready-to-wear show in 1994 was a riot of colour and punkish graffiti print. Every part of it signalled his outsider status, and what better way to revel in a disobedient nature than with tattoos? Vogue called it a “startling vision of cross-culture harmony”, referencing at Gaultier’s fusion of Indian and African influences, as well as his inclusion of outsize and graphic tribal tattoo designs.
From that point on, Gaultier started reworking a punk spirit into his collections and collaborations. Nautical tattoos and Breton stripes were mainstays in his earlier work, while the designer has taken inspiration from Japanese artistry more recently, adorning everything from shoes to Coke bottles in elegantly illustrated Koi carp.
However, the ’94 show in itself was a nod to the designers’ protégé, Martin Margiela. Five years prior, for SS89, Margiela created a collection of sheer, trompe l'oeil tops emblazoned with tattoo artwork.
In his Spring 2010 show, Karl Lagerfeld turned body art into that summer’s most sought-after accessory when he showcased tattoos on the catwalk in the form of models with delicate transfer tattoos – later made available for purchase. The sleek chain-link designs gave the rest of his pastel-hued collection a darker edge, yet they felt as feminine as the iconic Chanel jacket.
Just a year later, for his Spring 2011 ready-to-wear collection Christopher Kane covered tees and dresses in tattoo prints akin to those etched onto the skin of the yakuza, or the Japanese mafia, in a collection dominated by twee neon twinsets and dubbed “Princess Margaret on Acid”.
For Couture SS14, Margiela revisited body art as a haute concept. This time, however, hearts and pin-up girls were intricately embroidered, collage style, into vests. That same year, for his SS14 ready-to-wear show, Henry Holland nodded to the tattoo parlours of Venice Beach with roses and suns designed in the American tradition appliquéd on top of feminine dresses.
And the trend has continued. In early 2016, the iconic skull scarf from Alexander McQueen was injected with new ink. Traditional tattoo designs nestle between the grinning skulls to add an extra element of rebellion. Urban label Dsquared2 has embellished its sleek silhouettes with tattoo-inspired illustrations, and also offers vibrantly hued bodysuits plastered in overlapping parrots and botanicals.
Ink on Models
Kate Moss paved the way for ink on models with the swallows on her lower back, painted permanently onto her skin by world-renowned artist Lucien Freud.
Cara Delevingne has followed in Moss’s footsteps. The model-turned-actress is renowned for her ever-growing collection of tattoos, with the lion’s head on her finger being perhaps the most notable. The creature has featured in an ad for Tag Heuer, in which it roars out from under a spotlight, and is shaped into rivets on a Mulberry-Delevingne collaboration handbag.
Giamba even sent its own models down the catwalk in 2015 in crosses, stars and moons reminiscent of Delevingne’s delicate designs.
Another tattoo superfan is Freja Beha Erichsen, who has achieved considerable success on the catwalk and in campaigns despite her 13 ultra-recognisable tattoo designs. Each of her intricate drawings is inscribed with a personal meaning: from the scroll script ‘float’ on the back of her neck to the oddly pretty revolver on the inside of her arm.
Erichsen has never been held back by her numerous tattoos: she was walking for Prada shortly after breaking into the industry and is a regular on the runway and in ad campaigns for Chanel.
One of the most notorious models with tattoos is Rick Genest, otherwise known as Zombie Boy. The man with the corpse-like body art from head to toe was first discovered by Lady Gaga and Thierry Mugler’s fashion director Nicola Formichetti. His foray into fashion was with the label, first in a 2011 ad campaign and later on the catwalk. Since then, his unmistakable form has been seen in music videos, films and fashion campaigns across the globe.
Bradley Soileau is another tattooed model who has been commandeered by pop culture. He's known for his myriad tattoos, including the quote "War inside my head" just below his hairline, and has appeared in three of Lana Del Rey's music videos.
In Love Moschino’s AW15 ad campaign, models Daga Ziober and Daan van der Deen are painted with monochrome roses to match the colourful cartoonish botanicals on their clothing. They pose on a motorbike with Ziober’s hair slicked onto her face, playing heavily on the idea of subversiveness and counterculture.
While everyone from Diesel to Valentino seems to be tapping into tattoos for their campaigns, brands still seem to consider the artform as having an outlier status. Yet as more co-opt this tattoo fashion trend on the catwalk, seems to be multiplying rather than fading away.