Skintight leather is one of fashion’s perennial fetishes. Hell’s Angels, Black Panthers, Marlon Brando, Peter Marino, Bettie Page and Dasha Zhukova’s leatherette Lycra leggings are prime examples, but until recently it’s been all about second-skin derrieres, not accessories so much. And then Natalia Brilli shows up. Imagine a world where everything you see and touch is covered in the thinnest layer of butter-soft, matte kid leather. Surface detail has been erased and what’s left is an impression, a silhouette instantly recognizable but distant, shadowy and sexy. —Rebecca Voight
When she launched her eponymous accessories brand six years ago in Paris, Brilli was a set designer with a flair for the dramatic. Now, her wallet hinting at the credit cards and small change within, glasses pouch with a pair of frames in silhouette, fat “Nolex” wristwatch that never tells time and passport cover sporting a coat of arms from nowhere have become iconic pieces, which she refines season after season. Like a perfect pair of leather skinnies, Brilli’s accessories reveal their contents without exposing a thing. And it’s this now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t game that has turned her into one of the hottest names in Paris.
As with most Parisian labels, Brilli’s creativity comes with it impeccable craftsmanship. When she wanted to start her own collection while working on accessories for Olivier Theyskens at Rochas, her first thought was gainage, an upholstery technique of wrapping leather around an object. There might be a name for this in English, but peu importe because the French invented the technique and continue to excel at it—along with bookbinding, or reliure. The French have always liked to see people and objects wrapped tightly in leather. That figures, doesn’t it? And it also figures, since handwork ateliers in France are now almost extinct, that Brilli, an Italian from Belgium, produces most of her collection in Italy, where savoir faire meets business as usual, and where the finest leather in the world can be found.
In her Marais showroom, which looks a set of the 1920 silent film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, shoulder bags made entirely of leather fringe share space with skull pouches, motorcycle helmets and skateboards—all in gainage. “I decided to do accessories because there’s more freedom than in fashion,” says Brilli. “There’s no sizes.” That was after studying fashion at La Cambre in Brussels and the French Fashion Institute in Paris, plus five years as a scenographer with the Belgian National Theater. After working for Theyskens, Brilli was ready to direct herself, although she continues accessories design, albeit unsigned, for major houses. “When you work for someone else it’s about their ideas, not yours, and you can only take that so far,” she says. “Olivier doesn’t discuss his ideas. He’s mysterious and keeps to himself, and so the job at Rochas was a matter of second-guessing what would please him.”
She launched her own brand on a lark, never really expecting it would turn into a real business. “I was fascinated by the 30s, Elsa Schiaparelli and Surrealism in Paris. Back then the French were doing gainage in galuchat (sharkskin). Think Jean Michel Franck’s white walls for Madeleine Vionnet’s home at that time. I became fascinated by this technique, which had fallen out of fashion and had practically disappeared. It was considered vulgar, kind of S&M, and no one had tried accessories in gainage. I wanted to bring the nobility back to this technique.” Brilli’s first collection in 2004 was “bourgeois,” as in pearl necklaces and silk scarves, the perfect contrast to her themes now. The Musée Galliera, Paris’s fashion museum, showed her pieces and buyers began asking for a collection. Maria Luisa in Paris, Browns in London, Louis in Antwerp and Barneys New York were early converts. And in 2006, Brilli won France’s prestigious ANDAM prize.
Brilli, 39, credits her style to her father, an Italian “dandy” from Perugia who always dressed impeccably. And today, although she’s still into gainage, she’s branched out into fringe, fur, burnt wood and feathers. “I don’t want what I do to be summed up by just one technique. My only criteria is beauty,” says Brilli. “And I don’t feel limited to accessories. I need drama in my life and I’ve become increasingly interested in objects.” Brilli did a limited edition of ten guitars in full gainage this spring and sold several of them. This inspired her to add a Marshall amp, drum set and a band of gainage skeletons, which are currently on a world tour of shops that carry her collection. It’s a long way from the bourgeois strand of pearls that started it all, but skintight leather has a way of moving to its own beat.