Harnesses are everywhere right now: on catwalks, red carpets, Berlin dance floors and in highstreet shops. At the peak of this fashion wave sits British designer Tommy Vowles, whose goth-inspired brand was perfectly placed to meet the moment, now selling worldwide and being copied by big brands.
A visit to Vowles’ Friedrichshain atelier reveals what helped him ascend to the top of the trend: authenticity, determination and impeccable timing.
“I wanted the goth girls to want to take pictures in here,” Vowles says as he gazes around the workspace he moved into last Halloween. Pitch-black walls enclose the small room, adorned with gold-framed portraits of goths in leather outfits. There are dried flowers and black candles, an Oriental rug stretching across the floorboards and a 1930s Dior mannequin on a shelf, wistfully resting her head on her hands. Below it sprawls a red velvet sofa, roses carved into its dark wooden frame, and across the room, set into an antique desk, sits a mid-century Pfaff sewing machine.
This is where Vowles spends most of his time, crafting made-to-measure harnesses, waist belts, collars and cuffs, all from vegan materials (Vowles, like many in the goth scene, has long been plant-based) and made-to-measure. His designs are so popular that it’s not uncommon for customers to have to wait for six weeks before receiving a piece – even though Vowles works hard to fill orders, sometimes making as many as 10 of his best-selling accessory – the double ring double chain cincher belt – in a day.
The 35-year-old first started selling his designs in 2017 via Instagram, where he shares his style offerings with his now sizable following in dark, alluring photos. But the brand’s true beginnings date back to the London goth scene he was part of as a teenager.
“I reckon I was probably like 14 or 15 when I got into that scene,” he says. “Finding a place where I could just be so unapologetically myself was amazing. Where all those weird quirks that people made fun of me about were really celebrated.” He points to a framed photo on the wall behind him. Clad in all black, a skinny teen with bushy black hair like The Cure’s Robert Smith strikes a pose. “That’s what I looked like.”
While being a goth gave Vowles purpose, it also opened up a very adult world. “I went to a lot of fetish parties when I was way too young to be in those places. But I was just so obsessed with the look,” he explains. He started collecting magazines like Skin Two, developing a fascination with the suggestive style that would become inspiration for accessories he’d make years later.
Finding a place where I could just be so unapologetically myself was amazing.
“These two together, gothic glamour and vintage erotica, were always something that was going to happen,” Vowles says. “It was definitely reflected a lot in my personal style then, as well. I felt like I was always working towards this mentally, and then this combination of fetish and goth just happened to blow up in fashion at the same time as I was building my brand.”
Time passed before Vowles learned to capitalise on his creative talent. Even though he enrolled in a Fashion degree in East London, partying always came first. After graduating in 2009, Vowles bounced from retail job to retail job, sometimes working in call centres.
In 2014, he came to Berlin in pursuit of its infamous nightlife, and eventually landed a short-lived marketing job that would be his last office gig. “They sacked me,” he says. “What I learned was that I’m actually very good at marketing. I’m just not good at marketing things I don’t care about.” Vowles laughs, but the rapid growth of his own brand, which he started while still working the marketing job, testifies to the truth of the statement.
Harnessing the success of his signature style would have been impossible, though, without one big change in his life. In 2017, Vowles gave up drinking. “I was 29, so I felt like I was getting to that point where you start to worry about not having a career. I was like, ‘I want to give this thing a go that I’ve wanted to do forever,’ but I knew that I couldn’t do both.”
He replaced his nights out with nights in at the sewing machine. “I needed to get sober in order to be able to do this stuff. It was really important, and I see the brand as the manifestation of my sobriety and the work that I’ve put into myself. They’re the two things that really grew alongside each other and it’s been a real journey on both ends.” It’s a journey that Vowles openly shares with his ever-growing following, using his platform not just for business, but also to help others struggling with the same issues.
Sobriety and hard work weren’t the only decisive factors in the brand’s success. One of fetish fashion’s first mainstream moments was Timothée Chalamet’s red carpet appearance at the 2019 Golden Globes, where the actor wore a Louis Vuitton glitter harness – that same year, Vowles went full-time with his business.
Since then, ‘fetishcore’ has secured its place in popular fashion, reinforced by the likes of Julia Fox, Dua Lipa and Zoë Kravitz. According to global fashion technology company Lyst, searches for ‘harness’ went up by 132% in 2022, and on TikTok, #leatherharness has garnered over 17 million views. Now, the accessory can be seen sported by anyone looking for an easy way to add some ‘edge’ to their outfits. The original goth and fetish scenes, meanwhile, are only an afterthought, if they’re thought of at all.
Seeing his own subculture fall prey to the mainstream, Vowles can’t help feeling a slight pang of frustration – but he also appreciates the benefits, and not just from the perspective of a business owner.
“I like that more people have their eyes on it. If you look at things like [the Netflix show] Wednesday – I hated it, but I like the idea of a little girl seeing that and relating to it. I remember being a young child and watching MTV and seeing the video from Madonna’s ‘Frozen’. And even though I know that Madonna is somebody that famously steals from subcultures and marginalised groups, I saw something I could see myself in, and then I later learned more about what that was.”
Vowles believes his customers and followers can sense his genuine affection for the style. “I think that what they see in my brand, they can see that it’s a part of my life. I feel like that’s what’s propelled it forward because I do have that history and I have been in that scene since I was a child, basically.”
This same authenticity has compelled big influencers and prolific media personalities like Gottmik, the first open trans man to compete on RuPaul’s Drag Race, to wear his designs. Six months ago, they left Vowles a voice message on Instagram putting in an order for 10 of his harnesses, and Vowles “just burst out crying”.
For all these little “miracles”, as he calls them, Vowles is extremely grateful. But it’s also clear that he’s fought hard for where he is now, jump-starting a career by giving up parties and alcohol, honing his sewing skills and working his fingers to the bone.
Where will his ambitions take him next? “I really want to expand the business. I feel like up until now, it’s been the accessories, and I’ve loved it, but that space has definitely grown since I’ve taken my place in it, and I think that there’s space for seeing the whole outfit,” he says.
“I don’t want to spill too much on what I think that looks like, but I want it to be a Tommy Vowles one-stop shop where you get the whole goth look.”