Among the more polarizing sights in Manhattan this spring were the Madison Avenue windows of Barneys New York, an unlikely showcase for a series of mannequins. They were ringers for the real-life models who stalked the Hood by Air men’s runway in January, right down to their elaborate tattoos and the uncanny grillwork distorting their grins.
During a recent week, passers-by stood welded to the spot, challenged to make what they could of the scene, a curious hybrid of street theater and fashion porn. “Obviously, this was done by an artist,” Paul Roberts, a visitor from Edinburgh, said appreciatively. “It goes beyond window dressing, doesn’t it?”
But Claudia Brien, a young Upper East Side matron, pronounced those vitrines “beyond disgusting.”
“I pass them most days, but I go out of my way to keep my children away,” Ms. Brien said.
Love them or loathe them, the windows, their mannequins lurching toward spectators, lips ringed in jeweled pacifiers, “skin” elaborately inked, were a come-on. They were as surely a testament to a widening fascination with body modification in its most eye-popping extremes: allover tattoos, subdermal implants, piercing, stretching, scarring, branding and the like.
Shayne Oliver, the chief creative force behind Hood by Air, has been quick to exploit that fascination. Of a piece with his musical collaborations on and off the runway, the display was a calculated provocation, in tune, as Mr. Oliver likes to say, with “the language of flamboyancy, the language of exaggeration.”
At the same time, the windows “opened a door to a very interesting dialogue,” said Dennis Freedman, the Barneys creative director. “You start to become familiar with something that at first might be frightening. But I suspect that, over time, people do acclimate.”
As they say, the eye adjusts. Facial and body piercings, ear gauging, dental grills and tribal ink were once the province of so-called deviant or subversive subcultures. Explorations of extreme body modification, a practice so widespread in some circles that it was deemed a movement, have been lavishly documented in books like the 1989 body-mod bible “Modern Primitives.”
Fashion has certainly played a part: at Givenchy’s spring 2016 show, models’ ears were encrusted in crystals and studs, their faces covered in glued-on jewels, beads and swaths of lace; at Rodarte, models’ eyebrows were embellished with rows of tiny hoops, while those at Dries Van Noten wore long, fitted gloves stenciled with tattoo-like markings.
Then there are the show people: Rihanna and FKA Twigs, gracing the covers of the fashion glossies; Kendall Jenner, who wore a silver-dollar-size ceremonial nose ring at Coachella in 2014; and Justin Bieber, showing off a small freshly inked cross beneath his left eye on his Instagram feed.
Those kinds of subtle markings work “for every walk of life, whether you’re a model or a barista at Starbucks,” JonBoy, Mr. Bieber’s tattoo artist, toldPret-a-Reporter this week. “It’s like you can wear an accessory and look elegant and sophisticated and sexy at the same time.”
The other day, Catherine Hay, a 45-year-old marketing and communications specialist with a corporate clientele, lay stretched on a surgery table at the End Is Near, an upmarket piercing salon in Park Slope, Brooklyn. After months of deliberation, she had decided to have her navel pierced.