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  • Writer's pictureTracy J. Jawad

Fashion Meets Flesh in Fambie’s Realized Fantasies

New York-based piercer Kaia Martin talks punk, piercings, and possibilities.

 

Photos courtesy of Cassie Zhang (@cassiezyz).

Feathers, frocks, fringe. Vamps holding vapes. Bleached hair in hues of platinum and pink. Smokey eyes and thick liner. Gelled hair that spikes gravity. No hair at all. Tattooed necks. Tattooed scalps. Tattooed arms. Music that drums your heart like caffeine. 


The rise of Instagram Reels and TikTok has produced an array of trends, aesthetics, and subcultures marketed toward young women trying to understand themselves and their place in the world. Downtown’s resident piercer, Kaia Martin (who also goes by Fambie), rejects these calls with a radical self-acceptance reminiscent of New York’s bygone era. 


This is unbridled self-expression where you’re most likely to find it: crammed inside Lines New York’s studio on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, everybody impatient for the show to start. When the music cuts to a mix, the models ascend. Each person is so distinct in their sense of self that no two models look alike in height, shape, or size, but they all carry the same ethereal air. 


Each outfit is complimented by a geometrical piercing pattern laced up by hoops, ribbons, and bows. One model has overlapping chains draped on her stomach; another’s face is crossed out by red ribbons. A pair of breasts are accentuated by a corset, the areolas framed by five-point stars. A back is threaded together in a delicate flower sequence. White ribbons are pierced into the shape of ribs across one model’s torso and corseted down the backs of thighs and forearms on others. A left eye and neck are knit together by thick, black ribbon and tied into a fragile bow at the end. 


The models strut down the runway three times, giving the viewer more time to absorb the catalog of looks, which now seem incomplete without the piercings. The crowd grimaces, gasps, and applauds, craning their necks to photograph the grotesque and surreal sight of pain upcycled and reimagined into beauty. Cue Kia Martin, the brains behind the show, who appears at the front of the studio in a monochromatic chrome outfit. 


“First of all, make some noise for all the piercers.” 


Photos courtesy of Cassie Zhang (@cassiezyz).

At just five feet, Kaia commands the space immediately. On a regular day, she assembles herself like an AI-generated image of clashing patterns in polka dot, plaid, or paisley, and a disharmony of colors, all wrapped up in lace, spandex, mesh, or denim. The 23-year-old Virginia-native/New York-transplant has carved out a name for herself in the East Village, ensconced in Manhattan’s temple of punk and pride.


When Kaia first imagined a fashion show that exhibited fashion collections and play piercings simultaneously, she couldn’t get it out of her mind until she saw it through. “I became a prisoner to [this] idea and the only way I could set myself free of that was to see the show come to life,” she tells me.


Kaia decided to approach Crystal, Lines’ co-founder and an ex-colleague, with the idea. “In my own journey with Kaia, since first meeting when we were working at 6Skulls, this [show] was a long time coming,” says Crystal, whose experience as a fashion designer and creative director for international brands helped materialize and facilitate Kaia’s vision. 


Lines’ studio was originally House of Field — costume designer Patricia Field’s iconic boutique. Field decided to close shop in 2015 after watching the Bowery change over the course of a decade, but Crystal and her co-founder, Jiwon Ra, saw the potential to honor her work and her vision.


“We took a big risk with the space being so big, but, given its history and the history of the neighborhood, we felt like this is exactly where we have to be. Punk was very much my aspiration and my identity, but it died for quite a while. I’ve been bored of the fashion industry for a while, too; it’s all become so commercialized.


I wanted to create a Mecca of multidisciplinary artists that could regenerate our economy together. So, when Kaia came to me, I said ‘Cool, this is what I’m trying to do, too.’ I’ve had my visions produced at fashion shows already. I wasn’t here to do that, I was here to help [Kaia] understand what parts and pieces were needed, from good lighting to chairs.” 


Photo courtesy of Daniel Roa (@danielroaart).

The show took shape over ten weeks. Kaia assembled a team consisting of her most reliable and trusted piercers; sourced several pieces from the collections of seven different designers, like Cloudiejobi and Synph17; and worked with her mentor, Phil, and her apprentice, Wiki, in visualizing the piercings on each model’s body. 


Balenciaga did a campaign with the prosthetics of play piercings. I wanted to up that,” says Kaia. “I created 25 looks in total, which turned out to be 23 in the end. The piercings were central to each look, so the outfits and designers worked around them.” 


Kaia recognized that any large-scale production meant that there would be room for things to go wrong, especially in a show that asked so much of its models and her team. She met with the production team once a week and began to cast models one month before the show, breaking down the procedure to them and ensuring that their comfort and consent were at the forefront of every creative decision. The models were pierced two days before the show using curved barbell insertions to prevent swelling and pain, and, on show day, they were swapped out for hoops. 


“That was by far the worst pain I had ever felt,” said Wiki, who modeled 52 piercings while simultaneously lacing up other models’ ribbons through their hoops. “But a lot of my own inspiration comes from –– this sounds crazy –– grotesque horror movies. The gore just makes for something more interesting and eye-catching.” 


Photos courtesy of Cassie Zhang (@cassiezyz).

Black women and queer communities have always provided the public with the license to experiment with personal style and try on different versions of themselves for size. Forging a capacious and multidimensional existence is, of course, the antithesis of what young men and women are told to do in the digital age. 


“Being trans, for a lot of trans individuals, modifying [our] bodies is a way to align our physical appearances with our gender identity,” said Wiki. “It empowers us to express ourselves and take control of our bodies.”


Kaia, like Crystal, believes that body modification is the highest form of fashion and personal style. 


“There are a lot of people that do not fit into the mainstream’s stylistic standards. Punk is about people who are willing to be more extreme, and one part of that extreme is pain,” says Kaia.

 

Photo courtesy of Maxwell Brown (@maxwellpicswell).

As the music winds down, the gravity of what has been achieved in a show that lasted no more than thirty-five minutes is palpable through the awe that colors the crowd’s cheer. They rest assured knowing that the city’s lore lives on; whatever price they’ve paid to live here will amortize in bearing witness to its art. 


“I didn’t know that throwing down damn near 640 piercings within a span of two days was possible, but now we know,” concludes Kaia, who later admitted to the panic that gripped her throughout the night. “Let’s see what happens next.” 🌀


 

Tracy J. Jawad is a freelance writer and reporter based between Brooklyn and Beirut. 

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