Wanted/Needed/Loved: Perfume Genius’s Winky Boots

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When I was growing up, I wasn’t stylish, and I used to wear these huge boot cut jeans that I’d embroider with faces, often on the lower leg. They weren’t cool or cute. They were just horrible! Yeah, and I would go to Target and just get a polo shirt to go with them. I pretty much wore that exact outfit for ten or fifteen years, well into my twenties.

Whenever I’d worn a pair of jeans beyond repair, I’d tack them up on the wall in my studio apartment. I remember this one time when the two coolest people in town came over. As soon as they saw the jeans on the wall, they left!

Music freed me up in a lot of ways, including helping me to develop a sense of style. I was broke at first, so I was wearing stuff from my friends and thrift stores, and places like that. But then I started making enough money that I could pay the rent and buy a pair of shoes, so I’d still shop at all the same places, but I could get a lot of things.

In the beginning I went overboard with a head-to-toe 200% look. I had to get that out of my system, I think. I was just so excited, and unafraid, no longer locked into certain rules that for some reason I’d held for so long. Like maybe I’d have wanted to paint my nails before, or wear something that looked traditionally feminine, but I’d have been too nervous, or just unwilling to put up with the kind of shit I’d get when I left the house.

When I finally came to a place where I could dress the way I really wanted, I started coming up with ideas that I didn’t know how to source myself. Sometimes I had visual references, or pictures that weren’t even of clothes, like maybe a painting or a song, or just a mood. I needed someone who could look at those ideas and help me translate them.

The photographer for Too Bright, my third album, had been working with the stylist Sean Knight and he thought Sean would understand my influences and what I was going for. Sean pulled a lot of cool things for the album cover and the press photos, and it went so well that we continued working together.

For an upcoming appearance on David Letterman, Sean and I tried a number of different things. I think there was a sequined jumpsuit, and some full-on fetishy things, like a skin-tight vinyl suit from a sex shop…

We ended up going with a white suit because it was sophisticated and cut somewhat androgynously. We paired it with a black fetish harness that peeks out from underneath and some black patent leather boots.

I’d describe them as shiny little witch boots. They’re pointy with a block heel that isn’t too high so they’re very easy to dance and move around in. They give me just a hint of height, and make me feel fancy. And they also highlight the fetish element of my outfit, giving it a little bit of wink.

I’ve worn these boots on stage ever since. They can appear naughty, and even goofy sometimes, depending on what I wear them with. When I tour I don’t really travel light but a lot of what I bring along isn’t wardrobe. It’s mostly stuff for comfort—like creams and salves, and lately I’ve gotten really into mists. You don’t really need more than one, but I like to carry around like four!

In order to get up and perform in front of people, you have to let go of a lot of your “regular” anxieties. In your everyday life you don’t necessarily want to walk into a room full of people and have them looking at you. But when you’re performing, if you’re able to offload the insecurities you’re walking around with all the time, you can more freely be yourself.

To get ready for a show, I’ll put on my makeup and outfit, and maybe hold my chin up a little more and walk around in my boots with more purpose or intention. But yesterday I’d left the boots in Orlando, and it really messed me up. Dancing is such a huge part of the show, and I felt like I couldn’t move around the way I usually do. If I’m locked down physically it’s hard to find my footing again—and to look rad!

Before I started working with Sean, I didn’t realize how soulful and creative stylists can be. It got me thinking about fashion the same way I think obsessively about music, and now I see clothing as an extension of my identity and what I’m trying to build creatively.

I really hope the boots turn up. I don’t know what I would do if I had to replace them. I’d have to go on a hunt—not just a shopping trip, but a true spiritual hunt.

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Wanted/Needed/Loved: Musicians and the Stuff They Can’t Live Without is an illustrated column where musicians share the stories behind meaningful objects. As told to Allyson McCabe and illustrated by Esme Blegvad.

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Mike Hadreas aka Perfume Genius makes music that has been described as soul-baring, empathetic, and hopeful. While his early piano ballads were often unflinching portraits of isolation, estrangement and abuse, his more recent music has retained its emotional intimacy while reflecting newfound stability and optimism. Perfume Genius’s fourth and most recent full-length album No Shape was released in May on Matador. Described by Pitchfork as “a tender and transcendental protest record of love and devotion,” the critically acclaimed album has also garnered a GRAMMY nomination for Best Engineered Album, Non Classical (Shawn Everett & Joseph Lorge, engineers; Patricia Sullivan, mastering engineer; Blake Mills, producer). Perfume Genius is currently on tour.


Allyson McCabe writes and produces stories about music for NPR, and her own subscription-based channel, Vanishing Ink. Esme Blegvad is originally from London but is now Brooklyn-based. Her work has also appeared at Rookie and VICE. More from this author →