Fecal Matter : « We hope we can continue to be ourselves without being killed »

Article publié le 8 octobre 2022

Text: Maxime Retailleau. Photos: Anthony Arquier. Creative director and stylist: Yann Weber. Hairstyling: Gabriel de Fries and Beth Shanefelter. Make-up: Fecal Matter. Manicure: Salome Debahia. Coordination mode: Matéo Ferreira. Photographer’s assistants: Kevin Drelon, Kim Soumpholphakdy and Hugo Varaldi. Production: Aurea Productions. Production Assistants: Amélie Pietri and Raphaël.

The designers, make-up artists, and DJs Hannah Rose Dalton and Steven Raj Bhaskaran, better known as the multidisciplinary duo Fecal Matter, discuss the origins of the « alien glamour » aesthetic they sport daily despite the insults, death threats, and physical violence they face; talk about how their love for each other has given them the courage to be themselves; and explain why their provocative style constitutes a manifesto for tolerance.

As Hannah Rose Dalton and Steven Raj Bhaskaran arrive at the Hôtel National des Arts et Métiers where we have planned to meet, two women call out to them, ask them for their Instagram handle, and take a selfie with them, just as another passerby spots them and walks hurriedly towards the couple, exclaiming: « Jesus loves you, he loves you more than anything! Jesus saved my life! » Steven is dressed all in black and wears a tight Balenciaga top and Rick Owens boots; Hannah is in a short black jumpsuit, contrasting Cagole boots, and a white bag, both from Balenciaga. They both have shaved heads, as always, and they are made up with large cat eyes. Steven asks the passerby, rhetorically, if he thinks that because of their appearance, they must have a grudge against Jesus, but the passerby simply repeats that Jesus loves them, before reentering the hotel and disappearing into the back of the restaurant. 
It’s been six years since Hannah and Steven joined forces as Fecal Matter and adopted the alien aesthetic that made them famous and still provokes such divisive responses everyday, whether on the street or online. Their Instagram account, @matieresfecales, counts more than 700,000 followers at the time of writing: they post photos in which their looks stand in stark contrast to those of the passersby they meet on the street; others in which Hannah pushes a blade into Steven’s (fake) bloody mouth; and Photoshopped images in which Steven has become a giant spider with a human head, or Hannah is placing her arms inside her mouth and pulling them out through her shoulder blades. Posts that are extreme, often playing with the conventions of gore and taking a stance against the happycracy that pervades social media networks.
The couple often wears outfits from their own fashion brand, Fecal Matter, which has released five collections to date, the latest of which includes a straitjacket, trench coats re-envisioned as dresses or in a backless version, a blazer with extra-large shoulder, and hoodies and T-shirts covered bearing their mantra « Provoke Society. » Their most iconic piece, the Skin Boot (a silicon thigh-high boot with a horn-shaped heel and a plastic front platform), was included in the touring exhibition, Thierry Mugler: Couturissime: a mark of institutional recognition that attests to how far the couple has come.
Steven, who is queer and non-binary, spent the first part of their childhood in Guyana a country faced with extreme poverty, where they experienced a great deal of discrimination before moving back to Canada. Hannah was born in New Zealand and grew up in Montreal, where she later met Steven when they were studying at LaSalle College – a fashion school. It was there that the straight-edge couple (Hannah does not drink, smoke, or take drugs, a lifestyle Steven adopted 7 years ago) first developed their polarizing aesthetic, which they continue to explore the ramifications of since settling in Paris last May, making their creativity a manifesto for freedom.
Fecal Matter: Trench coat and shoes, Balenciaga Haute Couture.
ANTIDOTE : You met during your studies. Did you get along right away?
Hannah Rose Dalton: No, I didn’t like Steven at all. We didn’t have the same vibe: I was very studious, I took a lot of notes in class, and Steven was more of a creative person, which got on my nerves. [She turns toward Steven, Editor’s note] Then I saw one of your projects and I thought, « Damn, this kid is really talented. » I saw them in a different light, and one day, in front of the sewing machines, we got to talking. We talked about everything we hate most about the fashion industry. For me, it’s really about the working conditions, while for Steven, it’s the racism and exclusionary beauty standards. That’s how Fecal Matter was born. I hate people who don’t walk the talk. We thought, « Let’s bring our own ideas to life and try to change things. »

Steven Raj Bhaskaran: « We have each encouraged each other to become who we are deep down. This has been the greatest blessing we’ve given each other. »

Before you attended LaSalle College Fashion School, you didn’t wear makeup and your appearance was totally different from the one you’ve had for the past several years. How did this transformation take place?
Hannah Rose Dalton: When I was a teenager, I didn’t wear makeup, I hated it. I went to an all-girls private school where it wasn’t allowed anyway; you couldn’t even wear nail polish, and you had to wear a uniform. After high school, I continued to abide by those rules. But when I met Steven, I realized there were other options. One day Steven looked at my sketches and designs and asked, « Who’s going to buy these? Who’s going to wear them? » I said, « I don’t know, Daphne Guinness. » Then Steven said, « Maybe you should wear them. »
Steven Raj Bhaskaran: That’s when our desire to bring our fantasies to life was born. I come from a very religious background, of Guyanese and Sri Lankan descent, and as a child I never had the opportunity to see someone express themselves freely. The only exception I can think of is Prince, because his music was so popular that even my family listened to it. But I didn’t know that makeup could be used for anything other than hiding imperfections, and I thought only women could wear it. I didn’t know it could be an artform. I only started to learn about things for myself at 13 or 14. I was brutally harassed at school; it was very hard. I would go home and lock myself up to watch movies or go on the Internet. That’s how I discovered fashion and art. But it wasn’t until I met Hannah that I was able to express who I really am because before that, the idea scared me. I was playing with gender a little bit, but not as much as I did afterwards. With the love she gave me, Hannah encouraged me to put on heels, to dive into the darkness of my vision of fashion and beauty, and by loving Hannah, I have helped her live her life the way she wants to. We have each encouraged each other to become who we are deep down. This has been the greatest blessing we’ve given each other. I probably wouldn’t have been able to express myself to this extent if I hadn’t known Hannah.
Hannah Rose Dalton: Oh my God, me neither. To this day, it’s still hard.
Steven Raj Bhaskaran: Life is a lot easier when you blend in, so I understand why many people choose to live that way. But even though we’ve had to make sacrifices, especially as far as our safety is concerned, because we stand out and are often targets, the joy that being myself has brought me makes it all worth it. I used to be very suicidal, and I realized that if I either had to take the plunge or die. 
One of your mantras is « Provoke Society, » but I see you above all as freedom fighters: you’re not trying to provoke for the sake of provocation but to encourage people to express themselves by doing that yourselves to the extreme.
Hannah Rose Dalton: That’s exactly right. Provocation has a negative connotation. What matters to us is the right to be who you want to be. And unfortunately, that’s provocative.
Steven Raj Bhaskaran: In everything we do, our ultimate goal is to encourage critical thinking. If someone encounters us and gets scared, it’s because they lack critical thinking skills, otherwise they would ask themselves, « Why are they like this? » And then they would continue to dig deeper…
Hannah Rose Dalton: That person would ask themselves, « Why am I the way that I am? » It’s a question that frightens a lot of people.
Steven Raj Bhaskaran: But if that person continues to ask themselves questions, like « Why do I dress like this? Why do these people scare me? » they will eventually become open minded. They may not go so far as to support people who dare to really express themselves, but they will accept them and let them live in peace. We aren’t trying to make people uncomfortable or hurt them, only to promote freedom. 
Fecal Matter: Dress, jacket, pants, masks, shoes and bag, Balenciaga Haute Couture.
Your appearance elicits extremely polarized reactions, ranging from admiration to insult and even physical violence. What is the most intense reaction you’ve faced?
Steven Raj Bhaskaran: I was beat up on a bus by a bunch of guys, but they didn’t touch Hannah. It was a difficult experience, but I have a totally different perspective than Hannah. Having a male body and wearing makeup causes different reactions than being a cisgender woman exploring androgyny. The beginning of our life in Paris was difficult; there was a lot more of a response than we had anticipated. Sometimes, it was dangerous; people shouted at us a lot.
I went to a French high school in Canada, so I understand the insults that were directed at us.
Hannah Rose Dalton: I would love to walk around at night, but it’s not safe enough.
Steven Raj Bhaskaran: We try to focus on the positive, though. We’re lucky, at least, that there are two of us, that’s a privilege. A lot of people whose appearance falls outside the norm don’t have partners, or they have a partner whose style is more conventional, and they end up being the only ones targeted. We hope we can continue to be ourselves without getting killed. Leigh Bowery, Divine, and all the luminaries who shaped Pride Month went through it too, and it was probably even harder for them. We also hope to use our platform to help people. We know we have a responsibility to show ourselves and do our best. 
Do you also receive death threats on Instagram?
Steven Raj Bhaskaran: All the time. One time I used a message someone sent us – it was something like, « I’m going to behead you little bitches, you deserve to die. » I posted a picture of Hannah being beheaded and placed this message right next to it. People were like, « Wow, this is so powerful, your post is amazing, » but then Instagram deleted it because it was about violence, which proves that Instagram isn’t on our side either. Also, for safety reasons, we don’t post stories in real time anymore. But Instagram and social media allow us to connect with people, so we still enjoy those platforms. 
Mixing at parties has allowed you to physically connect with your digital community. What inspired you to start DJing?
Hannah Rose Dalton: We got into it for the money. We were struggling to make ends meet and thought, « Hmm, maybe we should become DJs. » And Steven loves music.
Steven Raj Bhaskaran: Yeah, I’ve always loved music and it’s played an important role in my life. Listening to it has helped me through many difficult times.
Hannah Rose Dalton: And when we went out, we didn’t like the music that was playing. It was never fun. Because we’re sober, it’s music that gets us through the night, so if it’s not good, we leave. We thought, « Why don’t we do our own mixes and share what we want to dance to? »
Steven Raj Bhaskaran: That led to remixing and producing, and composing soundtracks for various projects, including Rick Owens. Before the pandemic, this had started to become a full-time job, which didn’t really suit us. We make a living selling the fashion pieces we create; we are comfortable with this artform, which is also a business. Music is actually a way for us to meet people who love us, whereas what we do is mostly virtual. That’s why mixing is so special to us, we do it for fun and we don’t see it as work.
Hannah Rose Dalton: The events we mix at also provide safe spaces for people who love us to wear whatever look they want. 
Fecal Matter: Jacket, jeans, shoes and bag, Balenciaga Haute Couture
In the last few years, several media outlets have discussed the emergence of an « alien glamour » trend, which you are pioneers of, along with other artists like Salvia. What do you think about this aesthetic having become a trend?
Steven Raj Bhaskaran: It’s cute, but for us, it’s not a fleeting thing, it’s really our identity. We’ve had this look for a long time and if one day it’s not fashionable anymore, we’ll still hold on to it, because we like it. It’s a positive trend though, because it implies that you can look un-human and still be glamorous. In other words, it means that people who don’t feel like they look « normal » can still feel glamorous. But for us, it’s hard to actually see this as a trend, because when we walk down the street, we never see anyone who looks like us. Most people might sport this aesthetic on Instagram or in a photoshoot, but not in their everyday lives. We often get asked why we look like aliens, where it comes from. I’ve always felt like an alien – not like one of those grey or green aliens, but because I felt like I wasn’t connecting with the people around me. I was always treated like an outsider, in my family, at school, everywhere. But throughout our journey, we’ve learned that you can find a sense of belonging even if you don’t conform, and that’s a beautiful thing. 
What are your main references as designers?
Hannah Rose Dalton: We have a lot. I love Alexander McQueen, I think of him as my teacher, even though I’ve never met him. I was so fascinated by his work that I learned all the basics thanks to him at a very young age.
Steven Raj Bhaskaran: The aesthetics of a Tesla can be much more inspiring to us than a luxury brand collection, though. We’re multidisciplinary, so we have many sources of inspiration. But the primary one is our body. 
Fecal Matter: Coat, top, shoes, dress and thigh-high, Balenciaga Haute Couture.
You seem particularly fascinated by its potential evolutions, which may be the result of the transhumanist movement.
Steven Raj Bhaskaran: Yes, the issue of transhumanism is also at the heart of what we create. The final project we worked on together at school gave us total creative freedom, as long as we stuck to the original concept, which was « The 1%, » and involved imagining that a group of rich and powerful people would integrate advanced technologies into their bodies. Transhumanists, in effect. This project was instrumental in shaping our aesthetic. That’s where our Skin Boots come from: they were born out of a desire to shape the human body into a new form. Understanding what it means to be human and expanding that understanding is really crucial to us. 

Hannah Rose Dalton: « I started sewing because I thought to myself : “I’m not going to buy anything and I’m going to make my own clothes, so I’ll know how they’re made, that they’re not hurting anyone or keeping kids out of school.”«  

The Skin Boots are custom-made and embody your vision of high fashion, hence the high cost – $10,000 or more. Have you been able to find customers for them?
Steven Raj Bhaskaran: Yes, we have a lot of private clients, and museums have also acquired them.
Hannah Rose Dalton: They are currently being exhibited in Australia.
Steven Raj Bhaskaran: We also get a lot of offers that we don’t follow through with, because this is a very personal creation, so we’re quite selective. They’re our vision of couture, but we also think of them as wearable art. 
Fecal Matter : Dress and gloves, Balenciaga Haute Couture.
You also regularly resort to upcycling: for example, you’ve created dresses using curtains and blinds. Why are you so fond of this approach?
Hannah Rose Dalton: At 13 or 14 years old, when I found out about the conditions in which clothes were made, I was really shocked and disgusted. That’s when I started sewing. I thought to myself, « I’m not going to buy anything and I’m going to make my own clothes, so I’ll know how they’re made, that they’re not hurting anyone or keeping kids out of school. » Upcycling is very important to me because when you buy cotton, you don’t know how it was made. Upcycling is better for everyone and it’s also more environmentally friendly. We only have one life and one planet, so let’s take care of it. We still have a brand that sells products, and we are human beings, so we’re not perfect, but we try to do our best and if we find pre-existing material we find beautiful, we’ll use it, even though our creative process is not limited to this approach.
When we lived in New York, we would grab broken umbrellas out of garbage cans when it rained and use them to design tops and dresses. As a designer, it’s really interesting to try to create despite the constraints. 

Steven Raj Bhaskaran: « What makes us happy is to have the freedom to focus on our ideas, without having to worry about how they fit into the system »

You also make counterfeits, like the Chanel bag with the dildo handle you’ve shown in some of your photos on Instagram. What draws you to this kind of misappropriation?
Hannah Rose Dalton: People take fashion way too seriously. They’re just material objects that are invested with numerous signifiers. Using a dildo as a handle allows you to break the unspoken laws of fashion and have some fun.
Steven Raj Bhaskaran: That’s the essence of what we do. What makes us happy is to have the freedom to focus on our ideas, without having to worry about how they fit into the system. We try to never censor ourselves. Right now, we’re working not on a collection, but on our very first exhibition, which we’ll be presenting in Paris – it’s still top secret – because we use a lot of platforms, especially Instagram, that censor our work, and this will be an opportunity to free ourselves from that. Even the fashion shows are limited, unless we ban phones, because they end up reposted on Instagram. Doing an exhibition means it will be very difficult to censor us. 
Hannah, you’ve often appropriated certain pop culture figures like Barbie, with an entirely pink look, or Marilyn Monroe, who inspired an outfit you wore at a ceremony that was composed of a red dress and a nude top with horns as extensions of the breasts. Why play with these symbols?
Hannah Rose Dalton: I think I played Barbie’s until
I was 16, hidden behind my bed so no one would know. I still have all my Barbie’s and I like to play with the things that made me dream as a child. I also like to come up with combinations that have never been done before, like juxtaposing Marilyn Monroe with an alien aesthetic, for example.
Steven Raj Bhaskaran: Before she shaved her head, Hannah had flawless blond hair.
Hannah Rose Dalton: Yes, and I still sleep with a teddy bear.
Steven Raj Bhaskaran: Hannah is very girly, I am very dark.
Hannah Rose Dalton: [Speaking to Steven]. When you come up with an idea, I soften it, and when I come up with an idea, you make it darker. It’s a perfect combination.
Steven Raj Bhaskaran: I meet Hannah halfway, and so does she. We’re not just a duo, we each have our own identities and we don’t spend all our time together, but I wouldn’t want to create in any other way than with Hannah, and vice versa, I hope.
Hannah Rose Dalton: Yeah. It’s not always easy, though.
Steven Raj Bhaskaran: We fight a lot, we argue often about where we want to go with our projects and how to get there. We’re very different, so it’s always pretty chaotic. 

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