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Skulls are EVERYwhere in the fashion world this season, and it’s got nothing to do with Hallowe’en, The Walking Dead or even Mugler pinup boy Rick Genest.

It’s the merchandising backwash from the emotional outpouring that followed the death of Alexander McQueen, who in the later stages of his career made the human skull a signature emblem. Sadly, McQueen’s morbidly ironic fashion statement was made tragic by his own fate. It’s also becoming as ubiquitous as the Nike swoosh.

Today, McQueen-esque skulls-and-bones are showing up in graphic design across the fashion spectrum: on scarves and handbags, goth rings and hip-hop bling, belts and caps and jeans and underwear. Some of these products are an opportunistic rip-off, but some of them represent an authentic homage to McQueen and a way of bringing his esoteric passions to the masses.

James Lillis of Black Milk Clothing falls in the latter category: his new collection of leggings, swimsuits and dresses is, in part, a thoughtful and surprisingly tender tribute to McQueen.

It’s also wickedly funny. The collection, called “The Killer’s Vanilla” is Black Milk’s largest release to date, and features a gore-fest of blood-spatter and skeleton prints, laughing skulls and fulsome vampire lips.

Now the bad news. Just one week after its release, The Killer’s Vanilla collection has already been pulled back from BM’s online shop. Not because it’s controversial but, as James wrote in his blog yesterday, to give the BM production team time to catch up with the instant flood of orders from “sharkettes” — Black Milk’s ferociously devoted army of fans.

The collection includes new styles for some of the Aussie label’s catalogue pieces — the outrageous blood-spatter print is back as a short dress — as well as new prints that follow the collection’s gruesome themes.

At the center of Killer’s Vanilla are two new designs that, as James admits, allow him to process his personal response to McQueen’s death. The first is called “Skeleton’s Hugs” (main photo above) and it’s based — get this! — on the bones of anthropologist Grover Krantz and one of his dogs, which were displayed at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington.

That image was then “abstracted and industrialized” to create the “Bone Machine” print (above), which is used in a BM swimsuit and leggings. Here’s what James says about it:

This piece is inspired by the late Mr McQueen. … When McQueen killed himself, I was taken aback. I had several emotions — sad for the man himself, and yet fascinated that someone who had everything to live for had nothing to live for. It’s times like those where I get all existential and, I must confess, I like it. It’s like the facade is ripped apart and true metaphysics and spiritual perception can occur. 

Deep thoughts indeed from a designer who makes pop-art pieces for (mostly) trend-hungry young women.

But there’s nothing morbid about this collection, which is only as deep as you want it to be. Mostly it’s a light-hearted affair, and if you don’t pick that up right away, James has thrown in the playful “Funny Skulls” print to make the point.

And who knows what Alexander McQueen would think of all this? He was fascinated by the design possibilities of the human skeleton, but I suspect he’d be appalled in general at the mass-market merchandising of his iconography. At the same time, I think he’d love the idea of a smiling, hugging skeleton, and he’d be tickled at the thought of legions of callow youngsters decked out in skull-print tights, laughing in the face of death.

Here are some more images from the large Killer’s Vanilla set from Black Milk; click on the photos to see the style names. And be sure to check their website often — you won’t want to miss out when these pieces are once again available.

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