Mitchell Binder's King Baby rocks badass bling
As walking advertisements for one’s own creations go, Mitchell Binder makes an arresting example. In Holt Renfrew on a recent Saturday morning for a trunk show of his latest jewellery and accessories, the King Baby Studio designer wore a sterling-silver skull ring that looked about the size of a Range Rover, a hefty silver wing ring that spanned several digits, and a thick thumb band with “Chosen” mysteriously inscribed on it. That was just the right hand.
Hanging from one wrist and around his neck (his shirt was liberally unbuttoned) were enough heavy-duty pendants and chains of silver, leather, and onyx featuring yet more skulls, hearts, coins, and other curiosities, to perhaps lasso a band of wild horses. He also sported black suspenders, a hefty silver wallet chain, and a smoke-tinged laugh.
“Honestly, it’s my last vice,” he said, musing about the cigarette he had stepped outside with moments before. “I don’t do drugs. I don’t drink. I don’t really womanize anymore. I mean, I’m a pretty boring guy.”
He was being modest—at least about the boring part. Ever since he touched down in L.A. from Mississippi sometime in the early ’70s, Binder has—save for a few years in the movie business (it’s L.A., after all)—been making impressively badass, beautiful jewellery, and meeting the frequently badass, frequently beautiful people who want it. In what can only be an L.A. story, soon after he began selling his heavy-duty yet indubitably artistic designs at flea markets and craft fairs, movie stars, rock-stars-in-waiting, and members of a certain notorious motorcycle club came knocking.
“The Hells Angels wanted club rings, buttons on their vests, wallet chains,” said Binder, who shares the club’s ardour for motorcycles—he just built a “1957 Panhead with an old-school kickstart, stick shift, and suicide clutch”—if not its more nefarious interests. “The celebrities wanted big pieces that would show up on-stage and evidently no one was doing this. And I would make anything. Back then, these people were like me—you know, starting out, trying to get a record deal, trying to get on TV. Today they’re Bruce Springsteen, Jackson Brown, Aerosmith.” Elizabeth Taylor favoured crowned-heart earrings, 200 grams of diamond-encrusted 18-carat gold on each ear.
“You know what, I’ve been really lucky,” Binder said. “The celebrities and musicians, through word of mouth or whatever, have continued to find me.” This is an understatement, with photo evidence: Justin Timberlake and Bruno Mars wearing King Baby bracelets of skulls and onyx beads; Rihanna draped in one chain-of-skulls necklace and one featuring tiny brass knuckles; Jennifer Lopez proffering a carved-rose-ringed finger; Rob Lowe sporting a hefty raised crown belt buckle; and Adrien Brody flaunting a silver-skulled wallet chain. Recently, Drew Barrymore commissioned a gold “LOVE” and “HATE” knuckle-duster so large and, well, lethal-looking that it seems unfair to call it a ring. And? “We were just working with Tom Cruise doing his movie Rock of Ages.” The jewellery has made more Rolling Stone covers than most rock stars.
After three decades, one might tire of making skull rings, even if they are a “celebration of life and the Day of the Dead”. When Binder briefly stopped making anything skull, “I got so much flack,” he said. “I will always make skulls. It’s a core piece of design integral to what I do. I will continue to reinvent it until I’m gone.” Besides those often garnet-eyed, grinning death’s heads, crown-topped hearts, and wings, King Baby (about $200 to $6,000 at Holt’s) and Queen Baby (born in 2007) are also about daggers, fleurs-de-lis, crosses, lions, eagles, and revolvers. His collaboration with legendary guitar crafters Fender produced winged-Stratocaster and guitar-pick skull pendants. It’s all adornment for rock ’n’ rollers, outlaws, wannabes, and, seemingly, romantics. “I’m a hopeless romantic. You gotta remember, I’m born on Valentine’s Day.”
Now, leather messenger bags, briefcases, journals, and iPad covers hand-tooled with those familiar motifs inhabit King Baby–land. There are skull-studded collars for canine desperadoes. In February, eyewear turns up. Binder is moving into steampunk, and he’s particularly excited about the chandelier earrings (based on real antique chandeliers) he’s working on. “Picture Sherlock Holmes, turn-of-the-century, locomotion, this mechanical edge—where science meets art meets romance,” he said.
But what does “King Baby” mean? Reading one day, Binder encountered a term coined by Sigmund Freud describing a mental condition in which patients believe the world revolves around them. Perfectly reasonable. “It clicked, because not only could I relate to the world revolving around me, or thinking so, but most of my clients are like that,” he said. “You know, ‘I want it. I want it now.’ It’s a little tongue-in-cheek.”