These Designers Are Taking the Sex Out of Latex
Designers have long used sex to sell latex, but now, three new names are using it to make breezy, sustainable clothing.
HANGER. Photograph courtesy of the designer.
Over the course of 200 years, latex has had a tumultuous relationship with sex. In the early 1800s, Scottish chemist Charles Macintosh provided the inspiration for the later rubber fetish scene, inventing a waterproof fabric that was used to craft Mackintosh coats.Unlike today’s alluring applications of latex, his coats were sticky, smelled horrible, and melted if exposed to too high temperatures. A similarly unsexy scenario occurred with the world’s first rubber condom in 1855, which required a doctor’s help for sizing. It wasn’t until the 1920s invention of the thinner and more flexible Trojan condom that people began to experience the true pleasures of latex. In fact, the world’s first fetish organization, England’s latex-loving Mackintosh Society, comprised enthusiasts of the original Mackintosh coat.
In the last century, latex has evolved into a better performance fabric (and one less likely to melt), but has also developed specific associations among niche communities, from enthusiasts of the fabric’s sexual undertones, known as “rubberists,” donning it for their partner’s pleasure, to The Matrix positioning it as a sci-fi performance fabric, ideal for top-notch fighting and the speedy evasion of enemies. Latex even gave Dame Vivienne Westwood her start in fashion: it was the focus of her 70s punk-slash-fetish boutique, SEX, thus bringing it nearer to the high fashion milieu, where it later appeared in full force on the sex-charged runways of designers like Moschino, Balenciaga, and Alexandre Vauthier.
Now, a slate of young designers is attempting to transform that unorthodox interest into something a little more mainstream. By removing all semblances of arousal, designers like Arthur Avellano and Claire Yurika are betting you’ll want to attend a board meeting in baggy pants and jackets made out of the same fabric you’d wear for a night at Torture Garden.
“At first, it was for its references to the fetishistic world,” admits French designer Arthur Avellano when asked why he was originally attracted to latex. “But when I worked with it, I realized it had its place among the other materials traditionally used in fashion.” Avellano is taking latex clothing back to its roots, reshaping it into workwear-friendly trench coats and suit pants. Avellano, who launched his label in 2016, seeks to make latex wearable and elegant for both men and women.
While Avellano was spurred on by the tutors who told him to ditch unsellable latex, Claire Yurika Davis, the founder of London-based latex label HANGER, simply liked it “because it’s pretty unusual. It’s a very interesting material and let’s be honest, you never really come across it.”
She’s right. Many of us have come across latex look-alikes such as synthetic PVC and vinyl. But the real deal is a rare sight. There are only a handful of companies around the world qualified to manufacture latex that can safely come into contact with human skin, making it an onerous choice for any cash-strapped talent.
Anna Gloria Flores, founder of the brand British brand H Y D R A, has been working to take away latex’s clinical feel since 2015, using the material’s natural properties to create translucent yet refined coats and swimwear. Although she initially fell in love with its alien vibe—“I was driven by its liquid touch and embryonic membrane look”—her work has centered on adapting latex to the needs of the human body through “sustainability, craft and longevity in the post-digital future.”
Each of the designers say it’s a challenge to make the material suitable for the ready-to-wear market. Although latex can be synthetically produced, it’s more likely to come direct from nature: “latex” is the name for the milky substance that is collected from the bark of rubber trees found in South America and Asia. The sticky sap is then processed in factories and may also be vulcanized, which involves heating the material and adding sulfur or peroxide to improve elasticity.
Designing latex garments that are easy, loose, and breezy is an even more of a task. Avellano relishes it, and says factories “are enthusiastic” to play around with a new material. But he modestly points out that “latex is very complicated to work with because the fetish world doesn’t have the same requirements as traditional clothing”—for starters, the fetish industry likes its garments see-through. Avellano has spent countless hours experimenting with techniques to reduce transparency by creating linings.
Flores has more of a “holistic approach. My focus is on the narrative and research. Each piece is manufactured by me in the lab. It’s quite a long process as I like to personally follow every single step from concept to making.” She describes working with latex as “ritualistic” and says it improves her self-awareness and technical skills, but despite having a performance art emphasis, Flores still ensures her latex is easy to wear.
“To improve comfort and resistance, all H Y D R A latex pieces are chlorinated before leaving the lab,” she says. This involves exposing the latex to chlorine gas which fills surface irregularities, reducing friction and resulting in a much smoother surface. This time-consuming method of production means Flores only makes garments to order “for both anti-consumerist and practical reasons.”
Davis, who launched HANGER five years ago, combines accessible latex designs with Japanese-inspired woven garments. Her latex focus allows her to stand out, she says, but also complicates her work. “Not a lot of people work with it because it is hard,” she says. The material starts out stiff and can easily be ruined by sunlight, metal and oil. Fitting is also hard work, often requiring the help of lubricants. “Another latex designer basically trained me up because I wasn’t very good,” Davis continues. “Everyone automatically assumes it’s about fetish and it’s hard work to educate people about latex as a material.”
Both friendly to the planet and to your figure (“latex actually looks better the more meat you have on your body,” Davis laughs), latex has myriad benefits. It’s biodegradable and will eventually return to its natural form, meaning zero waste or harm to the planet. It also acts as a second skin, reflecting your environment’s temperature. If it’s cool out, you’ll remain cool. If it’s sweltering, you’ll be a little on the warmer side. But latex’s eco-friendly quality is also its biggest problem—a limited lifespan. Just like a living thing, latex needs to be treated gently. “You have to look after it quite carefully,” says Davis.
Latex certainly isn’t the next denim, but all three designers are finding their own measures of success. “Latex is just a material,” says Davis, who sells HANGER on ASOS as well as her own e-commerce site. “It’s enjoyable to work with, there’s really cool colors, there’s so much you can do that we haven’t yet explored. But I will do it.”
With its skin-like capabilities and sustainable nature, the surface of latex’s possibilities has merely been scratched. Sex sells, but latex may sell better without it.