In the hands of Katie Shannon and AGF Hydra, the subversive material is the starting point for wildly transgressive, binary-defying clothing
Is there a material more contradictory than latex? Banal and protective, yet synonymous with sex and mischief, these contrary dual traits have fascinated designers for decades. Stretched tight and prone to bruising, to wear latex is to put on a second skin.
With utilitarian origins in gloves, gas masks, and Wellington boots, it was the invention of the waterproof Mackintosh raincoat in 1824 which elicited a sensual response. Compelled by the smell, sound, and stickiness of the synthetic garment, a dedicated Mackintosh Society initiated latex into its current position as a stalwart of fetish gear.
From silver-screen space-age catsuits and punk assimilations of BDSM clothing – as spearheaded by Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren in their 1970s boutique, SEX, complete with kinky rubber curtains – to the high fashion of Atsuko Kudo, latex holds a transgressive presence in sartorial history. Requiring shining, lubricating, and powdering, wearing latex deepens the transformative ritual of getting dressed.
Latex’s associations of jeopardy and longing have also saturated 2020, a year in which touch has been scrutinised and prohibited. Naomi Campbell’s pink latex gloves may have gone viral earlier this year, but Studio FCLX’s PANDEMIC collection, made up of torn, inky black garments is an indicator of how striking and malleable latex can be. AGF Hydra’s almost living garments, meanwhile, prove the fabric’s ability to transcend the narrow trappings of the erotic or clinical.
With Studio FCLX and AGF Hydra among them, here, we meet four designers breathing new life into latex, via gender-defying styles and sustainable fabrications.
Having created their first latex ‘street wear’ pieces only two years ago, Hackney Wick-based Studio FCLX is already proving to be a trailblazer when it comes to wearable rubber. Fuelled by a desire to see latex expand outside of the fetish market, FCLX describes their aims to “empower people outside of their societal and gender constructs and to make fashion more gender fluid”. Club culture and the queer scene serve as influences for their range of lime green marbled flares, vibrant chainmail cropped tops, leopard printed skin-tight shorts, and transparent, fur-cuffed coats.
FCLX’s recent PANDEMIC collection demonstrated a refrain from their usual, lively colour combinations. Favouring classical black latex, the offering maintained the studio’s playful approach to design, with adaptable stud press trousers and fringed sleeved coats on the line-up alongside shiny black dresses so taut and ripped they are a befitting visual representation of 2020’s fraught condition. From red latex berets to studded harnesses, all of Studio FCLX’s items are handmade in London, with an emphasis on independent, slow fashion, one-off designs, and biodegradability.
Spanning video installations, cassette music recordings, and high-vis illustrated jackets made in collaboration with artist France-Lise McGurn for the Tate, Katie Shannon is an artist rather than a designer. Drawn to the ephemeral properties of latex, Shannon’s pieces are screen printed with memories of friendship and shared dispositions, echoing the decay and flux – the “sense of time” – imbued in the material itself. From a pink latex bodysuit adorned with the bank of Scotland’s bankruptcy hotline and Madonna’s face, to tops emblazoned with used cigarettes and party bras to hide your keys in, Shannon deploys humour to make wearable relics of raucous nights out.
Layers of drawings, photographs, and found imagery are processed, warped, patchworked, and then screen printed. “The latex always reacts to the ink in chance ways, making each image a one-off,” explains Shannon. Yet she is not tentative about the rarity of these collaged garments – instead, latex is as much about decay as it is about creation. “It keeps changing, rotting, and eventually disintegrates, rendering it useless or at least impractical. There’s something pleasing in that to me,” she says. Just as ‘in lieu of touching’ – a lockdown creation, printed with a couple locked in a skin-tight embrace – documents bygone proximity, these latex works become tangible documents of personal history whereby clothing has become sculpture.
AW BRAND LATEX
“Visiting NYC and watching the St. Mark’s punks casually rock latex fulfilled my layering dreams,” recalls Aidan Weiss, founder of AW Brand Latex. “I bought my first piece at the nearest sex shop in Manhattan and just had to find out how this perfect-cinching, shiny garment was made – and why it made me feel so good wearing it!” Committing to shocking her professors and rebelling against her largely conservative fashion studies in Philadelphia, Weiss cultivated her Manhattan latex recollections into her namesake brand.
Commencing with The Basics in 2018, a collection of slick, sculpted underwear and bodysuits, AW Brand Latex has since expanded into, what she describes, as “a romantic fantasy”. Reinterpreting historical costume through ruched rubber ruffs and custom-made Madonna caps, Weiss’s subsequent collections accentuate how whimsical and adaptable latex can be, while delicate, dusty pink dresses and ruffled blouses are offset by marigold corsets, detachable princess sleeves, and bejewelled buckles. Set to launch a new Basics collection in 2021, each AW Brand Latex piece is tailormade for every body type.
A CGI short-film – Hydra Cosmic Womb – shows an ethereal, amorphous creature drifting in an uncanny, under-water landscape. Meditative subtitles relay the HYDRA archetype of “sustainability, craft, and longevity in a transpersonal future”. This film is merely one element of AGF HYDRA, a latex label and research programme, which, as its name suggests, “possesses many heads”.
Comprising virtual reality, holistic healing, immersive performance, moving image, and wearable artefacts, HYDRA “revolves around the possibility of collective growth within a higher consciousness,” says founder Anna Gloria Flores (AGF.) To produce Hydra’s phygital uniform, AGF handcrafts and then chlorinates latex, resulting in a versatile and friction-less surface. AGF considers this meticulous making process “a regenerative practice. Labour as a form of meditation.” Adaptable, waterproof and biodegradable, the tactility of HYDRA’s supple latex skins act as an intervention between bodies and their surroundings, AGF explains. From translucent signature kimono coats and liquid-like cape tops to a gown made-to-measure for a simulated baby Yoda, HYDRA traverses a space between the digital and physical realm where latex design has metamorphosed into a regenerative practice.