Tuck It All in There
Fetishizing the Latex Dream in the Brazilian Rainforest
Photos By Matheus Chiaratti
Jenni tries on Fetisso’s best-selling gloves in the factory’s stockroom.
Sometime in the mid-1960s, near the small Swiss town of Vordemwald, little Willi Graber was playing by himself on his grandparents’ farm. He wandered into the kitchen, where something in a basket of old clothes caught his eye: a pair of yellow latex kitchen gloves. He put them on. They made him feel funny. Immediately sensing their power, he walked outside and grabbed a piece of cow manure. It was a strange feeling—squeezing cow shit between his fingers and knowing it couldn’t touch him.
With these gloves, young Willi realized he could get away with all sorts of forbidden deeds, unscathed. He touched poisonous plants and stinging ants, plunged his arm into the creek and pulled out blood-sucking leeches. Drunk on his newfound power, he even inserted a latexed finger into the asshole of one unfortunate bovine. It was absolutely sensational. Of course, a few years later he started masturbating while wearing the gloves. Like any good Swiss boy, he’d been taught masturbation was wrong. But with the gloves on, it was different; it was OK. He felt protected. The gloves became his magic talisman that shielded him from God’s judgment. Slowly and strangely he realized that gloves and other garments made from other materials like leather or vinyl didn’t hold the same allure. Latex was it for him, and it became apparent that Willi had a fetish. Still, he had no way of knowing that decades later he would use his secret shame to his advantage by establishing a lucrative fantasy fetish-wear company in a paradisiacal stretch of Brazilian rainforest.
By no means was Willi the first person possessed by the power of latex, the milky white sap that drips from the scored trunks of rubber trees. During the Industrial Revolution, rubber was as important a resource as oil is today. Like oil, it was the impetus for mind-boggling exploration, exploitation, and violence in the service of empire. Rubber tappers who failed to meet their quotas in King Leopold’s Congo Free State had their hands cut off. To leverage the vast reserves of rubber trees in the Amazon, South American barons drove the natives into indentured servitude as seringueiros. These miserable workers were forced to scale towering Amazonian trees and gather their sap. In 1876, British explorer Henry Wickham smuggled 70,000 rubber seeds out of the Brazilian Amazon—an astounding act of botanical piracy and the beginning of the British Empire’s plantations in Asia. Henry Ford later purchased a piece of the Amazon as big as Delaware and Rhode Island combined to grow rubber trees and hired thousands of Brazilian workers to run Fordlandia, a failed Detroit-style processing plant and suburb in the middle of the Amazon.
Latex drips into a collection pail at a plantation in Pernambuco, Brazil. Moments before, a tapper dragged the tip of his knife down the bark; the red stuff is a chemical that helps the tree heal.
Karl Marx wrote in Capital that capitalists are basically fetishists, worshipping mystical powers that workers impart to the goods they create (sounds like Prada to me). Before latex, fetishists had made do with what they had—fur, silk, and tight-laced corsets. That was until 1823, when Scottish chemist Charles Macintosh concocted the rubberized fabric that laid the foundations for future BDSM fantasy. Though his Mackintosh coats were smelly, sticky, and sometimes melted on hot days, they were also hugely popular. Valerie Steele, author of Fetish: Fashion, Sex, & Power, identifies England’s Mackintosh Society as one of the modern era’s first fetishist organizations. During her research, she found a 1920s fetish magazine titled London Life that detailed “the thrill of maccing.” Today you can buy a snappy Mackintosh raincoat for $800 from J.Crew.
When Willi was a horny teenager he happened to peek in a trash can and find a porno mag filled entirely with photos of women wearing latex. It was then he realized that he wasn’t alone; there were others in this world who shared his obsession with the material. Willi began seeking out more information about his peculiar proclivity. He read books like Fetishes and Rituals in Modern Industrial Societies to learn more about fetishism, the etymology of which originates with the word feitiço—Portuguese for objects Africans worshipped and believed to be bewitched or possessed by fairies.
For fetishists, clothing elevates their preferred material from mere commodity into an object of hypersexualized worship. Fetishes and sexual identity are personal mysteries, so while it’s easy to see patterns emerge, there’s no single historical trajectory. After World War II, fetishists became enamored of protective items like gas masks. Some fetishists use latex to feel safe, dangerous, or both. Others just love the feeling of a constrictive, shiny second skin. In the 40s and 50s, Bizarre magazine published illustrations and photos of latex-clad ladies in all sorts of kinky scenarios. By the 70s, punk designers such as Vivienne Westwood had brought fetishism into the world of fashion. Warhol muse Dianne Brill stepped out sheathed in white-fringed latex and was crowned People’s “First Citizen of Manhattan nightlife.” A decade later, writer Candace Bushnell was suited up in rubber dresses for Vogue, which resulted in three dates, a marriage proposal, and a meeting with a TV producer. (Her HBO series, Sex and the City, debuted two years later.) Lady Gaga wore latex to meet Queen Elizabeth. Anne Hathaway said she would never be the same after donning her latex Catwoman suit for The Dark Knight Rises. She told Allure, “The suit, thoughts of my suit… It dominated my year.”
René at his desk.
Willi continued his journey of self-discovery through the 70s, wandering around India and into San Francisco, struggling to find himself. Eventually, his voyages took him into Brazil and the city of Recife, where he looked for a home among the sugarcane plantations and tropical beaches of the country’s arid northeast. There he found the kind of place he had only imagined, a hill above the small coastal village of Japaratinga, shaded by coconut trees and right by the beach. He had been reading philosophy books about utopian ideals and imagining a simple life overlooking the ocean, surrounded by nature, art, friends, and family. He bought the land and convinced Fritz Liechti, a fellow expat, to join him. They built a five-bedroom commune and schemed about how to make a living outside the city. They saw little economic opportunity in the coconuts and sugarcane of the poverty-stricken region, but there was another resource there—rubber. Punk fashion was in full swing, and Willi’s fetish didn’t seem so freaky anymore. He looked around the Brazilian jungle and saw money growing on trees.
And so, Fetisso Latex was born. Today, the company makes 50 varieties of artisanal latex fetish wear and exports their products to sex shops in Europe, North America, Japan, and Australia. Fetisso has a loyal following, crafting gear that falls somewhere between cheap single-use latex and the couture pieces beloved by aficionados. While fetishists aren’t necessarily the most eco-minded clientele, it’s worth noting that in Brazil rubber trees provide valuable shade for low-lying flora and fauna and suck harmful greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere.
For the fetish world, Fetisso represents high-end entry-level latex. But for the locals of Japaratinga, the Fetisso factory has provided an opportunity, an alternative to the sugarcane fields and refineries. The town is a pretty simple place, where the most visible establishments are churches and a couple of inns and convenience stores. I thought area evangelists would be at odds with the presence of this expat kink palace up on the hill, but residents seemed mostly satisfied with Fetisso. This year, a local paper ran a story boasting that the factory is the only one of its kind in Brazil.