When you think of latex, you probably picture it bound around a busty dominatrix deep in the catacombs of the underground fetish scene. Gummy, taut, reflective, stretchy sheets of latex are perfect for outfits that hug the human form. It fulfills all kinds of kink fantasies. But over the last decade or so, latex has traveled from society's underbelly to the surface—it has become trendy. Following a spate of paparazzi photos showing Kim Kardashian clad in bodycon latex dresses, even Beyoncé donned material at this year's Met Gala. While it seems very uncomfortable, her nude latex gown wowed Internet-based onlookers.
Beyoncé's dress was designed by luxury fashion house Givenchy, but it was fitted by someone called the Baroness, whose East Village boutique is ground zero for the history of latex in this country. "I'm the reason why latex clothing exists in America," the Baroness explains to me just a week after Beyoncé debuted her gown at the Met Gala. "When I started, there were three people in all of America who were making latex," the Baroness says: the Baroness in New York, someone in Washington state, and another designer in Toronto. "Those two people aren't around anymore. I am. I'm the one that really has done as much as I can to popularize it, to bring it to the masses to change the idea."
The Baroness's persistence has paid off: Today she dresses celebrities, provides latex to people around the world from her website and hub in New York, and custom-designs elaborate latex masterpieces—garments that reach far beyond what anyone thought latex was capable of.
While it may seem counterintuitive to the material, wearability and comfort are tenets of the Baroness's latex empire."When I started, it was really just red and black, clearly for sex, for the bedroom, generally very tight," she says. "I felt that that was not really the way to go. Women have enough issues with their bodies to not have to deal with that. [Latex should be] designed in colors, designed in sizes, that are real."
"When I started people who were wearing latex were truly the fetishists," she continues. Latex fans weren't wearing gowns to A-list galas; they were wearing catsuits. "There were a lot of [latex] catsuits. In England there were a lot of rubber gas masks, rubber boots, rubber gloves, that sort of thing."
But then came the punks. "Vivienne Westwood was working with latex," the Baroness says. Westwood was married to Sex Pistols star Malcolm McLaren. Together they ran an iconic boutique, Let It Rock, at 430 Kings Road in London, fueling the fire of punk culture to burn throughout the 1970s and 80s. The shop's slogan was once: "Rubberwear for the office."
While Westwood was really the catalyst for steering latex into the hands of many people who otherwise would not have worn it, before her there was a man who produced a series of collector's items magazines. "He was instrumental in the original vendor's period," the Baroness tells me. As the Baroness explains, this man created much of the latex consumer imagery that was disseminated around the world: images of people entering stores with rows of rubber boots and gas masks. "That's really his influence, but he's also the one who helped design the look of [British actress] Diana Rigg, with the catsuit. He came up with the sort of super woman [in latex], and she looked fabulous."
By centering the needs and wants of women, the Baroness was able to build upon what others had done, to expand the reach of latex; latex is no longer only available in red or black, just for sex. "I'm really into the idea of bringing latex more to the masses, the couture aspect of it, and seeing it worn out—not just for sex, not just for home," she says.
How does one become a "latex evangelist"? "I really liked latex," the Baroness says. "I always wanted to see it on people—I want everyone in latex as far as I'm concerned—and I can't see it on people because I can't go into everybody's bedroom. What better thing to do than make it more accessible? So that was the first thing—the styling."
The Baroness knew there was more to latex than catsuits and gas masks. "I design things that are appropriate to wear to the opera," says the Baroness, whose range of colors includes green, pink, and purple, even metallic latex clothes. In addition to splashes of new colors and designs, the Baroness makes latex for men, and it's not just variations on themes in women's clothing. "It's really designed for men," she says.
Made out of the sap from a rubber tree, latex can be poured into a mold similar to the way candles are made. "Eventually the latex gets thick enough [to work with], and you kind of peel it off the mold. That's great for gloves, hoods, stockings," the Baroness explains. Then there's a whole market of latex that is meant to be disposable. "It's one size fits nobody," the Baroness says. "You go home, have sex, it tears, and you spent $35."
There are also sheets of latex, which is primarily what the Baroness works with. She and her design team cut latex off a roll and create patterns with it, as one would with other materials. In addition to her innovation, it is the Baroness's mastery over the material that has ensured her place in the industry. "It is not sewn—it's glued together," she says, explaining that the fit of latex is very different than that of other fabrics; patterns for latex designs can't be treated the same way. "It's truly amazing material. The most sensual of all materials in the world, because it appeals to all five senses."
"If you stitch latex, it's a little bit like putting holes in it," she continues. "If you're going to stitch on it, you lose the stretch, and for me you lose the beauty—the pure, simplest latex. I don't want you to be thinking about how it's constructed; I want you to just see the latex. When it's glued at the seam, if it's well done, it's seamless."
The process is not simple, nor is latex easy to work with. The Baroness trains her staff for six months before they are allowed to work without her watching over and instructing them. "Anybody can sew something together," she says. Not everyone can glue latex like a pro.
Despite the craftsmanship and high-profile appeal of the Baroness's work, many people still associate the material with sex—and that can be frustrating. "When I first started, when latex was just becoming known, I know I was being lumped into the sex industry, which I resent," the Baroness says. Even now, when other designers hear what she does, they are skeptical. Then, when they see what she creates with the material, they are shocked.
"Sometimes it's hard for me to realize what other people think about it," the Baroness says. "I'm aware that people feel differently towards latex than they do towards spandex, and sometimes that surprises me. If you put the same dress in spandex and latex, [people] might feel that the spandex one is more acceptable, but I don't see what the difference is."
When the Baroness meets her international customers, they often admit feelings of guilt and shame about their love of latex. "I think that the biggest problem that anybody can have in their life is to be ashamed of what they do and who they are," the Baroness says. "People who are like, 'Oh I have a fetish! I'm so scared. I'm such a bad person. I like latex!' It's like, what on Earth made you think you were a bad person?"
"I really view this not just as an anecdote about conventionalism but as therapy through clothing," she continues. "From the time I've been doing it, it's changed. Then it was so hidden, and now it's on stars."
The Baroness told me she did not make the Givenchy dress that Beyonce wore to the 2016 Met Gala herself, but she was brought on for the fitting, a process that typically includes lubricating someone's body. "There were certain fitting issues that had to be dealt with, and then there were certain little styling things that she wanted to have changed," the Baroness says. Although she said she has made clothes for Beyoncé's backup dancers, she couldn't say much more than that.
The Baroness has dressed other celebrities, including Solange, whose yellow latex leggings at the same event may have been overshadowed by her sister's full-on latex creation—but were nevertheless designed by the Baroness. "We've done stuff for Madonna," she says, and for Lady Gaga's entourage. "I actually did some clothing for [Bergdorf Goodman fashion director] Linda Fargo for the Met Gala when it was the punk one. She was one of the few people who actually dressed to scene."
And as for Beyonce's dress, which caused such an uproar? "The styling of her dress was very conservative," the Baroness says. "I mean, a high-end long-sleeved gown. It was classic in its hourglass shape and everything. I'm hoping that people seeing [it] will see that latex isn't what you think it is."
Ultimately, the Baroness sees latex as part of her vision of women in power. "Maybe it's the idea that it's such an empowering material for women to wear. People don't like empowered women," the Baroness says. "People do not want women to feel confident in how they look and how they behave."
When I ask the Baroness to explain why latex is so empowering, she laughs. "You see a bunch of chicks, and they all look the same, and they're all dressed the same," she says. "And then you see one in latex—which one is going to have the stronger impact?"