Sex parties have been around a long time. But in their modern iteration, few events evoke the same hedonistic, cutting-edge image as Torture Garden. For over 30 years, Torture Garden – lovingly referred to as TG – has been the world’s biggest, baddest fetish club. It is known globally for its provocative performance art, ever-evolving dance music soundtrack and notoriously strict dress code.
“The people that show up wearing a cotton t-shirt and look you in the eye and tell you that they have a cotton fetish – that has to be one of my absolute pet hates,” says Charlotte Hellicar, former door bitch and now director of Torture Garden. Behind her, mirror balls bounce light off red and black paint from a mocked-up set in the TG Productions warehouse.
Dress code rules are a speciality of Hellicar’s, and include no jeans, regular suits, cotton shirts, t-shirts and boxer shorts, cheesy fancy dress, leggings and “meggings”. Latex, leather, metal and fetish fantasy, however, are A-OK. As Hellicar puts it, “You can't wear something that you could just pop to the shops in. If you could wear it to a regular club night, well, you're not pushing yourself.”
Debuting in October of 1990, Torture Garden set out to invigorate the contemporary alternative scene, which founders and then-flatmates Allen Pelling and David Wood felt was “becoming a bit boring.”
“I used to go clubbing in London every night of the week,” says Pelling. “David is five years older than me, and he'd caught some of the best clubs when they were in their prime. I'd missed that, so I would ask him a lot about what those clubs were like. One night in the house, we were talking about what his ideal club would be, and what my ideal club would be. And we came up with Torture Garden in that conversation.”
“I was just coming out of art school and wanted to be a filmmaker, so I didn't really want to do a club,” Wood tells me. “Initially, I was just telling Allen all the ideas I'd had over the years. And as I spoke about it more, I got more and more excited about what it could be myself.”
And that name? “I had a book I’d just bought, called Torture Garden,” Wood says. “I hadn't even read it yet. But it sounded like an exotic, faraway place that was just… mysterious.”
They found a venue around the corner, started it on a Thursday night, and got 100 people to the first one. “The next one was maybe 250 people, then it was 350 people, and then it was 500 people. We were already getting exposed in the tabloid press by the fourth or fifth one,” says Wood. “It did feel like we were onto something quite exciting, but quite dangerous and quite new, quite edgy.”
Pelling knew they’d made it when he opened the Sunday papers and saw an article headlined “Naughty Nights in the Garden”. He recalls: “I was like, ‘That’s my club!’ I mean, it was a totally made up article, but I still got really excited, phoned my mum and said, ‘Get the paper, I’m in it.’”
“We were kind of the underground at the forefront of that scene,” explains Wood. “We were perhaps a few years ahead of what was happening in the society and culture in general. The press still thought fetish and sexuality was something to laugh at, or to sneer at, or to expose. The venues still felt quite vulnerable.”
The club existed in what Allen refers to as a “very grey area. There was this whole atmosphere at the time that what we were doing was totally, possibly illegal. After time, it became more and more acceptable”.
And despite the contemptuous attention from tabloids, the transformational environment Torture Garden created played a huge role in the growing acceptance of fetish play and fashion in the decades that followed opening night. It helped, obviously, that Torture Garden was developing a reputation as a watering hole for London’s pioneering 90s fashion designers.
“The early 90s were a very innovative time for fetish fashion,” says Wood, clad in a matching Vivienne Westwood camo shirt, blazer and trousers. “It wasn't just black or red latex anymore. A lot of the designs were very close to what people like Alexander McQueen were creating, or Thierry Mugler was creating.”
Allen adds: “Jean Paul Gaultier was another one who came to the club, took a load of ideas and started a collection. He was inspired – I don't know if it was just by Torture Garden – but maybe just by what was going on in the alternative scene then.”
The fashion industry has always been a little dismissive of the fetish world, Wood says. “Actual designers have always taken inspiration and ideas from the fetish world,” he points out. “But the fetish world hasn't quite got the fashion credit it deserves over the years.”
Hellicar, wearing a baby blue leather harness flecked with gold, finds it “hilarious” when celebrities like Kim Kardashian step out in head-to-toe latex or BDSM hoods.
“It seems really out of context to me, because I'm used to them being in like, underground late night parties,” she says, adding that her pig hood has been a crowd favourite at recent TG events.
Torture Garden’s appeal is the opportunity to transform yourself into something completely different, she adds. “You could be the hardest man on your estate by day – but you come to Torture Garden in your rubber pants, and you get a freedom from that persona.”
A large part of that escapism, of course, comes from the creative set design that has become just as integral to the TG brand as latex and spanking. “ It’s kind of that voyage into the unknown that can be a bit risky, you don't quite know what's going to happen,” says Pelling.
At one night in seOne – the now-shuttered 3,000-person venue in London Bridge that claimed to be London’s largest licensed club – TG turned their dogging room into a nighttime forest, complete with trees “We had like, battered old battered cars dotted around it for people to use as they wished to,” remembers Hellicar. “That was when our production had really reached a new level.”
“I've never been to any club that's had that kind of sensory overload as much as Torture Garden has,” says Wood.
As lockdown closed the door on clubs around the world, patrons expected more from their venues when they eventually reopened. Sex parties have never been more popular. And even with increased competition from other sensual, dress-coded events such as Klub Verboten, One Night and Pinky Promise, Torture Garden continues to innovate and sell out.
Wood left TG in 2019, but under Pelling and Hellicar’s direction, the night continues to run every month and tours the globe. “No other club in the world would put on the variety of shows we've put on, from really extreme body art shows, to really glamorous shows like Dita Von Teese, who made her first three performances in the UK at Torture Garden, with us,” Wood explains.
“The concept that we came along with 30 plus years ago, seems to now be the norm, even outside of fetish clubs. It’s what everyone wants to have an experience of, which is more than just a nightclub.”
Photos by Jeremy Chaplin, who documented the early days of Torture Garden. Film produced and directed by Helen Meriel Thomas, and edited by Miles Williams.