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 realised 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 realised 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 rubberised 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 organisations. 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 realised 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 hypersexualised 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 enamoured 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 1940s and 50s, Bizarre magazine published illustrations and photos of latex-clad ladies in all sorts of kinky scenarios. By the 1970s, 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 1970s, 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.
Freshly molded thigh-highs dripping with liquid latex.
The vast majority of Fetisso’s clients reside in Europe, but US sales are growing. Porn star Paris Kennedy discovered Fetisso two years ago, when she tried on a pair of leggings at a fetish convention. Now they’re her favourite piece of latex fetish wear. She can slip them on sans lube – apparently rare for second-skin-style clothing – and they fit, well, like a glove.
“When you’re wearing latex everything is sucked in and tight,” Paris told me. “You’re like a super-you. I think that’s why it’s popular with dominatrices. It really makes you feel powerful.”
This was not my experience the first time I tried on a piece of latex clothing. Although I was surprised at how easy it was to pull on, I felt like a large sausage squeezed into a small casing. But I’m certainly a person who can fetishise fashion. I have a pair of Prada wedges that make me feel grounded, sexy and strong. There’s also the sheer white cotton shirt with coconut-shell buttons that grazes my thighs, practically begging to be pulled off and tossed aside. So, yes, I can relate.
I wanted to get closer to latex’s special type of power, so I followed it to its source. Japaratinga is in a remote corner of Brazil’s northeastern state of Alagoas, not at all easy to get to. It took me three planes, four hours in a car, one ferry and a brief encounter with the military police to make it there. On my way, I passed donkey carts, mountains of dried coconut shells, several short stucco villages, kids selling mangoes and old ladies who gave directions like “Vai embora sempre” (“Keep going, forever”). So I did, into undulating valleys of vibrant green sugarcane. After a few hours, the road flattened out beside the ocean, and I made a hairpin turn. The car climbed up into a forest, growing suddenly dark as a bamboo tunnel towered overhead. When I arrived at a large wooden gate, I slowly swung it open and approached a house. “Oi?” I called quietly, following a porch that wrapped around at the jungle’s edge. “Alo?”
Fritz, Fetisso’s head of sales, rose from a picnic table covered in papers. Barefoot and broad shouldered in long gray carpenter shorts and a t-shirt that said vibrations, he looked like a sweet old surfer. He took me up a well-manicured jungle path, past tree houses and statues of goddesses and dragons, to a low-lying bunker on the precipice of a hill. A shirtless man with a frizzy beard appeared in one of the bunker’s formidable front doorways: Willi.
He seemed a little stunned to see me – perhaps Fetisso didn’t receive many visitors. He and Fritz murmured a few words in what sounded like German, and then Willi escorted me to my quarters: a shiny-floored suite that looked like Whitesnake’s pleasure lair. The ceiling and pillars were covered in white peaked plaster that looked like shaving cream.
My room contained two hammocks in addition to the bed. One hung in front of a floor-to-ceiling picture window that opened directly onto the jungle and, beyond, the turquoise ocean. That night, just before bed, I noticed a large hook protruding from one of the pillars in my room. Perhaps the guest quarters doubled as a dungeon. Visions of latex and whips eventually subsided and I fell asleep. When I opened my eyes shortly before sunrise, the sky was a dark rainbow. I rolled over and realised that the hook was harmless, just an anchor to hang a hammock from.
Fritz among the jungle vines.
The architect of the compound was Fetisso partner René Savoy. His masterpiece was the 7,500-square-foot fetish-wear factory. From the outside, it looked like a small stone fortress, or a dungeon, and smelled mildly of chemicals. Inside, I was met by a stocky, shirtless man with a mullet and a round belly protruding over the top of his jean shorts.
René took me up to his office. A stone penis sat on a shelf above his desk, acting as a paperweight. Speaking fast and grinning excitedly like a mad scientist, René explained he had spent years studying anatomy to ensure that Fetisso’s fetish products fit like a second skin. At night, he dreams of people he loves wearing his clothing. Then, he wakes up, sketches the designs and devises molds to be dipped in latex. Despite his seeming elation, René wasn’t really that much of a latex guy before he got involved with Fetisso. But he loves the lifestyle it affords him. “This keeps us young,” he said. “We’re a bunch of crazies. I feel like I’m 15. That’s the deal here: to be free. I do what I want. One day I’m gonna die anyway. So today I’m going to make latex.”
In René’s workshop, life-size flat gray torsos with molded boners hung from a rack in the corner. An eerie-looking anatomically correct arm dangled from the ceiling. René typically makes molds out of wood and clay, but for “intimate parts like a penis, a foot, a hand, boobs or butts,” he hand shapes fiberglass to be dipped in liquid latex. Condoms are made using the same technique, but René’s molds make Fetisso’s clothes more artisanal than industrial – even if they are rubber tank tops with nipple holes, bike shorts with penis sleeves and masks that look like something an executioner would wear.
I spotted a burly Brazilian man, Tecio “Junior” Machado da Silva, leaning over the work table while he smoothed plaster onto the thigh of an extra-large male jumpsuit mold. Fetisso is organised as a pseudocooperative, and I learned that Junior is a partner who sits in on business meetings and receives a cut of the profits at the end of the year. He has been employed there for 14 years, and his wife Monica works there, too.
Later I met Jose “Nissinho” Edmilson, the factory’s general manager, who guided me through the rest of the production process. We started in the dipping room, a tile chamber where molds resembling a horse’s forelegs hung upside down over a tank of milky liquid latex (these gloves, shaped like hooves instead of hands, meet the demands of those who like being ridden, equestrian-style). I swiped a finger across the bottom of a hoof. The latex felt like a blend between thick paint and rubber cement. Nissinho told me that dipping was one of the best jobs at the factory, aside from the ammonia smell. But, keeping in line with the company’s egalitarian nature, everyone worked on a rotating schedule and no one got to dip every day.
Reinforcing a pair of shorts’ vital nooks with a spray gun full of latex.
From there, we went on to the reinforcement chamber. A man blasted liquid latex from a spray gun, reinforcing the edges and crotches of predipped shorts with built-in boner sleeves. Once they were dry, another worker flipped the shorts over a bin of white powder, which he used to help peel them off the molds. After that, they are baked in an oven and rinsed in chemicals so they can be worn without lubricant.
All the women at Fetisso seemed to work upstairs in the finishing department, a breezy room where a poster on the wall denoted employees’ birthdays. The women laughed and chatted as they worked, trimming black latex briefs and shining up underwear with silicone spray. Monica Maria, Junior’s wife, assembled the porny packaging of Fetisso’s products. The particular box she was holding featured a naked woman holding a gloved arm crossed over her breasts. I asked Monica if she had ever worn any of the clothing she helps make. She told me that she had the shorts and the thong and wore them every once in a while. I asked her if they made her feel like she was in power or had control. “Not really,” she said.
Nissinho said he had tried on a shirt for Carnaval once, but it was too hot and sweaty. I asked him what his favourite part of his job was. “When I get paid,” he said. I guess not everyone at the company shares Willi and Fritz’s enthusiasm for latex.
Willi on his patio (the dry erase board is for German and math classes for workers’ kids.)
In the section of Capital entitled “The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret Thereof,” Marx wrote about wood being turned into tables: “It is changed into something transcendent… It stands on its head, and evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas, far more wonderful than ‘table-turning’ ever was.” I was almost certain the workers at Fetisso weren’t purposely bewitching their products, but perhaps something mystical happens in the alchemical process of rubber being transformed into fetish wear.
The next day, I visited a Brazilian rubber plantation. A seringueiro, who collects latex the same way it has been done for centuries, lent me his knife and showed me how to score a tree myself. Watching the milky sap run down the tree’s raw, pale trunk made me feel like there might be something to this. That latex was somehow naturally connected with sexual power and maybe Fetisso had tapped into that. Willi had harnessed his secret shame to build the life of his dreams. He had retired at 54, surrounded by friends and the objects of his sexual desire, not to mention the Brazilian beach and breezy tree houses. Needless to say, I am still looking for my version of latex – something that fulfills and excites me in the same way.
René’s precision design tools and Fetisso’s catalog. (Look at the shine on those socks!)
Several weeks later, back in New York City, I found myself walking to Gothic Renaissance, a fantasy store near Union Square. The well-lit boutique was filled with neon corsets, spike-encrusted leather and a plethora of platform boots.
“I’m interested in latex,” I told the voluptuous blond counter girl. She raised her eyebrows at me.
“What exactly are you looking for?” It seemed like a trick question, but she explained that many people who asked for latex actually wanted vinyl – latex’s less expensive fabric-backed imitator and, seemingly, an easier sell.
I told her I was looking for proper latex. The real deal.
“You should know what you’re getting into,” she confided. “It’s thicker, shinier, more sexual than vinyl.” It might need time to mold to my body, she said. “But once you figure it out, it’s waaaaaay worth it.”
Hanging on the pegs below the cash register were Fetisso’s little black boxes: gloves for men and women, an asymmetrical dress, leggings and a top. I asked which product was the most popular.
“The gloves,” she said. “People love the gloves.”
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