Kim Kardashian West and Lady Gaga are fans of the natural, vegan material with fetishistic associations. Now it’s dominating catwalks and popular culture.
In stark relief to the face masks being donned at Paris fashion week in the wake of coronavirus, Kim Kardashian West showed up to her husband Kanye West’s show in a mustard-coloured latex bodysuit. The outfit, from Balmain, was typical Kardashian: body con and striking for social media.
Latex has dominated the runways and pop culture this season. Lady Gaga’s new video shows her in a Power Ranger pink latex two-piece. At Saint Laurent, latex leggings were paired with boxy suit jackets, while photos of inflatable latex trousers – likened to Aladdin’s pants – from the London College of Fashion graduate Harikrishnan, went viral on social media. He says he chose the fabric because “it is quite a statement. It comes with embedded fetish imagery … Most people haven’t experienced it and would often associate latex to costumes and hypersexuality.”
For Prof David Tyler, from Manchester Fashion Institute, latex’s ability to shock is simple: “It is its ability to be a second skin and reveal shape,” he says. The photographer Robert Mapplethorpe caused outrage after featuring latex bodysuits in his work – his 1978 Joe/Rubberman, for example, features a man in a latex outfit, lying on his back, possibly sleeping, in a Renaissance-esque pose.
Designers such as Alexander McQueen, Versace and Gareth Pugh have also riffed on latex’s associations with subcultures and decadence.
And yet, despite its synthetic and futuristic appearance, latex is actually a vegan and organic substance, derived from tree sap. This is one of the reasons why the vegan designer Stella McCartney has used the fabric in place of leather in her footwear.
When worn best, the oppositional qualities between the natural world and artificial fetishwear – are displayed to full effect. Think of Lady Gaga meeting the Queen in in a red puffed-sleeved latex dress and Beyoncé walking the Met Gala red carpet in 2016 in a soft pink, floral, Atsuko Kudo X Givenchy latex dress. Madonna wore it in her “S&M Hollywood Squares” video in 1994 as a way of silencing those who had slut-shamed her for the Sex Book and Erotica. It was a deliberate nod to the subversive and shocking nature of latex – and the sexual freedom it evokes. “Good design evinces an aesthetic response,” says Tyler.
This is exactly what latex does: disrupts sartorial norms and creates controversy. And now, thanks to the Paris runways and Kim Kardashian West, it is an insurgent fabric once again.