“I love the smell, feel and look of latex. It excites me,” says Michelle Mildenhall. “Whenever I slip into it I feel sexy; it gives me a feeling of empowerment. Which I feel is something the characters in my work share — even the gagged and bound ones!”
The work she’s referring to is the growing series of striking portraits that she executes entirely in sheet latex. The minimalist style she employs lends itself to the creation of iconic, archetypal images, and yet the subjects’ identities are preserved. Who for example could fail to recognise Kumi in the image above?
Latex is obviously not an easy a material to work with at very small scale, so part of the appeal in this work is how well suited Michelle’s style is to the limitations of the fabric. But how did she arrive at that approach — was it the result of a lot of experimentation or did it seem the obvious way to go from the start?
“I had the idea to produce striking portraits in latex — it came to me in a flash of inspiration while I was working on an outfit for myself,” she explains. “The actual concept was quite quick but it was the execution that has taken time to develop. I wanted the art works to look as sleek and sexy as the clothes that are currently available.
“I knew from the start I wanted to create a stylised minimalist piece as it would suit the medium. I feel it shows off the contrast of colours within the latex to its best and the results are striking, unlike anything I've seen before.
“Visually latex is such a beautiful material that it really deserves to be looked at and admired. I want to bring latex out of just the fashion/fetish scene and into interior spaces, but I can see my work adorning the walls of dungeons and club venues too.”
When I first saw one of Michelle’s latex images, it immediately reminded me of the work of the late Patrick Nagel, the famous Playboy artist also known to many for his cover for Duran Duran’s Rio album. So I wondered if she took any inspiration from Nagel’s oeuvre.
She tells me that, aside from the Duran Duran cover, she’s not familiar with his work — but she can see where I’m coming from. Nagel’s technique was to start with a photograph and strip out the elements until he got the minimal version that he wanted (though of course he wasn’t using latex).
So, even if he wasn’t an influence on her, it looks like Michelle has arrived at a similar way of working. She agrees.
“From what you say about him, there are indeed similarities in the way I work and the way he worked. I start with a photograph that really catches my eye, I study it, draw it and try and work out what it is that makes the image so powerful, then I take it down to its basic form.
“It’s not what I’ve put into the design that’s important but what I’ve left out. The negative space is used to its advantage. My portraits have feelings: each one is a character, and their eyes have a story to tell.”
‘It’s not what I’ve put into the design but what I’ve left out. My portraits have feelings: each is a character, and their eyes have a story to tell’
Her influences come from “lots of places”, she says. “I particularly like the work of Aubrey Beardsley — his compositions are often daringly abstract and very striking, and his use of erotic and macabre imagery is stunning still to this day.
“Also, my work originates from studying for my degree in textiles, from previous work as a graphic artist, and not least from my friends and the fabulous people I meet in the fetish scene who inspire me merely by their style.”
“There is so much fetish art that leaves me cold. I wanted to design something which is as sexy and as stylish as the fashions and people of the fetish scene.”
It’s a scene Michelle knows well, as a regular fetish clubber and lover of Torture Garden in particular. “TG was the first club I ever went to ten years ago and I’ve been hooked ever since. I enjoy the whole occasion of TG, the dressiness, performance, fashion shows and all the great characters you meet.
“Club Rub’s equally great fun and I’ve been to The Rubber Ball a few times. I even visited San Francisco for the Fetish Ball some years ago. And I’m looking forward to Rubber Cult — it will be great to see everyone in latex.” [See link, right, for more on the launch of this new rubberist event in London — ed.]
But had she ever been tempted to put her enthusiasm for latex into starting a clothing label? “I have only ever made clothing for personal pleasure,” she says. “I love making new outfits to go clubbing in. It’s a way of expressing my style and having fun with the material.
“But although I adore latex fashion, I have never been tempted to start my own label. I’ve never trained in the area of fashion design; besides, there are so many people doing it already. There's some incredible work out there at the moment by some very talented designers.”
However, she reveals, in the past she has been commissioned to make latex hats. “I’ve custom-made hats for fashion shoots, weddings and for a Lady Lucie fashion show at TG.
“I hope,” she adds, “that with my twist on using latex in art rather than fashion, my work will appeal not only to a new audience of latex lovers and the more serious latex connoisseurs, but to art lovers too.”
Prices for Michelle’s original pieces start at £595, and for commissions, prices are available on application. She is currently also working on the launch of limited edition prints produced from the latex originals, and prices for these will be available as soon as she knows them herself!
‘I hope my twist on using latex in art will appeal not only to a new audience of latex lovers and serious connoisseurs, but to art lovers too’