In its early days, latex fashion was more a contradiction in terms than a valid category. Clothing came in one or two colors — black or red — and often seemed to be “one size fits none”.
Acquiring the stuff was time-consuming, secretive and costly, often involving postal money orders, catalogues which took months to arrive, and then byzantine ordering processes. In the end, the latex fashionista ended up with a moulded piece which ripped on first contact, or which simply didn't fit.
Now that more designers have entered the fray, creative people are also inspired by what they see to experiment with creating latex fashion, and most times offer it for close to the same price as latex pieces from the '90s.
Equally exciting is the high quality, and the great fit! Add the internet to the mix, and latex fashion is now much more international, accessible and prevalent.
Sadly, with added exposure and interest, it now also becomes much easier to try to capitalise on the trend with hastily constructed copies of originals. To a latex fashion lover, the prospect of even less expensive clothes is tantalising.
What may be at stake, however, is your favourite latex designer's survival, your fiscal and physical health, and most certainly the high standards we've come to expect from latex fashion.
Copies are certainly not new to this small segment of the fashion industry — many companies got their start by studying and copying the style and construction of other company's pieces and then evolving and growing into their own styles.
I call this teaching method “reverse engineering”. Most people know it goes on in the Far East, but for some well-known designers it has also happened much closer to home.
Famous British latex label House of Harlot has been the victim of reverse engineering throughout the firm’s history. Says owner and chief designer Robin Archer:
“Worse than being copied by the Far East is to be copied by apparently reputable manufacturers from Europe. A client once brought us a dress to repair, and we were very confused as we thought at first that it was one we had made. The label was worn away, but the dress was almost identical to our Cop dress.
“We compared it to our actual pattern and it was exactly the same. It turned out to be produced by a company based in Amsterdam to whom we used to sell wholesale! Competition is hard enough without having plagiarism to deal with too.”
One Italian fond of recreating Jane Doe designs justifies her actions by saying that in Italy people go to seamstresses often to ask for copies
Sometimes a local designer based in an area where there is a small or non-existent fetish scene and few or no local fetish manufacturers or retailers may be approached by customers and asked to recreate someone else’s piece.
This can happen when the client either wants the convenience of a local designer, or hasn't budgeted enough time to acquire the garment from its original creator.
One Italian copycat who seems especially fond of recreating Jane Doe designs has justified her actions by saying:
“I’m sorry if someone is offended by my ‘copy’ but over here in Italy many people come to seamstresses to ask [for] models [seen] on tv or [in a] magazine lol.” Well that’s all right then.
Another copycat designer currently based in England often uses ignorance of the latex fetish market as her excuse for producing line-for-line copies of Breathless, Marquis and DeMask items among others, stating in an online discussion:
“When the Breathless issue came up you will see that I said a customer sent that photo to me and asked if we could make one. I was not aware it belonged to Breathless."
This kind of piecemeal copying is relatively small scale, and has been going on since latex fetish fashion first captured the imagination of the kinky population.
What's changed in recent years is the scale and scope of copying — it’s an industry now — and the prevalence of counterfeit goods in the marketplace, particularly on eBay.
I dislike singling out one country as the main offender. However it has to be said that much of the most outrageous copying done on a large scale is coming from a handful of companies in China.
I decided to talk to some designers and latex manufacturers whose work we'd spotted on eBay knock-off sites, to get a better handle on this phenomenon.
I spoke to the owners of Libidex, House of Harlot, Pretty Pervy and Kaori's Latex Dreams, all based in London; and to the owners of the German label Savage-Wear, based in Berlin.
All of these labels have found themselves copied at one time or another, and are probably being copied today as you read this. Some, like House of Harlot and Libidex, have probably been copied for close on two decades now.
Pretty Pervy believes its designs are copied both by individuals “for personal use” and by companies for profit. In the earlier days of copying, Libidex saw the bulk of copies created in America for clients who were apparently unwilling to risk overseas excursions or shipping.
In the earlier days, Libidex saw the bulk of copies created in America for clients apparently unwilling to risk purchasing from overseas
Designers are made aware of the copycats through word of mouth (customers or fans often spot the copies on eBay or online forums), or in Libidex's case, through extensive daily research by a staffer dedicated to this task.
Sometimes the discovery can be embarrassing to the firm and client. As Pretty Pervy's Robert Miller explains:
“Usually customers or people familiar with Pretty Pervy designs have alerted us to them. On several occasions the owner of a custom piece has contacted us, having seen copies of their outfit.
“Sometimes we have stumbled across them by accident. Once we were sent a photograph of a copy of one of our designs by a prospective customer who was asking if we could produce a copy of it!”
And, as Robin Archer’s comments above indicate, sometimes designers meet their copied work in person when an unsuspecting buyer brings in the copy to them for repair.
I think it's easy for those of us who follow fetish fashion closely to assume that all latex clothing customers are equally obsessive about trends and designers, so surely they must recognise a copy when they see it, or view a garment warily if the price seems too good to be true.
But I believe we latex design enthusiasts can overestimate the importance of fetish fashion in others’ daily lives. Now that latex is more prevalent in the mainstream, there's simply no telling how a certain item will come to a customer's attention, or how knowledgeable a buyer is.
Of course, there is also an unfortunate segment of the latex-buying public who believe they deserve immediate gratification for next-to-no cost.
Such people often justify their purchases by saying knock-offs are prevalent in the mainstream fashion industry, and that copies are simply part of doing business as a fashion designer.
Eventually, less sales, in combination with the recent increase in the cost of raw materials, will force designers to cut back or even close up shop.
What’s worrying, to someone who thrives on documenting the creative work in the industry, is seeing a designer lose the desire to create because they believe their work will just end up badly reproduced, or their photographs will be stolen and used to sell counterfeit versions.
Eventually, less sales, in combination with the recent increase in the cost of raw materials, will force designers to cut back or close up shop
Simon Rose, owner and chief designer of Libidex, tells of “how de-motivating this massive surge in copycatting” has been.
“We have been meaning to put out a new range for men for nearly a year and a half, but I have not felt the thrill I usually feel when we are planning design projects and photo-shoots.
“This is down to the fact that up until recently over 500 photos that we spent a lot of time, effort and money producing have been being used illegally by more than 20 Chinese-run websites.
“The thought of pouring our creative energy into new designs in order to keep the latex scene vibrant, and then having our images stolen within days of posting them on our site, doesn't really help the creative flow, as you can well imagine!"
Pretty Pervy has stopped posting much of its work online in the past two years, after seeing it misappropriated. As a business that thrives on custom orders, it has to be careful not to allow its customers' original dreams to be copied.
“It's a frustrating situation,” says owner/designer Robert Miller, “but it's infuriating to spend a considerable length of time prototyping an idea only to have it copied in next to no time, albeit in a cut price way.
“And yes, to be perfectly honest, I have lost enthusiasm for flaunting our creativity too publicly!”
Savage-Wear’s Alex and Heidi have similar concerns. “Sometimes we are a little bit afraid of publishing our newest creation, if it’ll end up soon on some Chinese website anyway."
Kaori, on the other hand, says she doesn't worry as much, and feels she should just keep going with her designs.
I sense some frustration in my discussions with designers, particularly among the smaller firms who lack the manpower to devote to monitoring the Internet for copies.
Libidex has assigned one of its admin staff the specific job of monitoring the unauthorised use of its images, which can amount to hundreds upon hundreds of copies the same image being shared across the web. But you can see how such daily work would negatively impact a smaller company’s output.
An e-mail to the copycat can sometimes be enough to halt the copies or get them removed, as Kaori found:
“The replies were very blunt and oblivious to why it is a problem for us, but they agreed to take the listings down in the end, which means they knew what they were doing.” But of course many other e-mails are simply ignored.
There’s hope yet, though. Libidex co-director Nigel Walker shared a tip with me about a very useful tool against the copycats — the merchant service provider.
PayPal, Paydollar.com, ips.cn and 95epay.com are agents who process credit card payments for MasterCard and Visa worldwide, and are, Nigel explains, regulated by a code of practice which forbids them to do business with sellers that commit offences such as breaching copyright.
“That's why they are pretty hot on chasing up any copyright infringements reported to them," he says. Nigel and Libidex have successfully targeted five copycat sites this way, although there are always more to go.
House of Harlot is signed up to VeRO, which, says Robin Archer, means a single e-mail can get unauthorised copies taken off eBay within hours
House of Harlot has had success removing stolen ideas and images on eBay through VeRO (Verified Rights of Ownership).
“We signed up for that some years ago,” says Robin Archer, “and anytime one of our designs, whether a copy or one of our original images stolen from our site, appears on eBay, we can get it taken down within hours, through one e-mail to them.”
Kaori Matsubara has also been able to get most Latex Dreams copies on eBay removed, by proving ownership of the original images.
All the designers who participated in this article have played important parts in raising the standard and creativity in latex fetish fashion, in some cases for two decades or more.
It is surely dishonorable to endanger their livelihood and creative endeavours by knowingly buying copies from firms and individuals who haven't put in the time or passion into this highly specialised sector of the fashion market.
Deceptive merchants and suppliers must be encouraged to focus their energy on creating their own safe, hygienic and wearable creations that will benefit, not harm, the market.
And the more information that is made available to consumers about copycats and design theft, the closer we come to stemming this practice.
In recent months several blogs have been created which highlight this growing practice, such as Kink Engineering's Knock-off Knock Down site and blog (the site contains lists of questionable merchants), and an educational campaign from the Miss Rubber World organisation and current title holder, Archean.
Highlighting these issues in newsletters and on company websites, as for example both Libidex and Germany’s RubbersFinest do, is also a great way of informing consumers of potential risks. And of course there is word of mouth through eBay buyer's feedback and on forums.
Fetish fashion has come too far — and still has so much potential for amazing work — to allow its growth to be stifled or curtailed. But the industry can only slow down the tidal wave of counterfeits with your help.
Fetish fashion has come too far to allow its growth to be stifled or curtailed. But the tidal wave of copies can only be slowed with your help