It’s now just over a year since two of London’s most prominent fetish brands — House of Harlot and Torture Garden — announced that they were pooling production facilities.
Since November 2006, Torture Garden clothing has been produced at House of Harlot’s Holloway Road HQ and Harlot chief Robin Archer has assumed design responsibilities for the TG range, now called Torture Garden Style, alongside his own, with a brief to maximise production efficiency for the two brands while maintaining their separate identities.
The merger was not just a way for the two lines to improve profitability at a time when the latex fashion market was in a bit of a slump. It also brought to an end a period of bad blood between the two companies that dated back to when Harlot’s original production manager, Kaisu Paakola (who tragically died in 2002) left the firm to start the TG Clothing range for Torture Garden.
It doesn’t seem all that long ago that Robin Archer was saying the best way forward for him was to close his Holloway Road shop, move all his regular retail business online, and spend more time with his couture customers. But then the opportunity for the tie-up with Torture Garden came along, he took it, and a year down the line, he finds himself saying that 2007 has turned out to be an “exciting and extraordinary” year for House of Harlot.
“The incorporation of Torture Garden's clothing range into House of Harlot’s production has been good for us as a brand grouping, and has certainly increased sales, giving us another feather in our cap,” he says. And, he adds, it has not been at the expense of HoH sales. “We have been able to offer a broader range of product and style direction to a wider spectrum of the fetish scene as well as responding to the burgeoning fashion-world interest in all things rubbery.”
This year saw the two brands making several joint appearances at key fetish events, and with the favourable response his new TG Style designs have received, Robin promises 2008 will bring an even greater level of collaboration on shows and events worldwide.
Both House of Harlot and Torture Garden Style will now introduce new designs more frequently than in the past, and, says Robin, while many will be off-the-peg, the fact that “nothing we do is ever in seriously high volume” means that effectively “everything is a limited edition”. HoH will seek to develop more unique items for the individually tailored market, while TG style will cater to the eclectic club mix with more styles for the clubber and the private party-goer. “Let us never forget,” says Archer, “it's all about the dressing up and having fun!”
‘House of Harlot has, uniquely among latex fetish firms, established relationships with a number of Paris fashion houses’
Most people with an interest in fetish are aware that House of Harlot has, uniquely among latex fetish firms, established relationships with a number of Paris fashion houses, resulting in projects which are “always exciting and fruitful for both parties” even if Harlot’s name is not usually on the labels.
But perceptions of the significance of House of Harlot as a brand are also bolstered by the amount of mainstream media coverage its products get in comparison with other latex fashion labels. In the past year the label has been bombarded regularly with requests from the likes of W, Vogue, Elle, Grazia, Bizarre, The Times, ES magazine and Loaded, all of whom have been chasing fetish, especially latex stockings. This, says Robin Archer, is a reflection of mainstream fashion's perception of the significance of the fetish ‘look’.
“There is a very real extent these days to which the senior stylists of the fashion press work hand in glove with the fashion designers, and this has undoubtedly led to more involvement for us with mainstream high-fashion houses,” he explains. This year’s big-name HoH collaborators have included Sonia Rykiel, Giles Studio and even House of Holland.
“The stylists/designers come to us for a bit of erotic seasoning,” reckons Archer. “The shock-value of rubber's sexual allure never diminishes. We in the scene are so inured to this iconic material that we forget its power to shock and titillate the mainstream. The juxtaposition of a pair of latex opera gloves with a couture coat is the 21st century equivalent of an exposed nipple in the fashion pages of the last century.”
The attention Harlot gets from the fashion press has a knock-on effect with other media such as advertising, entertainment, TV, film and music promo, so in essence, when the mainstream media want rubber, they tend to call House of Harlot. This year has seen the label supplying over 60 items of clothing to Beyoncé Knowles alone, for her Green Light video and her stage shows. (For those who don’t yet know it, Green Light sees Beyonce and her dance troupe performing in latex and ballet heels, and is a real cornucopia of kinkery.)
‘This year has seen the label supplying over 60 items of clothing to Beyoncé, for her Green Light video and her stage shows’
“We have also worked with Christina Aguilera (again) and Gwen Stefani, dressing her Harajuku girls for the AMA awards show,” Robin continues. “We made four inflatable robot suits for the BBC's Hyperdrive sci-fi comedy, elements for the current Pirelli calendar, the Fuel calendar also, and most recently, the current Christmas Playstation 3 advert on British TV.
“We were featured on the South Bank's profile of Grayson Perry [the Turner Prize-winning potter and celebrity transvestite]. We also made a pony-boy outfit for Madonna's film directorial debut, and we have even just finished a special suit for a new character created by Al Murray of Pub Landlord fame.”
But given that the fetish scene is now so accustomed to being plundered by the mainstream for ideas and imagery which only the mainstream seems to profit from, just how much measurable benefit does all this media exposure and celebrity work bring to House of Harlot?
“Executing all this special project work is exciting and rewarding in many ways,” reckons Robin Archer. “It is stimulating for us to produce unique pieces as well as our own Harlot original collection pieces for these projects for all sorts of reasons: creative satisfaction, kudos, press exposure, celebrity endorsement and of course financial reward. While we don't always get broad public recognition for these works — we cannot get our logo in the background behind these stars — our involvement usually filters through into some people's awareness.
“I think we get chosen for these projects for several reasons. Our reputation for timely delivery (which is crucial) plays an important part, but more so for our quality, tailoring and above all, classic design. We are often told that we offer something extra, something a bit special in the end product, a bit of magic that makes clients happy.”
As for what new lines to expect in the near future, well look out for more on the sexy underwear front, as well as new corsets and suits for women, and more menswear too. In terms of business, Robin foresees an ever increasing dependence on web-based sales, with the HoH website becoming an increasing focus of his attention.
“From that perspective alone,” he says, “it is great to see that our reputation precedes us and clients have the confidence to buy our products online. In fact we regularly receive accolades by e-mail from satisfied customers. It is as important to offer customer service online as it is when dealing on a face-to-face basis, and we will be working hard to maintain that status.”
‘It is as important to offer customer service online as it is on a face-to-face basis, and we’ll be working to maintain that status’