In the late summer of 2011, House of Harlot, one of the world’s best known and most admired latex fashion labels, finally escaped the Holloway Road premises it had occupied for ten years and relocated to the trendy Brick Lane area of London’s East End.
Its new retail shop and manufacturing headquarters in Princelet Street — five minutes’ walk from Spitalfields Market to the west and the new, ultra-cool Redchurch Street shopping zone to the north — is quite a step up from the old place.
The store is bang in the middle of one of the capital’s most vibrant, up-and-coming multi-ethnic commercial districts. Here, traditional east-Londoners co-exist with immigrant communities and hip international brands increasingly attracted to the area’s mix of street edginess and affordable rents.
Unlike the old Harlot premises, accessed via an iron-barred gate and dismal side alleyway, Shop 2, 63-65 Princelet Street presents a conventional frontage with normal glazed shop-window and door, through which the store interior can be clearly seen.
A curtained-off arch behind the counter at the rear of the store leads through to the workshop, a sizable space where the production team perch on stools at a big rectangular table, cutting and gluing latex.
My visit to the new shop, which opened on October 1 last year, was both to see the new premises and bring myself up to speed on Harlot’s various current activities.
Owner/designer Robin Archer is still as hands-on with the business as when he launched House of Harlot as a side-project with his wife Michelle 21 years ago, and we’ve had many interesting chats over those two decades.
Archer is one of the latex fashion scene’s most interesting and erudite characters, well informed and not afraid of expressing views that may be unpopular among his peers.
Take for example what he thinks about having sales, something many of his competitors were doing at the time of my visit, but Robin, I couldn’t help noticing, was not.
“I don’t bother with sales because they’re a waste of time,” he says. “I’ve found that sales don’t increase your overall business at all — they just affect the bottom line. There’s no point in them — your overheads don’t diminish, so sales just mean you get less money for doing the same amount of work.”
He had previously looked into doing sample clearances on eBay, he adds, but arrived at the conclusion that the auction aspect of eBay has the same effect as sales — it diminishes the brand.
“We might offer something cheap from time to time, but not on a permanently ongoing basis. I don’t want to be the Primark of fetish, having sales all the time,” he explains.
‘We might offer reductions from time to time, but not on an ongoing basis. I don’t want to be the Primark of fetish, having sales all the time’
It was actually Robin’s investigation of eBay that led him to discover several eBay stores selling Harlot knock-offs. “They weren’t all Chinese,” he says. “One was in America, for example, and another was in Eastern Europe.
“But eBay says that its terms mean it defends your copyright, and it applies internationally. So I signed up with eBay Verify, and I’ve been closing down eBay stores for years now.
“One Chinese company offered to take over production for us, but the quality was appalling. The Chinese, as industrialists, like high volume; they like to be paid, and are largely honourable and intelligent. So why do they bother with our market? It’s too small for them.
“As soon as someone buys a low quality Chinese copy and returns it or tries to get a refund, that’ll be the end of their dealings with Chinese companies.”
But, adds the designer, if the problem with Chinese latex is that the quality is too low, the problem with House of Harlot is rather the opposite.
“We know we make things too well,” he confesses. “Our stuff can last 10-15 years if it’s looked after. It’s not like high street fashion; with Primark you can look on-trend very affordably. But rubber is so much more expensive than woven fabric: we’re paying £8 plus VAT a metre for 90cm wide, medium weight rubber.”
A glint appears in his eye as he adds, “As a matter of fact we are seriously considering a range called House of Harlot Wear and Tear.” A diffusion line that embodies the promise of fabric failure in its name? That, I would like to see! (And Archer says the name has been registered, so he may not be entirely joking.)
Recently a group of UK labels led by House of Harlot successfully curtailed the multiple copyright-infringing activities of a Swedish latex website. Their campaign was helped by some recent important changes in European law covering copying of designs.
In essence, it is no longer true under European law that changing a handful of details in a copied garment is sufficient for knock-off merchants to avoid legal action.
As a result, examples of designers successfully suing for copyright infringement have increased so dramatically that major high-street players like Top Shop are now sending their design staff on courses to understand how not to accidentally copy someone.
“I studiously avoid copying people,” Robin insists. “I’m arrogant enough to think I don’t need to, and that I shouldn’t.” But that doesn’t mean he underestimates the problems small-scale fetish companies have, trying both to be original and keep a business going.
“A while back,” he reminds me, “I said to you that fetish had gone from cottage industry to semi-detached. Well now it’s gone from cottage to semi-detached and back to cottage again.”
‘I once said fetish had gone from cottage industry to semi- detached. Now it’s gone from cottage to semi-detached and back to cottage again’
It’s pretty obvious that House of Harlot isn’t a label for those wanting low-priced latex basics (“We don’t really do a basic rubber dress any more,” Robin confirms). But the bigger truth is that Harlot no longer even relies on fetish customers for its survival; it is the other markets the label has tapped into that keep the business healthy.
“We do a lot of unique work now,” Archer explains. “We’ve been doing work for Madame Tussauds, Balenciaga, Marc Jacobs, [UK high-end menswear line] Cassimi, Giles Deacon… those kind of jobs. If we only focused on the fetish market, where would we be?”
Harlot’s reputation as the go-to name for commercial projects has been carefully nurtured over the years. These days it may have more competition for prestigious fashion editorials and celebrity commissions — not least from erstwhile Holloway Road neighbour Atsuko Kudo — but it is still top dog in the lucrative contract market, where you don’t see Harlot’s name on the finished product.
A while back, for example, there was quite a hoo-ha on the UK latex scene when Top Shop introduced a small range of basic latex separates — a top, a skirt and leggings — with prices about double what you might pay for the same item from a latex retailer on eBay.
That contract was fulfilled by House of Harlot. Top Shop ordered a hundred of each style, Harlot duly supplied the garments, everything sold out online within days, and there were no returns. It was a smart piece of marketing by a high street label that knows its commercial onions.
You would think that other latex designers would have been champing at the bit to get similar commissions from a big operator (and good payer) like Top Shop. But instead, the general reaction was that Top Shop’s prices were outrageous, with various latex designers claiming they could provide better quality at half the price — a classic case of fetish industry myopia.
In 2011 the work House of Harlot did just for Marc Jacobs — its best commercial customer — was, Robin estimates, worth around £30,000. It’s work like that, he says, that keeps House of Harlot in business. “From our point of view it pays the rent. When we cut for Vuitton or Marc Jacobs, they pay for every hour we put in.”
But are those celebrity costuming jobs as valuable? What real benefit comes from providing latex outfits for the likes of Christina Aguilera, Beyoncé, Katy Perry or Lady Gaga — especially if there’s no guarantee you’ll get the credit for it in any mainstream reportage?
“There is an extent to which celebrity custom is of debatable value,” Robin admits. “The core fetish market resents it — they think it’s just bandwagon jumping, or only done for shock value.”
But again, such commissions help pay the rent. So, any interesting new celebrity endorsements in the pipeline?
“We’ve recently made up a load of samples for [voluptuous Mad Men star] Christina Hendricks. You can imagine how I feel about that! I don’t know what will come of it — though obviously I hope something good will come of it.”
In general, says Archer, latex exposure in the real world hasn’t led to people beating a path to Harlot’s door. “Well it did just once. When FHM launched in the US, about 1998, Shania Twain was on the cover of the US edition in our latex, and the phone was ringing every ten minutes with people enquiring.
“But the celebrity endorsement thing has shifted in the last 20 years — now people have become blasé. Young people ‘know’ about rubber now, so it’s not so shocking.
“Beyoncé was good for us, but Gaga has actually made it more inaccessible. The wildness and out-thereness and extremeness of Gaga may have actually been detrimental, because people are now associating latex with an extreme visual effect that you watch but don’t wear.”
‘Gaga’s influence may have been detrimental, as people are now associating latex with an extreme visual effect that you watch but don’t wear’
Our conversation moves on to another big market for latex clothing — one that has been invaluable to House of Harlot, yet whose existence is probably unknown to most fetish folk: Irish traveller weddings.
“Irish travellers are great customers,” says Robin. “They wear rubber in a different way — it’s not a sexual thing for them. Some of them are absolutely gorgeous too! There’s almost a club of them now who are regulars.
“What’s more, they don’t come into the shop looking for us to do versions of stock designs. In fact, the Irish drive us creatively — we do unique things for them all the time.”
Finding the time and the motivation to keep producing original designs is a continuing concern for House of Harlot’s head honcho. It would be great, he says, to be able to take time out from just running the day-to-day business to create some new styles (never mind whole new collections). But other things always seem to take priority.
And even when you do find some time to “knock up a few new catsuits”, the payback can seem to take forever. “You do new designs, you might do a fashion show at a club night, 30 people see it and it takes two years to permeate through to the market,” Robin claims.
But if things are that difficult, why, after its move, does House of Harlot still bother with a shop? In Holloway Road, Robin often talked about wanting to give up bricks-and- mortar retailing. So wouldn’t quitting the old premises have provided the perfect opportunity to switch to online- only retailing, like former neighbour Fettered Pleasures?
“I felt that as we were going to have manufacturing after the move, we might as well have a showroom, and so we might as well have a shopfront too,” comes the reply. “I did think very seriously about whether we needed or wanted this. But it’s part of what the brand is.
“I asked myself: is it a good idea to leave Holloway? I did look for places around Holloway Road, wondering if we should stay. But Holloway Road is still a bit ‘unimproved’” — he means scuzzy — “whereas customers can come here and, if there’s any waiting time involved, they can go away and there’s lots around here to do.”
In fact, the popularity of the area at weekends, with Spitalfields Market and lots of other attractions open on Sundays, has led Harlot to offer regular Sunday opening for retail customers for the first time.
The rent at Princelet Street is more expensive than the old address, Robin admits, but “it’s a good rent, a better shaped place to work in, and a better location”. It also contributes to the new brand image he wants to create.
“London is a destination city, and people visiting London want to come by and see us. So the opportunities the move gives for repositioning are important. It’s no longer about that hideous Holloway Road alleyway and ‘sneaking in to have a look at some rubber’.
“The shop next door [in Princelet Street] will be a designer furniture showroom, and the guys next door are quite enthusiastic about what we do. We don’t look as if we’re doing ‘dirty kinky sex things’. We’re moving away from the traditional fetish look of black red and chrome, to more of a boutique/boudoir/French salon/1960s Soho look. It’s all about repositioning.”
The change of retailing environment is, however, not the only kind of repositioning the label has embarked on. For a long time now, Robin has been toying with broadening the scope of the Harlot brand to include fabrics other than rubber, and this is now coming closer to realisation.
It will be start on a bespoke basis, he explains, with just a few items that are not rubber being offered online and in the shop. It will be stuff that still has recognisable Harlot styling but can be worn during the day when people can’t normally wear rubber. Three examples of the concept can be found in the last row of our Style Gallery, above right.
“High fashion does plenty of stuff that’s ‘bizarre’ but not particularly attractive,” Robin argues. “I always wanted to do stuff that would make people look good and feel good about themselves. Most fetishists don’t wear rubber all day long, and it would be nice to have a range of House of Harlot stuff that people can wear during the day.
“To make a business viable,” he reminds me, “you have to sell a lot of stuff. Otherwise you are one person sitting at a table with a pot of glue. So if I could sell more product to non-fetishists, that would be good.”
‘Most fetishists don’t wear rubber all day long, and it would be nice to have a House of Harlot range people can wear during the day’