Fashion has always flirted with fetishism. Take La Vénus à la fur, a little erotic novel by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, or the “Fetish” exhibition around the shoe as an obsessive object in 2007 at the Cartier Foundation by the filmmaker David Lynch and the shoe designer Christian Louboutin, as examples of how shapes and materials can ignite minds.

While the erotic power of leather and fur is a given, these two materials are on the decline in the face of protests over how animals suffer in their production. Fur is taboo, and if Kering has banned it from its collections, some magazines, like Elle, have also decided not to show it anymore. This calls into question the attractiveness of these two materials: what is their secret, and how do we replace them?

The emblem of courage

Let us put aside the suffering that their use ensures. Fur and leather are literally prehistoric materials that humanity, at its dawn, borrowed from animals to dress itself. In this respect – and we have never ceased to marvel at it – for the human species nudity has always been an extraordinary stimulus for creativity. Closer to home, fur has been, from the great age of Hollywood to the present day, the most obvious outward sign of wealth, always associated with fine jewelry. Leather, first reserved for men, especially fighter pilots, whose jackets were the emblems of courage, began to infiltrate women’s locker rooms of the 1960s in force, where designers like Pierre Cardin and Courrèges hijacked it, adapted it, colored, varnished and laced it with metal to create an optimistic and geometric futurism.

Sulfur vapors

Over the years, leather has become a powerful shell that gives a kind of authority to the wearer. The Leather Woman intimidates, feels like she’s leading the game. She’s equipped for any adventure. In the 1980s, Jean-Paul Gaultier and Thierry Mugler used leather to make hyper-sexual corsets. The AIDS years, like our Covid years, inspired a fashion that compensated for the difficulty of physical contact by stimulating fantasies, keeping eroticism awake for later, after the crisis, when the world would be better.

Latex and vinyl were offered as alternatives to leather. The fashion industry, aware of the rejection of animal materials by the new generation of customers, explored how to replace these problematic products. Latex, or rubber, had already been used in the Western clothing industry from the 19th century and the first trench coat, made with cotton canvas impregnated with latex, an invention of the chemist Charles Macintosh, was put on the market in the early 1820s.

The return of the veterans

Strangely, however, latex, whose somewhat sticky touch is closer to human skin than leather, would provoke such a fetishistic delirium that it was seen as vulgar. It was perhaps the visionary and uninhibited Vivienne Westwood who was the first to dare to offer her “Rubber Maid’s dresses” in 1971 in her London boutique “Let it Rock” on King’s Road. Latex navigated between the sulfur vapors of the red-lantern districts and the unbridled anticipations of the space age, until becoming, thanks in part to Michelle Pfeiffer’s catsuit as Catwoman in Batman Returns (1992), a new symbol of feminine power. Tight, varnished in its vinyl version, to better exalt the silhouette, latex has been making a strong comeback on catwalks since at least 2017.

Unsurprisingly, just as fashion is stepping into the metaverse with the ambition of dressing your avatars for all your virtual occasions, it’s Kim Kardashian who’s getting the ball rolling in latex fashion. With its eroticized silhouette and the idea of the Plastic Woman, a real desire for anamorphosis, for an idealized deformation of the self-image, has shown the big houses, with Prada and Balenciaga in the lead, that the world demands a new exploration of this now ennobled material, it’s literally being taken out of the closet. And who else but the veterans, from the late Thierry Mugler who created for Kardashian the famous “out of the water” dress, skin-colored, pleated and dripping with crystals on the occasion of the Met Gala 2019, or Vivienne Westwood who comes full circle in 2022 with the very same latex creations with which she had so scandalized the industry forty years earlier?