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Long banished to back rooms of obscure fetish stores and dance floors of the darkest goth clubs, latex has been sneaking into the mainstream in the wardrobes of some of the more daring designers and trendsetters (see: Kim Kardashian West, Lady Gaga). This is in large part due to the influence of one luxuriously-named New Yorker: The Baroness.
A pioneer in the field of fetish fashions, The Baroness has brought color, variety and a sartorial eye to the medium. As a self-taught costumer and seamstress, she describes her design training as "pretty much nonexistent. I just love clothing, that's always been my thing." She had her own lingerie company for a while, and championed the idea of underwear as outerwear before even Madonna had picked it up, she claims
Her own history with this rubbery fabric, however, began 20 years ago with the gift of a little red dress that she recalls as "short, tight, sleeveless, scoop neck, and really unattractive—just not my style at all." Hardly a magical transformation, she remembers cramming herself into it and feeling "like a stuffed sausage." Despite this rocky start, she was inspired to try working with latex to create more flattering, accessible pieces.
It was from this moment that both her design ethos and retail concept were born. "I added more of a design element," she says. "I added color, which was a huge thing. I made pieces in sizes from extra small to extra large, 'queen size.' We do custom stuff. I really want people to walk away feeling attractive. That's my goal. And that was pretty revolutionary." Plus, she adds, "Because I was planning on people wearing it outside, obviously my stylings were different."
The Baroness's ground-level East 13th Street store is designed to be more of an inviting boutique than an atmospheric dungeon—although some of the odder pieces and the actual sewing room are in the basement—which makes more casual shoppers feel at home. From here, she patiently explains the basics of latex selection and care to the curious. While she admits that the fabric can be intimidating—delicacy, price, fit, and maintenance are all factors to consider before purchase—she's convinced that almost every woman (and man) can work at least one piece of latex into their wardrobe.
So, what is latex, and how is it made into clothing?
Put simply, it's rubber. Made from the sap of the rubber tree, latex is a thin, stretchy, natural material that comes in either fabric-like bolts or liquid form. As The Baroness explains it, "There's a variety of ways you can make latex garments. One is a molded process, which is kind of like making a candle: You dip it." This method is used for smaller, thinner items like hoods, stockings, and gloves.
"If you're going to wear it for your boyfriend in bed, we're talking about an entirely different outfit."
"For more elaborate pieces, like dresses with seams and darts, she insists on working with the lightweight sheets, which are cut from specially adapted patterns and glued together. The material itself is very expensive and everything is made on the premises by her rigorously trained staff in relatively small runs, which accounts for the cost.
How do you work it into your wardrobe?
Adept at handling both the experienced wearer and the novice, The Baroness knows how to gently guide customers through their purchases. "When someone is coming in for the first time the first thing I ask is, ‘Where do you want to wear it?' If you're going to wear it for your boyfriend in bed, we're talking about an entirely different outfit." If the answer is more wardrobe-oriented, she suggests one of her classic pieces, like "a short, tight skirt or a knee-length skirt in black, because we're in New York and we all wear black." She also suggests small accessories, such as gauntlets. For a slightly bolder look, the simple silhouette of her 'Flirty' skater dress can be a good start.
The Baroness's main concern is that all customers walk away properly sized and styled. She wants her shoppers to confidently proclaim, "'I can wear this' as opposed to ‘I can cram my fat ass into this.' My particular goal with a customer is that I want her to feel fabulous." Designed to make the most of curves, her range of sizes ensures that even those who are not model-thin need not be put off by the idea of finding a garment that enhances their shape. "Each latex designer has a design philosophy that he or she goes by. I'm curvy, so my designs will make you look curvy."
How easy is it to wear?
Beyond simply working it into an outfit, there’s the physical issue of actually wearing latex. Some wearers find a specially-formulated lube helps them slide into garments with more ease. And because it’s not a an open fabric, the most frequently asked question The Baroness gets is: "Is it hot?" To which she quips in a Mae West drawl, "Is it hot…?!" It depends on the tightness of the garment, the amount of coverage, and a person’s disposition. "It’s not a breathable material," she points out, "so the moisture that your body produces all the time will accumulate." She, like many latex fans, actually likes the physicality of it, insisting that the experience of wearing the material "brings you back to the temple that your body is."
How do you care for it?
"I always tell people to think about latex as a luxury item," she says, indicating that the fabric is delicate and requires gentle handling. Luckily, washing it is a cinch, since it simply needs to be rinsed off in a tepid bath and hung up to dry periodically. Additionally, she or her staff can handle any tailoring or mending you might need, and they stand by their work. "We have a lifetime guarantee," she explains. "If anything comes apart that's our fault, no questions asked, we repair it; you tear it, we assume you had a really great time, but we charge you."
So what's the allure?
"If you tear it, we assume you had a really great time, but we charge you."
While it has been making appearances on runways and red carpets in recent seasons, The Baroness is well aware the latex will probably never hit the racks of Old Navy, partially due to public misconception and partially due to the cost of creating each garment. For the fashion-forward and self-styled, however, it holds a wide range of possibilities.
"People have a narrow conception of what it’s like. It’s really whatever you want." For the Baroness, it’s about the specialness of owning something you truly love wearing. "I also talk to people about the ritual of dress, because it’s true that you can throw this stuff on, but I really prefer the idea that you’re going somewhere, it’s a special night, you have some champagne, you lay your clothes out," she muses. "You put on the garment, you shine yourself up, you know, really enjoy it...because latex can really transform you."