For anyone aware of the historical roots of the modern fetish fashion scene, the name Kim West should trigger immediate recognition.
From its launch in the mid ’80s to the mid ’90s when Kim left the UK, Kim West Clothing was one of the best known latex fashion labels.
It appealed to the emerging generation of style-conscious pervs but also represented everything London trend-watchers considered cool about the capital’s emerging “rubber revolution”.
Kim’s designs were embraced by the music world long before latex became the fabric of choice for every stylist working on a pop video.
Her clothes were featured regularly in the British fashion press and worn by popstars like Adam And and Kylie Minogue and actresses such as Helena Bonham Carter and Isabella Rosselini.
Kim’s experiments with patterns and colours led to striking creations such as the Zebra Dress, and she was the first designer to print onto latex.
Among her numerous high profile creative collaborations were the white rubber stockings Naomi Campbell wore when she took that famous tumble off her ten-inch heels during a Vivienne Westwood catwalk show in 1993.
That very same year, Channel 4 commissioned Kim to make a TV documentary about male bonding. The programme, called The Sex Hunters, aired on December 17 1993.
One week later a new man walked into her life, sweeping her off her feet and across the ocean to Los Angeles, where she would end up living for the next seven years.
But it turns out that when she ran away to LA, Kim hadn’t given up rubber fashion forever. Fifteen years of marriage and two children later, she’s back in the UK, and, from her new base in Oxford, she has just relaunched Kim West Clothing as an internet business.
I began our Q&A by asking Kim why she chose this particular time to relaunch. After all, the latex fashion scene is very different from when the Kim West brand was in its heyday. Many more labels now compete in a market that is currently still suffering the effects of recession.
KW: “Once I decided to relaunch, it all happened really quickly. From an initial idea of just putting my 1990 catalogue online, it snowballed into a whole new collection.
“It never occurred to me not to launch. I know we are in a recession but the time felt right for me personally to do a new collection and I couldn't wait. I am in it for the long haul and will ride it out with the rest of them. Sales since launch are already encouraging.”
It never occurred to me not to launch. I know we are in a recession but the time felt right for me to do a new collection and I couldn't wait’
TM: People who recall Kim West as a strong brand from the '80s and ’90s will surely watch its return with interest, but there's a whole younger generation of latex lovers to whom the name may mean very little. Why should they be interested; what can you offer that they can't already get elsewhere?
KW: “Someone told me recently that they loved my clothes because they put the woman first. I’ve always had a knack for knowing what suits a woman and what brings out her best features. There will always be a market for that.
“My aim is to get women who haven't discovered yet that they are latex lovers to wear it! Every single model I have used in the last few weeks has never worn latex before and they have all asked to keep an item of clothing. They love it.
“It’s great that younger newcomers to the scene might discover me but I am also interested in non-scene women and older ladies. My designs are very flattering for those that aren’t blessed with the body of a supermodel.
“I’m selling to an older clientèle as well now, which is interesting. Women in their 40s, 50s and 60s are still looking sensational and older women from the liberated ’60s generation still want to look and feel sexy.
“I'm confident the word will spread like it did last time. This time thanks to the internet, it will be even faster.”
TM: You pioneered techniques like printing on latex, and now there is a wide variety of printed latex from labels such as Atsuko Kudo. How will printed latex feature in your new line?
KW: “Atsuko's printed designs are wonderful. I’m doing the leopard again because it was always such a good seller.
“Another best-seller was what I used to call the Zebra Dress (now the Bandeau Dress). I would glue the strips of black rubber onto white which was a right faff. I decided to get the zebra printed this time and I’m so pleased with it. I would like to add more prints but only if I think the design suits it.”
TM: The arrival of Radical Rubber seems to have unleashed a lot more creativity with latex. What do you feel about all these new colours and textures that have become available since you were last working with sheet latex?
KW: “I was very pleased to find a new supplier on the market! I love Radical’s colours and the original company, 4D, have also added some new colours in the last 15 years. I’m sad to see one of my favourites has gone though — pearlsheen lilac.
“Radical’s rubber is a slightly different quality and takes a bit of getting used to but I've got the hang of it now and I love it. Electrum is my favourite. I usually pick up my latex from their shop in London and they are always friendly and helpful.”
TM: In your first decade, you got a lot of mainstream interest from celeb customers and the media. How do you see latex fashion in relation to the mainstream today, and do you expect to rekindle the kind of mainstream interest you previously enjoyed?
KW: “There seemed to be a long period of time when rubber wasn't featuring at all in the mainstream media. It's back in vogue again now, which is perfect timing for me.
“My strength lies in the fact that my clothes are very wearable and I cross over easily into the mainstream market. In the ’80s and ’90s I appealed to both the fetish and fashion markets and I see no reason why that shouldn't continue.
‘My strength lies in the fact that my clothes are very wearable and I cross over easily into the mainstream market’
“I have already had a piece in the Saturday Telegraph magazine and it doesn't get much more mainstream than that. The enquiries that have come as a result of that article are all from women who have never worn latex before.
“The women I want to get into it are the ones who would normally turn their noses up at the idea of a latex frock. Half the battle is to actually get them to try it on.
“They have a stereotypical image in their head of a black latex catsuit that’s going to be difficult to get on. But I design all my clothes so they’re easy to put on and wear.
“I have always treated latex as a normal fabric. I was first drawn to how interestingly it behaved. You do have to be careful, though, not to make it look naff.
“I think rubber frills are a bit dodgy — although I’ve been guilty of using them myself. A white and pink dress I made for the Embassy fashion show, back in 1985, had large ruffles down the front. Not my finest hour.”
TM: Your original designs were very popular as fetish and alternative clubwear. Do you plan to promote to today’s club scene, for example with fashion shows, or does the internet now offer you better ways of promoting your designs?
KW: “I would like to show videos in the clubs, rather than a traditional fashion show. At a party I threw recently, we had a room showing a ten-minute loop of my films and the room was jammed all night.
“It's a brilliant way to show my designs in action and it's a whole lot easier to send a DVD around the world than loads of outfits and models.
“I am loving the internet. What a fantastic way to get stuff out there! In the old days the only way to find my clothes was if you read Skin Two magazine or stumbled across my shop in Kensington Market.
“I did get quite a lot of mainstream press and that generated interest but it was a hard slog getting constant editorial. Now, with the internet, my online shop is open to the whole world. I find that a very exciting prospect.”
TM: Apart from having a web store, you’re now posting videos of your clothes on YouTube. Given the film-making backgrounds of both yourself and your husband, should we assume this will be a key element of your marketing from now on?
KW “This is the aspect I am most excited about. When I had the initial idea to relaunch, it was quickly followed by the idea to make a video of every new design.
“When I made my third catalogue 20 years ago, it was a two-day shoot. After the first day I invited my friend, Sebastion Sharples, to come along and film. What became apparent afterwards was that I loved the video more than the photos.
“In those days there was no way of showing it so I sat on it for 20 years wondering how I could get it seen. So, some of the video snapshots you see on my website now are 20 years old from that shoot, but they still look fresh today.
“You can see the quality is different because we took the footage from Video 8 tape, but the girls still look fabulous. There is definitely a Kim West 'look' — and that is strong, beautiful, confident women.
“So yes, video will always be central to our marketing now. And would I have relaunched without the internet? Truthfully, I’m not sure I would have. I love the immediacy of the net. I was seeing instant results from day one.”
TM: Apart from the internet and the ability to use video to promote your clothes, what things have changed most from when you were last involved 15 years ago?
KW: “I am dazzled by the brilliance of the new designers out there and how fantastic everyone looks in the clubs these days. There was a time when a fetish club was awash with black catsuits.
“I think that a lot of people are buying and making rubber clothes themselves these days and doing a brilliant job of it. When I first started, I imagined I would be doing it for six months. I never expected the kind of interest it got and that I would do it for ten years.
“The scene has grown hugely in the last 15 years and is much more open and accepted. Having said that, it still raises eyebrows when I tell people what I do, so I’m glad to say it hasn't lost it's edge.”
‘I am dazzled by the brilliance of the new designers out there and how fantastic everyone looks in the clubs these days’