It’s my second time at the new premises since the firm relocated there from Bloomsbury at the end of August 2015. On my first visit last year, the empty desk that used to belong to Simon’s business partner Nigel Walker, who died suddenly in May 2016, was still in the office, as if awaiting his imminent return.
Now, however, the desk has gone — an indication that time has played its healing role and Simon has been able to move on from the unexpected loss of his co-director and much-loved friend.
“I do miss Nigel an awful lot,” he says, “but I also get satisfaction from discovering that I can run things on my own. I really, really enjoy it, even though I do get a bit lonely in this room, and I have the door open most of the time.”
Deeply though Nigel’s loss was felt by all at Libidex, he had been less involved in the day-to-day running of the business for some time. Had this tragic event occurred just a few years earlier, it seems it would likely have had much more serious consequences for the firm.
“Five years ago it would have been a very different story,” Simon believes. “It would have threatened the business; the company would probably have gone bust.”
In 2017, however, there is no sign of financial uncertainty at Libidex. Quite the reverse, as its successful evolution in the past few years now ranks it as one of the world’s largest latex clothing brands, if not the largest.
It’s that very evolution that I’m here to talk to Simon about today. I’m also anticipating a glimpse into what’s coming up later in the year from this now seemingly unstoppable latex machine.
Occupying most of the upper floor and part of the ground floor of what was originally a 1920s cinema building, 3 St Albans Place, Islington houses Rose and his design team along with sales, marketing and admin personnel, the Radical Rubber trade counter and a ground floor space used as a pop-up shop.
With the company’s clothing production now based elsewhere, the new Libidex HQ is essentially a design studio pure and simple — a development Simon says he’s dreamt of achieving for a quarter of a century.
“What we’ve managed to do is to get between six and maybe nine of us dedicated to design and development. As a result we can do collections now on a more regular basis,” he explains.
“I’m very pleased it’s happening and I have a strong feeling it will carry on. We could have jumped at this ten years ago but might then have had to stop to do this, that or the other.
“It’s what 99 percent of clothing companies do — it’s not a revolution. OK, maybe it is for a latex clothing company — and there may be some others that do this, though I can’t think of any.
“But it’s what nearly every mainstream clothing company does: they have a design centre and that’s it and they get on and constantly design.
“We’re lucky that we’re not led by seasons. Regular clothing companies have to do that most of the time because they’ve got to get ready for next season. But the great thing for us is that what we design can stay on the website and people will always buy it.
“We don’t tend to find too much of a tail-off. There are times when some things are more popular than others but on the whole people are still wanting them over the years. It’s no secret that we keep things on the website, unlike a clothing label.”
The often delicate balance between design and production in latex clothing businesses is something Simon has long been acutely aware of.
It is most obvious at the smaller end of the scale, where sole-traders often struggle to find enough hours in the day both to develop new designs and to produce garments in large enough quantities and reasonable time.
But it can affect latex brands at every level, and, warns Simon, it’s vital to grow your business in a way that is sustainable.
“What we’ve done is create a design studio that will continue to design, and if anything it’s going to get bigger (in terms of staff) and it’s going to get more interesting.”
The studio is always busy because there’s “always a collection on the go”, with the designers usually split into teams, which he finds more manageable.
“I oversee the design and obviously put input in, but a lot of the time, once that process is done, I let them get on with it. I find we get some really nice ideas that way.”
The studio team includes high profile London scene people like Marnie Scarlet and Marie Devilreux. But Simon says he has also sometimes been surprised by how much other staffers “who don’t wear their kinkiness on their sleeve” know about a subject.
“This is why we just let them at it. That’s how we do it. I think people like working that way rather than me going ‘No, no, I wouldn’t do that’. The results are good.”
One such idea that he says is unlikely to be taken up, at least in the form proposed, was to do limited edition garments for a month or so.
“I said, ‘Are you kidding?’ Maybe a limited edition for a year. Because the numbers that you sell are just not worth the effort that would have to go into creating and marketing them.”
But, I ask, what about the Asos approach? A while ago the multinational online fashion retailer bought in two limited runs of latex from House of Harlot (when Robin Archer was still running the company) and they sold out on the Asos UK website in record time.
So with its superior production capacity, wouldn’t an Asos collection be something Libidex might look at doing too?
“The thing about our capacity is that although we’ve got reasonably good production capacity, it’s running at full capacity. We’re not making spare here and there, we’re trying to expand.
“That’s why I haven’t gone to Asos so far. I wouldn’t want us to shoot ourselves in the foot, with them saying, ‘Oh that’s really good, can you do another collection or extend the run?’ and us going, ‘Errr…’.
“This is the point about sustaining things. I’m always like that — I am quite sensible!
“It would gall me if we did something for Asos and then it all just turns to mush because you can’t follow up on it. I’d like to be in the position where you can continue to benefit from it.”
However, Rose believes it would be quite easy to get into the position where Libidex could impress Asos. “So if they said, ‘We’ve just sold 100 of those — can we have 300 by two weeks time?’, we could say, ‘Yes, no problem’.
“And people could be asking for leggings at the same time and we’d say, ‘Well we’ve got this range of leggings, which ones do you want?’, and we could do it.
“And that’s what I want to be in a position to do. Because either you look really amateur or at best just like an artisan set-up if you can’t, or you look really good if you can.”
Outside the industry, the prominence of latex clothing in popular culture easily persuades people that the total market for it must be growing. But it’s not safe to assume the fabric’s embrace by a gaggle of hi-vis celebs automatically means more of the stuff is being bought by the rest of us.
However, everything Simon Rose has been saying suggests to me that he believes the market is expanding. And my impression proves correct.
“Oh it’s definitely expanded,” he says, “and we have managed to get more customers partly because we are able to price our things well.
“We’ve noticed that when we have a sale — a land sale like our cellar sales or pop-up shops — it’s a younger audience. If you can supply stuff that more people can afford, the scene is more vibrant.”
Of course Libidex is in a virtually unique position among latex clothing labels in having its own sheet latex brand, Radical Rubber, which must provide it with a useful picture of whether more latex is being used overall in clothing manufacture.
“From my experience we’re not selling a lot more Radical Rubber,” Simon reveals. “It’s only a small percentage more. But it is on the up. Of course this could just mean we’re getting more of 4D’s customers!
“At Libidex we’re doing better than we ever did, but it might be at the cost of other companies — you don’t know, do you? But my feeling is that it’s growing. There is certainly a lot more rubber clothing being sold on the internet. A lot of it is Chinese but it’s all people buying rubber.
“So if I had to bet on it I would probably bet that it’s on the up. But who knows, is it one percent a year, two percent a year, ten percent a year…?”
I agree with Simon’s view that the interest in it that is primarily celebrity/fashion-inspired will eventually wane. But, he reckons:
“The main body of fetishists who want to wear it, who want to buy it for sex, who want to buy it for what it was originally meant for and original evolved as: I think that is growing.”
Which brings us neatly back to how Libidex itself is responding to this increased demand.
Two early products of the new, dedicated design studio have been ventures into fresh territory for the company: the Hard & Heavy Collections I and II, aimed squarely at the male heavy rubber market. These collections include bodybags, bondage and sleep sacks, and “things with sheaths and lots of holes in”.
With the previous Libidex male latex (all still available) appealing to “straight people and to some extent the gay market”, Rose says the label wanted “something to appeal to more heavy players in the straight market and what tends to be the norm in the gay market, which is the heavy play stuff”.READ MORE QUICK LINK:
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