But what came through despite this, and what I think Steve English channelled so effectively, was a sort of fetish essentialism. His DeMask aesthetic eschewed fashion associations and focused on recreating classic fetish style for a new young generation of pervs.
“I actually met Sutcliffe a couple of times,” Steve recalls, “and the last time I met him, I showed him some of the stuff we’d produced from the Derby workshop. And he virtually said we’d assumed the AtomAge mantle.”
When AtomAge did manage to publish professional photography, it was usually, Steve reminds me, work given to John by Jo Hammar.
“Jo’s work was another big influence on me,” Steve confirms.
Jo was famous for his work for Viola Press in the 1970s, and also — with his muse and girlfriend Natalia — for the Gummiklinik films of the late ’70s/early ’80s. Many fans regard the Hamburg-based lensman as the godfather of modern fetish photography.
One of Steve’s first notable ‘re-engineerings’ of classic fetish looks was the multi-panel hood he developed soon after relocating to Amsterdam. He says:
“It was a great success. Now everybody uses the same pattern, which I worked out on the floor of the houseboat I was living on before I rented this apartment.”
In terms of iconic fetish pieces, his 12-strap suspender belt was also an early winner, with proper ‘fetish-width’ straps and metal fittings instead of the flimsier items associated with fashion lingerie.
“Finding the right metal suspender clasps was like finding rocking-horse shit,” he remembers. “I had to scour the planet to get those fittings.”
Turns out there was one manufacturer on the whole planet who made them — a company based just 34 miles from where Steve had lived in Derby!
Finding the metal bones needed for the serious fetish corsets DeMask became renowned for was another challenge. He recalls, in those pre-internet days, spending “weeks and weeks” in the library in Derby “going through all the company directories for all the fixtures and fittings”.
It’s probably worth reminding ourselves at this point that DeMask was never purely a rubber label; from the start, leather was also a significant part of its offering, especially for corsetry (much of which was created by the firm’s talented and long-serving corsetière, Valeria).
Torpedo Tits, those inflatable mammaries first seen in DeMask’s groundbreaking Bizarre Rubber catalogue (and much-copied since), were an innovation that literally stood out from the rest.
“They were designed and built just the day before being shot for the catalogue,” Steve reveals. And so unique were Housk Randall’s black and white catalogue images that DeMask today still proudly includes them in its promo picture files.
Everything about that catalogue was larger than life. Not just the garments (which nowadays would be categorised as heavy rubber, a term not then coined) but also the cartoonish style of presenting them, which involved whacky poses and exaggerated white-face make-up.
“I think the idea for that came from Valeria and the model herself, Otter. She was quite a star at the time — I wonder where she is now,” Steve muses.
PUMPED UP: Steve in Bizarre Rubber mood for Housk Randall’s 1993 Skin Two book Revelations
Bizarre Rubber was one of DeMask’s four print catalogues. “We had such a big range,” Steve explains, “that the only way to photograph it all was to do it in sections, rather than produce one big general catalogue.
“So we started with the Mask Collection. Then we did Corsetry & Lingerie which was also a big hit — we had to reprint it twice, that’s how popular that one was!
“Then we chose to do the Bizarre Rubber one next, just by chance really, and we were lucky to have Housk to do it.”
The final print catalogue was the Mistress Collection. Check out this article’s galleries for examples of images from all four catalogues.
Helped by the catalogues and the efforts of DeMask’s wholesale reps (one of whom was Anton, who became Steve’s right-hand man and eventually bought the company), wholesale business grew and grew in Europe and the world beyond.
Ironically though, there was one part of Europe the brand never managed to crack on the wholesale front. And that was the UK (despite there being, briefly, a DeMask London franchised store).
“We did a lot of mail order to the UK, but wholesale — very little,” Steve admits.
He attributes this partly to the unique character of the British market, where a large number of homegrown fetish design and manufacturing businesses provide a lot of keenly-priced choice for domestic customers.
“And the water — the English Channel — makes such a big difference,” he adds. It seems DeMask gear just looked too pricey for UK shops by the time it had been shipped across the channel and subjected to normal retail mark-up.
But wholesaling was not the only method DeMask employed to get its products into retail stores. It remains unique among fetish brands today in having had not only its own chain of shops, but also a second tranche of stores operated as franchises.
DeMask New York — the first shop the label opened after the original Amsterdam store — was a leap of faith that paid off big-time.
“It was a huge gamble,” Steve recalls. “We built all the furniture — the shop displays and counters — here. The carpentry was done in Den Haag then it was finished in our big factory in Amsterdam North.
“The whole New York shop was in that one steel container, which was packed totally to the ceiling. We packed it so well, we had to nail wooden braces across it to stop everything moving while it was at sea.”
The plan was for Steve and the two men who’d built all the furniture to fly to New York in time to meet the container when it got there. Once unpacked, the furniture would simply need assembling and installing.
Unfortunately, however, US Customs had other ideas. When the container arrived, they decided they wanted to see what was in the back of it, and had begun removing all the carefully packed contents with forklift trucks.
PARTY GIRL: Xaviera ‘Happy Hooker’ Hollander (left) celebrates opening the Zeedijk store, 1990
“I said ‘You’re going to damage stuff if you do that’ but they said ‘No, we’re gonna do it’,” Steve recalls angrily. “They didn’t care, didn’t give a fuck.
“They did about ten thousand dollars’ worth of damage in damaged clothes and damaged furniture. Plus when they’d unpacked it, they couldn’t get everything back in!”
Consequently Steve and his carpenter Colin had to hire a ten-ton Ryder truck, drive it from Brooklyn all the way through Manhattan, across the bridges, then into the Jersey Tunnel and down to Port Elizabeth, to fill it up with everything Customs hadn’t managed to get back into the container.
Eventually they got it all to the store. But then there was the small problem of packaging disposal. They ordered a skip (dumpster) for the purpose, but didn’t realise they were only permitted to load it level with the top.
“And of course the waste disposal there is all run by the mob,” says Steve, “so there’s no way out of it. So we had to pay for three skips. They brought two round just to get all the expanded polystyrene in!”
All in all, what should have been only a week’s work to get the New York store ready for its opening took closer to a month.
Fortunately, when it did open (in 1997), the store at 135 West 22nd Street was an immediate success.
“Where we were, in Chelsea, we had 100 square metres just behind the Chelsea hotel. And most of the big domination businesses (Nutcracker Suite, Pandora’s Box, Arena Studios…) were around that area.”
The store traded in Chelsea for eight-and-a-half years until the entire West 22nd Street block was bought up for redevelopment by Donald Trump.
It then relocated to 144 Orchard Street on the Lower East Side, where it continued until it its closure when DeMask was sold to Anton and Louva.
“The New York gamble really paid off,” English continues. “The shop had three to four times the takings of the Zeedijk store, and in dollars, when the dollar was worth more.”
And that, Steve reckons, was without any additional local mark-up on the goods. “The great leveller, the internet, had come out by then, and everything had to be at the same price everywhere.”
In fact, prices were initially somewhat higher at DeMask NYC. “But only very briefly, because we got all these complaints. People wanted to know why it was more expensive at the shop than on the internet, or here in Holland.”
People were able to make the comparison with online prices because DeMask was one of the first retailers (along with Skin Two) to have a big internet store as well.
“So that helped a great deal,” he says. “In fact at some point in the noughties I got a phone call from somebody in LA saying we’d like you to come and give a talk because you were one of the first retailers on the internet.”
In DeMask NYC’s 13 years of trading, the store had its fair share of celebrity customers, including the likes of Ice T and Snoop Dogg.
But the famous client who gifted DeMask with its biggest publicity coup since Royal at Rubber Orgy was Janet Jackson, courtesy of her performance at the 2004 Superbowl.
The notorious finale, when Justin Timberlake ripped a breast cup off Janet’s dress, momentarily exposing her nipple-shield-adorned right breast, was, says Steve, categorically not the wardrobe malfunction it was claimed to be.
“The so-called ‘wardrobe malfunction’ was a dress we made with detachable press-studded cups,” he explains. So as far as Steve was concerned, there was never any doubt that the ‘accident’ had happened on purpose.
“I stayed up to watch her performance live, and they were going on about ‘wardrobe malfunction’ so I quickly went downstairs, typed out a press release and faxed it to the New York Post.
“And the next morning, New York time, reporters were banging on the door of our New York shop saying ‘We want some copy please!’. We got invited onto the 60 Minutes chat show, and got a whole spread in the New York Post.”
DeMask Denies Wardrobe Malfunction was the banner headline. It was a great boost for DeMask’s business, and it didn’t do any harm to Justin Timberlake’s career either.
Ironically though, Jackson took a lot of flak for it, which may well have triggered the subsequent decline in her fortunes. And this at the very time latex and BDSM styling were increasingly featuring in music videos and cult movies.
One such movie, incidentally, was The Crow II, starring Iggy Pop and the late Ian Dury. DeMask got the call to fulfil a major wardrobe order for the film, and Steve recalls:READ MORE QUICK LINK:
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