By James Maher
Name: The Baroness
Occupation: Latex Fashion Designer.
Location: The Baroness Fashions, 530 East 13th St.
Time: 2 pm on Thursday, Aug. 29
I’m English, from Banstead, which is slightly to the south of London, but I’ve been in New York forever. I first lived on the West Coast and then I came here in the ‘70s before the first blackout, when New York was scary. The rotten apple. I lived on the Upper East Side for awhile and people kept saying, ‘You live on the Lower East Side, right?’ And I said, ‘No, I’m a fashionable Upper East Sider.‘ And then finally I decided, fuck, I’m a Lower East Side kind of person.
I remember dining at a French restaurant that came into the neighborhood on Avenue C called Bernard’s. It was the only ‘restaurant’ in the East Village. I remember being there and just watching the building across the street go up in flames. And you’re eating fancy French food. You could really see the juxtaposition. I think it was really brave for Bernard to have a restaurant there because we were in the middle of nowhere, but that did add to the cache. ABC, where everybody was like, ‘oh god there’s this hip place where I can go.’ This was the time when women wore these long fur coats, and there were people out there yelling ‘Taxi,’ and it’s like, ‘hey, there’s none on Avenue C, you’re going to have to walk forever to get one, in your floor length coat.’ You’d have to walk through Tompkins Square Park to get a cab. And if by chance you made a wrong turn, you’re going to the projects.
Before latex, I was a costume designer in the film business — for movies, for film, for theatre. Even though I had worked on some great projects and traveling for work was great, I really liked New York and I didn’t like being away for 3-4 months on each job.
And then I got turned on to latex. One day a slave bought a dress for me to pick up. It was a little red dress, short, zip front, sleeveless, not my style. And even though it didn’t fit me, I started a business right then and there, 20 years ago. When I started this I just wanted to dress myself and then I wanted to dress myself for all occasions and then I wanted to dress the people around me. That was it. I had worked with latex before but in the same way that I had worked with clothing in general. I could see so many possibilities. It’s an amazing material. It’s the most sensual of all materials. Latex is bigger than clothing for me. It’s huge.
I started in my studio doing doing wholesale, off the Internet and custom appointments, although people were hesitant to come and try on latex in the studio. They were like, ‘Am I going to be sold into slavery?’ If that was going to happen, I would charge by the hour. I hadn’t thought that I could afford a store and was originally just looking for a workspace but eventually I found this place. The store has made a huge difference
When people think of fetish, they think of black and red, gas masks, full body enclosures and things like that, which is fine, but red and black latex are just too cliche for me. My whole concept for latex was that people could wear it, that they could wear it out on the street and be comfortable and feel attractive in it. I want people not to be scared of latex. When I want them to be scared of latex I will do that. We’ve got the body bags, the inflatable straight jackets, the sucky bed — we’ve got the weird stuff too. I have some clientele who are looking for that but that’s a really specific person and unfortunately there are not enough of them.
Our main clientele ranges from a lot of stylists, to stars, to people in the neighborhood. When Lady Gaga did the entrance to the Grammys in the big egg, we dressed all those people. Nicki Minaj has been wearing some of our stuff recently. You get people who come in and their first purchase is usually a black skirt. We get mostly women even though we have a men’s line. I’m really dressing men as opposed to the standard little gimp type person or the gay guy in the little pair or shorts or thong. We also do a lot of stuff for events. For the big fetish events we’ll get a lot of custom orders. A lot of my work is custom.
There’s just not enough of us; There are not enough perverts out there, I think. I started to throw these fetish parties because I’m a fetishist and I like parties and I like people to dress up. And one of my big fetishes is the fetish of dress. I throw the longest running fetish party in New York, called Retinue. Each month there’s a different theme. My goal with that event was to inspire people to look into this life. Fetish can be latex, leather, cross-dressing, being a giant butterfly — it can be anything. It’s really just the concept of dress.
I think the community is incredibly small. Right now it has changed a lot. The whole scene has changed as far as dominatrix goes. It used to be in the old days, mistresses would have their slaves and the slaves would be in complete adoration of them, specifically. Now you have more college-age chicks who are kind of doing this gig cause it’s easy. And you don’t get that loyalty with the men. If someone’s going to be a slave, in my mind, we’re talking about a commitment like a marriage. They basically represent you. It used to be that people knew who was owned by who and how to behave and there’s less of a requirement now and very few people seem to have that.
When latex was fresh and new I really worked on pushing it out to the mainstream. I wanted to see it out on the street and I had a whole philosophy about that. And now that it’s out we’ve lost a lot of the body bags, the dark stuff, the really interesting stuff is gone because it’s so public. That reminds me of this neighborhood.
James Maher is a fine art and studio photographer based in the East Village. Find his website here.