In the latest edition of SEXNESS, Lucy Kumara Moore speaks to two designers – Susie Cave of The Vampire’s Wife and Simone Rocha – about the power of clothes that feel incredibly sensual
SEXNESS is a new monthly column exploring the shape of 21st-century desire from Lucy Kumara Moore, director of Claire de Rouen bookshop. A drive from the deep, a contested ground, a spur to our true identity, desire is manifold. Without aiming to be comprehensive, SEXNESS interweaves conversations with friends and personal perspective, to generate a PLEASURE-POSITIVE transmission from the cultural now.
A little while ago, I was lucky enough to interview Susie Cave, whose label The Vampire’s Wife purveys dresses with a transformative power – they make you feel feminine, powerful, alluring and romantic all at once. Inspired by 1930s and 40s Hollywood cinema, Cave’s clothes are meant to look striking from a distance – her design partner Alice Babidge also does costume for film, and together they have a keen sense of the theatrical. The Vampire’s Wife silhouette is subtly exaggerated, its colours rich and gem-like, so that the clothes have a strong visual impact – they’re the kind of thing you’d choose to wear at your own film premiere or to perform at Glastonbury (and that’s exactly what Cate Blanchett and Kylie Minogue have done).
And yet, the thing that stayed with me after speaking to Susie was something she said about the way her garments are constructed. Noting that she uses lots of metallics, which can be scratchy, she talked about how the dresses are sewn together carefully so that they feel comfortable for the wearer – from the inside.
I started paying attention to this ‘feeling’ quality of clothes and realised that often something might look incredible, but it feels annoyingly restrictive, or irritating, or too hot or cold. I began to notice how this ‘feeling’ quality affected my mood and wondering if I’d be a better flirt wearing oversized cashmere instead of chain mail or a plastic-y serre taille. (NB, just imagining here...)
What’s the difference between clothes designed to look sexy and clothes which actually feel incredibly sensual?
For this edition of Sexness, I spoke to Susie again, asking her in more detail about the sensuality of her clothes – how does she want women to feel when they’re wearing The Vampire’s Wife? What kind of mood, emotion and sensation?
“There should always be a little air between the body and the clothes,” she said. “The silks, velvets and cottons that I tend to use should feel like they are floating around the body, articulating the form in a sensual and languid way. So you have a feeling of grace and no restrictions in movement.”
And then I wanted to know how, technically, she achieves that? (I’m a Virgo and obsessed with practicalities.)
“I’m very interested in the technical aspect of dressmaking. French seams and silk bindings on all the internal finishes of the clothes. Comfort is paramount.”
Susie’s sources of inspiration are anything but mundane. She cites the costumes by Piero Tosi for Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard (her favourite film) because of “the sumptuous erotics of his fabrics, the depth of colour and the pure splendour”. For the way they make you feel, she loves clothes by Alexander McQueen and Azzedine Alaïa: “The structural exaggeration of the female form gives their clothes a feeling of dominance and power,” she says. And then, “Ossie Clarke is a huge influence of The Vampire’s Wife, because of the pure life force of his dresses, the lovely heavy swing of those crepes! And Vivienne Westwood for the radical and unbridled sexuality!”
What I love about all of this is that it shows how Susie appreciates the potential for clothing to bestow manifold gifts on the wearer – creating visual impact but also a physical (or sensorial, we could say) experience and an imaginative space to inhabit. And the consequence is a power that might be erotic, but could also be intellectual, professional, creative or simply expressive. (Are there distinct boundaries between these aspects of identity, anyhow?)
I wanted to talk to my friend Simone Rocha, too. Her opulent, majestic clothes have a place in this conversation and she’s a woman I deeply admire for the way she chooses to explore femininity and individuality.
Simone, I said... “For your S/S19 show, you created hats with veils falling from their rim which harked back to veils worn by women living during the Chinese Tang Dynasty to protect themselves from the gaze of men. But of course there’s a difference between inspiration and imitation, and when I think about what you’re doing now, in the 21st century, the layering and concealing – in fabrics that are sometimes opaque, sometimes translucent – are more about suggesting a kind of complexity. That the women wearing your clothes are fascinating individuals with intricate identities. What do you think, does that make sense?”
“Yes, for sure,” she said. “It’s sometimes about what you don’t reveal compared to what you do. I think the provocative can be very complex and surprising. Like the slits in the skirts (for Spring/Summer 2014), which were then trimmed with pearls, skimming the thigh... the pearl highlighted on white skin, but on the body of a solid neoprene circle skirt.”
And then I began reminiscing about the series of portraits by photographer Ben Toms that I was lucky enough to be included in for Simone’s edition of A Magazine Curated By. I wore a full look, with a satin slip dress and then a sheer lace one on top, and felt as luxuriantly female as I could ever want to be. And when I borrowed a structured satin jacket once (that I still regret not buying) I felt cocooned in a way that was protective and sensual at the same time. I mentioned these experiences to Simone, and asked her: “You’ve talked about enjoying being ‘swaddled’ – which reminds me of my own feelings wearing your clothes. Is this pleasure of wearing certain things something you think about when designing?”
“Yes of course,” she said, “it’s about the fabric on the body and the protection of certain areas and the exposing of others. It’s the feel on your skin, it’s beautiful to wear silk satin but for me just as satisfying and sensual to wear an unlined cotton poplin masculine shirt.”
And that simple statement from Simone says so much. Dressing in a sexy way isn’t about choosing the obvious signifiers, but about the way you feel and what makes you feel good. Comfort and splendour are sensual qualities. Susie’s idea that fabrics can possess “sumptuous erotics” suggests there’s no place for economy in the realm of desire. Maybe that’s why I’ve never been won over by the trope of the modern woman as the minimalist woman. Where is the pleasure in only wearing neutrals and naturals – and why does the modern woman have to have so much self control? Why can’t successful women be wild and decadent and romantic too? And importantly, when I say ‘sexy’ here, I mean it in an expanded sense: I’m not talking about getting wolf whistles in the street, I’m talking about a quality of self-assuredness that can translate in many different ways – a boldness, a belief in following one’s chosen path. Beige is the colour of resignation, musician Beck sings on his song Broken Train. I remember reading Jane Eyre as a teenager, at my high-ranking girl’s school which tried to impart feminist principles whenever it could. There’s a moment in the book when she decides to try and impress Mr Rochester, and to do this, she makes a decision to wear a grey dress that day, not a black one. And as students of the text, we were meant to see this as a radical act! At this point, I lost all respect for Jane, and pledged my allegiance instead to Charlotte Brontë’s more daring sister, Emily (her novel Wuthering Heights, as you might know, is mentioned in almost every one of these columns). A contemporary Jane Eyre would have lots of pale linen in her wardrobe and fragrance-free soap in her bathroom, but Emily’s heroine Cathy is all dramatic silks and flower-scented French moisturisers. I know who I’d rather be, and how I’d prefer to feel.