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Atsuko Kudo: Queen of Latex

Reba Maybury considers the fetishisation of fetish with the founder of the iconic London latex label

Sometimes with fashion, it can be easy to forget that its inspirations are not totally superficial. Perhaps one of the most infuriating aspects of the industry is its (often empty) use of referencing which filters down to followers unaware of the original connotations; the dilution of ideas which were once shocking or brave can all too easily become mundane or misrepresented. Over the past few years, there has been an unprecedented incorporation of fetish into fashion – or perhaps it could be said that fashion has gone so far as to fetishise fetish.

A hetero-normative approach to fetish has recently infiltrated our media and cultural climate. Where BDSM was once approached with a moralistic fear, elements of a more imaginative sex life have begun to emerge out of the shadows and make their way into the mainstream. Women have been immersed in shame by the patriarchy for enjoying or openly discussing their sexuality, so it is utterly thrilling that more women than ever are now demanding more than just the missionary position. The more obvious recent influences include the blockbuster success of (the troublingly disempowering) 50 Shades of Grey – but equally this new movement permeates the more niche facets of visual culture, with fashion designers like Vetements, Ann Demeulemeester and even Simone Rocha incorporating a distinct eroticism within their collections. The phenomenon has even filtered down to Instagram, where you can find a plenthora of young women are adorning their necks with the current trend for dog collars.

However, it is women like Atsuko Kudo, the renowned latex designer whose iconic, eponymous shop sits on London’s Holloway Road, who we need to remember to pay tribute to; a woman who has remained diligently dedicated to an uncompromising lifestyle, however “seedy” it may have been considered back when she first started her lifelong passion in the 90s. Now, as the mainstream opens their bedrooms and closets to a more expressive sex life, Atsuko Kudo is considered the holy grail of latex wear. With Kim Kardashian and Lady Gaga famously adorning her ritualistic fashions and her clothing being the fashion industry’s go-to, we went to her shop to discuss fetish’s changing landscape and why empowering women keeps her motivated.

I read that you enjoy making latex clothing because you feel that it makes women feel powerful. How much does this affect what you do?
It’s my mission in life.

To make women feel powerful? 
Yes, and I think latex can do that. I first realised its power a long time ago, back when I was living in Japan, studying fashion in Tokyo. Everyone had to do shop research for a project and I chose to go to a fetish shop, and found that the fabric there was far more interesting. When I tried latex on for the first time, I loved going out in it, it really empowered me. In Japan everyone has pressure put on them to be the same. It made me feel like a superwoman! When I realised that it could make me feel that way, I thought it must be able to do that for other women, too.

When did you start making clothing with latex?
Not until I came to London in 1992. It’s actually the reason I moved here, because in Japan there was no one else making fashion with latex – or, if they were, then they didn’t really know how to use the material properly. I think latex has been in fashion for a long time in London. John Sutcliffe was the first to use latex as clothes, as fashion, and Westwood also used latex and then it almost became ordinary clothing for punks.

And what was the fetish and club scene like when you moved to London?
I suppose, at first, I started going more to gay clubs than anything else. A favourite was Kinky Gerlinky – but then there was Torture Garden and those sort of fetish clubs. I had so much fun back then, maybe I had too much!

“[Latex] made me feel like a superwoman! When I realised that it could make me feel that way, I thought it must be able to do that for other women, too.” Atsuko Kudo

You can never have too much fun! Do you think the night club scene was different from London to Tokyo? 
Well, Tokyo’s nightclubs were good, but in London I was interested in the variety of different people who were going out. I especially loved the drag queens because I wanted to dress them.

Do you think that fetish in fashion is becoming bigger and more accepted at the moment?
Yes, definitely. I think it is an interesting time for latex. When I came to London at the beginning, the fetish scene was really different – if you’d go to a fetish shop, then you could see orders over video, showing and listening to how it sounds on the body, but other than actual fetish clubs there were few other public places where you could view people wearing latex. However, things still haven’t become completely open – recently I spoke to another latex maker, who has been doing it for a while. They told me that it was not that long ago that a customer committed suicide because his wife found out that he was dressing in latex.

He committed suicide because of that?
Yes, and it wasn’t so long ago.

Do you think that the mentality of how women are buying the clothes is changing? Before now, it was a very niche thing and you had to understand the fetish scene, understand and respect the ritual of wearing latex, the craft of it being made...
Well some women are definitely buying it because of the fashion element, but I think that they have to go through the ritual of it anyway. I like the way that you have to go through all of that – you have to experience the real pleasure of it.

“I enjoy being a woman: being confident, being an authentic version of myself – and the latex helps!” Atsuko Kudo

When you were growing up, did you feel that there was a stigma placed on women who enjoyed their sexuality? Even today, people – and particularly women – are shamed for being open about what they enjoy about sex, and feeling sexy or looking sexy. Is that something you have always tried to tackle?
In Japan, women are still having a difficult time because the rules of marriage are so strict in comparison to here. Women lose a lot of freedom, which means that a lot of women end up not wanting to get married. I think maybe tackling that is what I’m trying to do. Because, looking at my mother or my grandma, I want one of them to stand up, I want them to enjoy their life.

What do you personally enjoy the most about being a woman today?
That I can dress how I like, and I can feel sexy, and I think when I dress, I don’t really want to think about… 

...How men are going to perceive you?
Yes, that’s how I enjoy being a woman: being confident, being an authentic version of myself – and the latex helps!

What advice would you give to other women? I think that there are a lot of women who really look up to you...
I think that you don’t need to follow anybody else: you just need to be yourself and adjust to being yourself and just do what you want to do. What I try to do is – because latex has this stereotype about being for models or slim people – challenge that. It’s not about that. What we try to do here is empower all different ages and shapes of women. That’s really important to me. If latex is cut properly, it will work like shaping wear, it will “pull you together”... that is its magic! Everyone can wear it, feel great and enjoy it!