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This uncanny material entered the fashion sphere during the late 19th century via the Mackintosh trench. But the result was the opposite of sexy : the coats smelled bad and melted with high temperatures, leaving those wearing the trenches risking getting covered in natural glue. We are far from the empowered fetishist silhouettes. Latex was therefore abandoned by fashion designers, and taken back by the BDSM community, even though it was sometimes seen in high fashion : Pierre Cardin used it for making gloves and boots during his mod era in the 60s/70s. As for fetishist communities, it was favored for being skin tight, allowing people to express their vision of sensuality through daring and unusual outfits. Over time, latex has been completely associated with these practices, giving it a sulphurous or even scandalous reputation. Under these conditions, and with the economic instability of recent years, one would think that no one would risk considering this material to design traditional ready-to-wear. But young designers never run out of boldness, as some have rehabilitated this material.
Indeed, if it has sometimes been used for high fashion, latex has made a comeback in mainstream fashion in the last few years. Young designers, such as Arthur Avellano, gave it a try. The French artist uses the material in each of his collections, either with a streetwear or tailoring approach, but far from the fetishist clichés. Daring yet timeless cuts, associated with latex’s fascinating reflections, give his clothes an unmatched originality. Seeing the attention Avellano’s brand is gaining, this might suggest that consumers are ready to see latex as an everyday clothing material. It already came back in celebrities fashion, notably with Beyonce wearing a beautiful latex dress to the 2016 Met Gala.
Latex is often discussed for its sexual connotations and its new mainstream use. But, the fascinating and untold thing is, this material can be very eco-friendly ! Indeed, natural latex (not rubber coming from oil extraction) comes from rubber trees that mostly grow in South East Asian and South America. Incisions are made in the bark to harvest a white colloid that will later become latex. Since it doesn’t require cutting down the trees, this allows populations to live off this practice named “tapping” without harming forests and their living environment. Put that way, this is a low carbon impact and natural, therefore biodegradable, material. A perfectly sustainable way to contribute to daring fashion.
However, natural latex is only sustainable if the industry is careful about its production methods. Indeed, some farmers use deforestation to plant massive rubber trees forest, destroying complex and essential eco-systems for intensive exploitation. It is up to corporations and governments to ensure no deforestation, reasonable exploitation and yet living wages for the farmers. Indeed, 30 millions people live off rubber tree culture, and 85 % of the production comes from small exploitations. This challenge is as ecological as it is social and economic. Great examples of sustainable latex supply chains already exist : in Brasil, the Seringueiros community practices agroforestry, combining several cultures including rubber trees. This results in a sustainable management of the forest and a fair income for the locals.
The history of this material is full of twists and turns. A cultural icon, already used 200 years ago, taken up by both great designers and marginalized communities, latex is now making its way into the mainstream wardrobe, while positioning itself at the heart of questions of the fashion industry, in the midst of a sustainable transition. It is safe to say that we haven't seen its full potential yet.
+ Words: Claire Roussel, Luxiders Magazine Contributor
Claire Roussel is a fashion writer dedicated to sustainability and social issues. She uses her passion for writing to tell the stories of the people fighting to make the fashion industry a more responsible one.