Whitaker Malem

for London Craft Week

Written by Victoria Green

Here at the National Leather Collection, we are still decompressing from all the excitement of London Craft Week 2018. From May 9th – 13th, there were events, talks and exhibitions hosted by crafters of all shapes and sizes, from aspiring makers to established brands. LCW was established four years ago, and aims to celebrate craftsmanship, to make it accessible and to continue to encourage the trend for creativity and individualism.

Last week’s blog was a reflection upon the National Leather Collection’s collaborative exhibition with Bill Amberg Studio; Leather – Then & Now. This week, I want to introduce (or indeed, re-introduce) you all to another leathery LCW partner, Whitaker Malem.

The name ‘Whitaker Malem’ refers to the partnership between Patrick Whitaker and Keir Malem. Established in 1988, the pair have worked in art, fashion and film – often alongside artist Allen Jones. They established a technique for sculpting leather and using it to cover the human form, which they have continued to develop in their studio. For the last fifteen years, Whitaker Malem have been crafting leather for the film industry, creating costumes for films like Die Another Day, Batman, Captain America and Wonder Woman. It was hard not to be excited when I received my invite to the private viewing of the exhibition.

(Back L-R) ‘Gold Ivy Leaf dress’ (1992), ‘Croc tailcoat’ (1990), ‘Wingtail Bustier’ (1993)
(Front)’Metropolis Bustier’ (1994)

‘Wingtail Bustier’ (1994)

As part of the city-wide festivities, Whitaker Malem hosted their first solo exhibition in their studio-space. Their new work explores sexuality and gender, and these pieces were showcased alongside select archival pieces from their work in the fashion and film industries.

Introducing … Transmorphic Superpeople!

© Whitaker Malem 2018

Whitaker Malem’s newest works centre around two bas-relief figures, crafted from leather, fibreglass and steel. The pair are representations of the human body, intended to encourage exploration of fluid sexual identities and challenge masculine and feminine archetypes.

The pieces are stitched beautifully, and have identical seams. This means that the torsos of the figures can be swapped and changed flawlessly to produce new composites. The aim is to provoke thought as to the relationship between the physical body and the ‘performance’ of gender identity. More than anything, however, Whitaker Malem have cleverly emphasised sameness, as well as difference. Upon first glance, the pieces are equal; they are the same colours, the same size. They are differentiated only by the inclusion of genitalia. They are anonymous, ‘ultra-sexy’, and, they are objectified.

Naturally, Whitaker Malem describe their Transmorphic Superpeople best. They are ‘representations of the human form liberated from the complexities of individual identity via their playful and knowing emphasis on surface and uniform perfection’. Of course, with Patrick and Keir’s work across both the Marvel and DC universes, they are more than familiar with the idea of secret identities, and the need for an iconic ‘super suit’.

(L) Paloma Faith wearing ‘Hermaphroditus Armour’ in The Protagonist Magazine Current Issue 2017. Photo credit: Ram Shergill” | Creative Direction: Daen Palma-Huse | Styling: Margherita Gardella

(R) Pink ‘Hermaphroditus Armour’ (2017)

‘Transmorphic Armour’ (2018)

Alongside their Superpeople, Whitaker Malem displayed Transmorphic Armour, a series of sculpted leather pieces. A Graeco-Roman influence is clear in the cuirass-like corsets and skirts, and the mimicry of classical relief sculpture, made playful with the use of vivid colour. Again, these bustiers are all sexed and interchangeable allowing for fluidity.

During the evening, Keir was telling us about how he purchased an old sewing machine at a London market in the 1960s. He explained that it was a bog-standard machine, but that it is particularly good at gripping leather. Although some may have found it too slow to use, this sewing machine affords Keir the ability to be incredibly precise with his stitching. For twenty years now, he has completed all of his sewing with that very same machine. That old sewing machine felt as much a part of the exhibition as the pieces themselves.

Keir Malem & his sewing machine

How refreshing to see our favourite material worked in such new and exciting ways. This exhibition was a wonderful reminder that leather isn’t just shoes and handbags, it’s topical, it’s relevant, and it’s beautiful.

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