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Flexible friends

OUT THERE 'We both like curvy women, with breasts and hips,' says Robin. 'That's why we are foremost in cleavage management'
Robin and Michelle Archer got married in 1991 and returned from their honeymoon to find a strange message on the answering machine. "Listen," gushed a friend, "we've discovered this amazing club with all these kinky people wearing incredible clothes and having wild sex. You've got to come, you'll love it." Intrigued, the newlyweds went along to the launch of Torture Garden, an underground S&M club with a strict latex-and-leather dress code.

The police arrived and closed the party, but not before the Archers had decided to explore this strange demimonde further. Both had a background in fashion - Robin is a St Martin's design graduate and Michelle specialises in PR and marketing - and they already had rubber garments in their wardrobe, but they had never considered the commercial potential of latex.

"We realised that it's a very flattering and comfortable fabric," says Robin. "I'd always loved the graphic starkness of black latex, though I'd never worked with it. But the more I looked at the garments on show in these clubs, the more I thought to myself, 'I could do this better.'"

A skilled pattern-cutter, Robin started making latex dresses for his wife. Unlike most rubberwear manufacturers, who use only black, he chose startling colours: crimson, gold and turquoise. His finishing was superior, too, thanks to extensive training in Milan. Soon friends and acquaintances were imploring him to make one-offs for them.

"It took about a year of constant persuasion before he relented," says Michelle. She was the one who came up with a name for their new business: The House of Harlot.

The House of Harlot doesn't advertise, save for a discreet listing in the back of the monthly fetish magazine Skin Two. Most business stems from personal recommendations from customers, who are invariably interrogated when they step out in their traffic-stopping designs. Not that the Archers are backward in coming forward themselves. For their public debut they donned matching "wasp" jump suits with black and yellow stripes, and waded through the denim-clad hordes at Glastonbury. "It freaked a few people out," says Robin, "especially the ones on acid. But the little kids loved it; they followed us around everywhere." This was followed by a rubberwear fashion competition at the fetish club Submission, which they won. The latex business has been expanding ever since.

Insects, cops and nurses' uniforms, aliens with bulbous heads: House of Harlot designs are refreshingly tongue in cheek, in an area which can be numbingly earnest. "It's important for us to have an element of humour in everything we do," says Michelle. "It has to be witty and, most of all, sexy." And their definition of sexiness? 'We both like curvy women, with breasts and hips," says Robin. "That's why we are foremost in 'cleavage management'."

Dealing with the "couture end of the market", House of Harlot produces an average of two commissions a month, with prices starting around pounds 250.

"Sometimes it takes a bit of coercion to get clients to admit what they really want," he says. "They'll often call up two weeks later and start adding fantasy details - appendages, cut-outs, that sort of thing. Provided the garment isn't too close to being finished, it's not usually a problem."

Last year the Archers were guests of honour at a Chicago wedding where they dressed bride, groom, bridesmaids - and even the reverend - in various shades of skin-tight latex.

At the end of 1994, Skin Two asked The House of Harlot to run its ailing mail order clothing business, producing black latex "basics" such as keyhole- cut-out leotards, miniskirts, and men's cycle shorts. "Many previous suppliers had been unreliable," says Michelle, "because the nature of the industry attracts enthusiastic amateurs." Now, she says, Skin Two supplies more than 40 retail and mail order outlets in Japan, Hong Kong, America, and all over Europe. Demand, apparently, is still growing.

Could hard-core rubberwear be headed for the High Street? The House of Harlot has just produced twenty rubber outfits for a new Boddington's beer commercial, a sure indication of increasing popular acceptance. Even the anodyne Liz Hurley recently appeared in a black rubber catsuit on the cover of Esquire magazine.

"Fetish wear has become kind of trendy because it's daring and dangerous," says Robin, "and very little fashion is these days. But it won't become mainstream because it puts demands on the body, it requires a lot of maintenance, and it comes with certain connotations that it will never - and should never - lose. It's all about accentuated sexuality, a kind of intellectualisation of sex. And that's what I like so much about working in this field. Fashion has no set parameters any longer, and that's just boring. Whereas fetish wear has rules which you have to bend and adapt. That's why I find it fascinating. That sense, if you like, of restriction'