When I visited Sonia Agostino at her home studio in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, she coaxed me into trying on a fire-engine red latex trench coat. The most noticeable thing about it was its weight—it felt like wearing a small tire—and the latex-rubbing noise it made as I walked to the mirror for a glimpse, feeling like a superhero. It was much different than the kinky image latex is often associated with.
Unless you’re a touring pop star, latex is not for everyday wear. Fantasy is part of the fascination. As the designer behind Tableaux Vivants, Agostino—who previously worked under the world-famous Baroness—makes sure her line has a range of styles, from body-hugging lingerie to miniskirts, accessories and that dramatic trench coat, all worn by the likes of Rihanna, Madonna, Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, Gwen Stefani and Miley Cyrus.
Most recently, Kylie Jenner squeezed into one of Agostino’s designs (a black bunny suit) on the cover of Interview, in a photo shoot where the young celeb is (inexplicably) sitting in a wheelchair. On a recent weekday, I interviewed Agostino about her work, her design philosophy and the logistics of latex (lube and baby powder are involved). Our lightly edited conversation is below.
Jezebel: As a music writer, I feel like pop stars have such a latex fetish. I’m really interested in how you fell into this line of work and why you love working with the material.
Sonia Agostino: Well, it all started back in 2001. It was my second job in fashion design. I was a cigarette girl, I got to meet some people at the clubs, and I ended up meeting the Baroness, who’s been around for a long time. She’s a dominatrix and has her line The Baroness, parallel with her lifestyle. I worked in an environment where it was definitely very fetish-based. That’s where I learned to love this material and it’s something that stuck with me.
What was it like working with her? What did you learn?
[Cackles] Oh man, coming from a design perspective, because it was such a small company, I was able to take my education—I was fresh out of college at that point—and apply it to this new material that I’d never worked with before. I was doing pattern-making and understanding construction in a whole new way. We did a lot of custom work. A lot of drag queens would come in who were male bodies wanting to look female and it was my job to envision that for them and make it a reality. That was interesting because I would have a customer over and they would have on a basic garment and I’d be drawing on them with China Marker to create these style lines that created a more flattering feminine silhouette. There was an art to all of it. I just loved this material and the way it draped and the options that could be done with it that are very different from anything else out there.
It’s very fluid.
Yeah, and it could be skin-tight. It could be three times too small. Or it could be this big, drape-y thing. There are so many possibilities. I’ve made inflatables. At the Baroness, we were doing a lot of inflatables and things like the sucky bed, where people would get into this giant, almost like a full-size bed of two pieces of latex, with PVC piping and a mouthpiece at the bottom for a vacuum. Suck the air out and now all of a sudden you’re suspended like a packed piece of meat. So that’s where she excelled because that was her clientele. They were dominatrixes, they were people who went to fetish parties. The whole idea was to have this extravagant fantasy lifestyle associated with it. I mean, she had her servants and these were dudes who probably worked in the Financial District and they’d be showing up to the house in a haphazard wig and some, like, shitty French maid costume and they’d be paying her to do the work.
A pair of mannequins in Agostino’s Greenpoint home studio
But anyway, surrounded by all of that lifestyle, it was me working on her line. I am not a fetish person, that’s not my background. I just really like fashion design. I happen to really like latex. I’ve worked in sportswear doing things from lingerie to the Target Go collections—working in clothes that people normally buy at a store. Then in 2009, I started playing around with latex again a lot more and I thought it could be kind of fun to better myself as a pattern-maker and a designer, to put out a few pieces, have a go at it. I didn’t intend for it to blow up as fast as it did, but I was really fortunate to run into a friend of mine who’d done PR.
Gwen Stefani wears Tableaux Vivants in a MasterCard commercial
Next thing you know, I have Keegan Singh pulling from me and one door after the next opened. People in high fashion got to know this brand to the point where people would come [to the studio] and be like, Oh this is your house... I’ve been able to brand this as a high-fashion luxury latex company that is not fetish, but it’s still sexy. And through all of these pulls from stylists and the editorials, pop stars and their stylists started seeing it, too. When I worked with Beyoncé over the summer, I’m sitting there next to her—
That was for the On the Run tour or Made In America?
It was for Made in America. I had worked with her for the On the Run tour, but they ended up doing a costume switch, so the piece I made didn’t end up getting put on stage. The second time that I’m working with her, she’s pulling up her laptop and she’s like, “I wanna show you something.” And, you know, she’s pulling. She’s very hands on, showing me these images of things that she wants. There’s vision there. I’ve done custom work for her. With people like her, I’ll see her and then it’s a whirlwind and then I don’t hear for a year and then they’re back and it’s another whirlwind. It all depends on their needs. She knows me at this point to be the person here in New York doing latex. I guess she likes what I do ’cause she has asked me twice now to work on stuff for her.
What aesthetic was she looking for then? Because her last album, the Beyoncé album, was a very sensual Beyoncé.
We made a few pieces. I think those might be seen in the future. I think maybe she thought ahead with what she was working to create with latex and costumes in general. For Made in America, we ended up doing body bands for her and the dancers and the overall look of that was beautiful.
As far as designing for drag queens, I’m sure they’re looking to latex not only for the look of it, but also they can shape it to their body better than other materials.
Miss Fame has been a client of mine. I love it when she comes over and talks to me about how she wants to look. My line is made for a woman’s body, but I do have some pieces that can transform easily and fit a man, especially if his figure is slimmer. Working with Miss Fame has led me to think about making garments that are a little bit more able to fit the male body in a female way just to have more options. Because I feel like that opens the door for more clientele. I love that aesthetic of dressing up like a woman. Tableaux Vivants means “living picture.” That’s what these people do—they’re living pictures. I have a really nice following from the drag queen community.
Having started out in the fetish background, how has your thinking evolved as far as the way latex is always associated with freak or kink?
Well, even though I was working in a place where it was more of a fetish aesthetic, I wasn’t that type of person so I was looking at this material in a new light. On a designer level, I was taking bodies that I would imagine look great in latex that were really more of a sportswear kind of cut. It elevated the look of that body, you know. A button-down shirt in latex, all of a sudden takes on a whole new perspective.
Because people mostly associate it with skin-tight.
Yeah, definitely. And kink. A lot of people who don’t know me assume that I’m sitting at home with a whip and a chain making it kinky, but I’m not.
Most recently, you designed Kylie Jenner’s cover look for Interview.
I didn’t even know about it! And then next thing you know, a stylist friend of mine is like, “Wow, congrats!” And I’m like, “What happened?” Then he sent me the picture. She looked gorgeous and inside Interview, I was commissioned to do the custom piece with the pointy titty chest-piece. I was really excited about that because it reminds me of early Madonna, Jean Paul Gaultier influence and I was really into trying that out. This was my first time doing inflatables for Tableaux Vivant and I thought it came out really good. I was proud of it, to see it on Kylie Jenner and this amazing article that caught the attention of a lot of people around the world was a really great thing for me. I even started getting a lot of interest from people wanting custom stuff similar to that. So I feel like it helped grow the business.
Yeah, it’s this idea of transformation, I think, that latex kind of lends itself to more than other materials. It’s easy to put it on and you’re transformed into a different personality.
Totally. I want people to feel sexy when they’re wearing these clothes. Latex, it’s not like you’re seeing people going grocery shopping in latex so often or ever. But the fact that it is something that people want and they want it in the magazines and they want it on stage, it’s beautiful and it’s sexy.
Kylie’s wearing the black bunny bodysuit in the shoot. What was the design process for that piece?
A lot of my collection pieces stem from lingerie-inspired garments and bodysuits are great for Tableaux Vivant. I just think they look sexy and I’ve got this bra cup-shape down. I like making pieces that have this type of look. The bunny bodysuit, it’s a classic shape so I wanted to have something like that in latex for the line. It’s been a really well-fit garment that I’ve been seeing time and time again on tons of editorials and people.
Is that the most popular in the line?
It’s one of them. The trench-coat is really popular, too. And the bra and panty sets are pretty popular. For fall ’15, I also did a collaboration with Chromat for their collection. Becka from Chromat had a vision with the latex and we collaborated to make that happen.
For your spring collection, cyborgs and goddesses were the inspiration, right?
Yeah, I collaborated with the temporary tattoo company Body Lab Society—you know, the gold temp tattoos—they had come over to talk to me about it, and we tested it out on latex. It turned out that it stayed permanently on latex and it was a real game-changer for me to again enhance the surface of latex. Taking that aesthetic and going, Okay what’s my influence here? Heavy Metal magazine has always been a huge influence for Tableaux Vivants. It’s like these goddesses and sexiness but warrior-like people and cyborgs. I was thinking of things that would be considered futuristic. Even if it’s in a campy way, I love all that stuff. It seemed to make sense and it fell into place. And paganism. This nice conglomerate of all these ideas.
This may be a dumb question but how does one wear latex? Like, how do you put it on?
It’s definitely not a dumb question. [Laughs]
The idea of fitting into it is terrifying to some people.
Yeah, yeah, I get it. And it used to be that you would have to put baby powder all over yourself to slide into these things and at the end of the night you’re pulling it out and you’ve got caked baby powder. That is not cute. Now, there’s a lot of lubes out there that can be used to shine and put inside the garments. It helps keep things on. You don’t really overheat. You remain the temperature of the area you are in, but you do sweat because there’s no breathability. But for tight garments, lube is definitely the answer to getting in there nice and smooth. I have a lot of garments that are not skin-tight. They’re draped and put together just like how you would imagine a leather garment would be. There’s darts and seams and you zip up just like how you’d put on anything else. But I like to tell people that it’s cool to wear latex with a t-shirt and mix-and-match. I’ve done it. I’ve pulled it off. People love it and every time I go out in the latex piece, everybody’s like, Oh my god what is that?
Where do you get most of your material?
I get all of my latex material out of the U.K. and my glue that I work with—because everything’s glued—I work with a chemist. I have a special formula.
What’s that process? Does the chemist have to work with every garment?
No, the formula for the glue works for this type of material. And this material of rubber, it comes in a bunch of different weights and colors, but it’s still all the same components. And that glue works with the components of this latex. So I don’t have to worry about any of that. And then for things that are not latex I basically have to turn them into something that’s bondable, so a zipper tape, now I’m putting glue on the zipper tape and creating a bonding agent for it. It’s definitely a different process from making clothes that you would sew. It took a long time to learn how to cut and glue this stuff.
That’s what I’m fascinated with, because I’m a Project Runway fanatic. It’s the way they manipulate these materials when they have the “Unconventional challenges” with metals and things like that. Obviously, the degree of difficulty here is high.
Yeah, I can appreciate those challenges. Watching that show gives me a heart attack [laughs] ’cause I know what it’s like and I’m just like, Oh my gosh you can do it! It’s not good for my health to watch that show. But yeah, it’s thinking the same way: taking this material that is a challenge to even cut and putting it together to create something that’s going to be able to fit a body and look the way you want it to look and exceed that idea that it’s just a fetish garment. It’s constantly a challenge, but I feel like I’m definitely honing in on what Tableaux Vivant is and what it looks like. This past collection, I did lots of happy faces with appliques and more gold stuff and lots of dots and bright colors. Whereas when I first started off, it was very black and white and red. The cool thing is nobody’s telling me what to do. I can do whatever I want and if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. But so far nobody’s been like, Oh that’s awful.
Who can really pull these off? I guess latex would be the most flattering on a certain figure, like slim or Beyoncé.
Obviously, somebody with a little bit of meat on them is the greatest. Because when you’re skin and bones, you’re looking at a wrinkly piece of latex on skin and bones.
Is there some kind of liberating aspect that you take into account as far as wearing it or the feeling of it?
Something that I think people who do wear latex on a regular basis say is that they really enjoy the feeling of it on their skin. I think that’s a little bit of a fetish in itself. But hey, don’t we all like cashmere on our skin? It’s sort of like, choose your poison. But liberating? I mean, I have clients of all sizes and shapes and somebody who’s normally a size 16 or 18 looks just as good in latex as somebody who’s a size 4. It’s just about the cut and what suits your body. I maybe wouldn’t wear something that somebody else would wear. It’s the same with latex.
People have this idea of latex looking cheap.
Well, another thing that I do is I treat a lot of my undergarments as if they are finished like regular undergarments. I use an elasticated lingerie elastic and that changes the way the garment is constructed. It gives it more structure. I feel like from a consumer point of view, you’re looking at this and going, Oh wow! This isn’t just some raw edge seam detail. It’s a finished piece and the fit of it is really good, too. It really hugs the body. I’ve gotten great reviews on the cups for the bras. Girls from size A to D are like, “Yes it fits me amazingly!” I had this particular style selling at International Playground and this girl came through and I only had size smalls left. She apparently had huge double D boobs. She put the thing on and she bought it. She had cleavage out to here, but it’s great to know that there’s that support. I’ve had girls talk to me and their smaller chests and they’re like, “This bra gives me cleavage, it’s amazing.” At the end of the day, I just want people to feel sexy. A little lift, who hates that? Nobody. [Laughs]
Where do you see your creativity going next?
I’m working on the next collection and it’s going to be ready to show for February. I’m playing a lot with transparencies there and working a lot with mesh as a second component to the latex. The thoughts have been coming around, like, Would you do anything else besides latex? And it really comes down to money and funding. It’s expensive to have a business and it’s a little scary sometimes. But I have been entertaining the idea of broadening my horizons and fabrications—keeping Tableaux Vivants latex as the high end and then maybe going into something a little bit easier to wear but keeping with the aesthetic. Making things that are more drag queen friendly. Making more stuff for the boys.
After the interview, we walked over to Sonia’s clothing rack filled with latex pieces from her past, present and future designs. Here’s a tour of some of her pieces.
“A lot of times when I’m styling the collections I’ll put a bodysuit and the full skirt over it and it changes everything. Here’s the black bunny bodysuit Kylie wore, but it’s in a different color with some technique changes.”
“This was the Body Lab Society gold stuff that’s permanent on latex. It’s beautiful. I paired that bodysuit with this skirt and you’ve got yourself a dress.” This is all hand-cut and hand-twisted and hand-glued. It’s a giant job. It takes about eight hours to do one of these skirts from start to finish. [The gold] gets put on before I do the cutting. I put it on the wrong side, then start cutting, then twisting to glue and it’s a real labor-intensive job. You can’t fuck up because one knick, there’s no worker weft, so this will tear and this will just be gone. You can repair latex similar to how one would repair a bike tire: you put a patch on it. It’s never as nice and brand new but it’s certainly repairable.”
“This is applique, so latex on latex. And it’s, again, creating shapes. I styled this look with this look underneath so it’s cool. All of a sudden you’ve got dots on dots on dots.”
“This jacket is all hand-cut latex applied. This thing took forever to make but I’m so happy I did it. I think I lost a couple years of my life making that thing.”
“This is new stuff I’m working on right now, playing with mesh and latex. I want to start doing more stuff like this with the next collection. I want to see if I can make more mesh garments besides gloves. Some panties or little bras.
“I’ve been making these poppy pants, which look good on the guys, a little sexy, skimpy. I did a pop-up and it was great to hear guys coming up to me and being like, ‘Thank god you’re making stuff for boys!’ I’ll keep on doing that.”
“I’m doing accessories and having a fun time making things out of latex that could be worn in a million different ways. This was such a fun experiment. You can wear it around your neck or pinned to something.”