WHITAKER MALEM: Part of our Leather Loves series with contributing editor Mike Adler 

I’ll never forget the moment I spoke to Patrick Whitaker on the phone for the first time. Already a huge fan of him and partner Keir’s British leatherwear design and production company Whitaker Malem, I was booked to shoot Ru Paul Drag winner and social media superstar Violet Chachki with Iconic photographer Ellen Von Unwerth—and I knew that I had to think big, Hollywood big.

With this thought, I knew I wanted to collaborate with Whitaker Malem. I nervously dialled the studio number and anticipated a successful conversation with a studio assistant. As the phone connected, it was answered by Patrick himself. To my total relief, he was more than interested.

Everyone on the planet would know their work, but few by name. In the world of Hollywood blockbuster films and costume — the mythical and futuristic, the biblical and heroic — it is to these visionary designers that the fans of cos-play and dress-up owe much of its craft. Hard to believe that the metallic bodysuits and shielded armour of our superhero fantasies are in fact meticulously hand-crafted leather artistry, moulded and manipulated by these pioneers.

Partners in life and work, Malem and Whitaker met out of design school on the gay scene.  In 1996 Malem helped Whitaker with his final Central Saint Martin degree show, which featured moulded leather pieces. This led them to starting a fashion label of their own. Supplying to select boutiques—it was in the LA stores—where their work was bought by costume designers, commissions shortly followed, with requests for stadium costumes for artists such as Cher, Paula Abdul, and George Michael.

Today, their portfolio is its own realm of immortality. A gold leather armoured McQueen for Givenchy dress—modelled by Naomi Campbell and forever set within a Pierre et Gilles—is one of many exquisite pieces from Lee McQueen’s first collection for the brand. From the precession of leather busts in Hussein Chalayan’s infamous fashion line to the leather eagle bustier also famed by Naomi in Tommy Hilfiger’s 2000 red label, their numerous collaborations—including pop artist Allen Jones—earned them respect in the fashion community. They made their film debut in Die Another Day, where they designed Halle Berry’s knife belts, along with Madonna’s fencing costume from the movie’s title track. What followed was silver screen domination for studios the likes of Warner, DC, and Marvel. The duo translated illustration into real life for film directors, actors, and notable costume heads. With most tasks shared, it is Keir who executes most of the cutting and Patrick, the sculpting and sewing. Their impressive collaborations include Lara Croft, Troy, Batman’s Dark Night, Wonder Woman, Captain America, Maleficent, Eragon, 300 Rise Of An Empire and Aquaman. Beyond lead characters, their team also produce hundreds of secondary costumes—160 in Wonder Woman alone!

“Of all the requests, we have never actually dressed a drag queen before. We follow Violet on Instagram and we absolutely love Ellen’s photography—let’s talk”. Patrick explained sweetly on the phone—his mind was determining brand alignment. With an invitation to their studio the very next day I couldn’t have been more thrilled.

The studio and their home harmonise. Light filled, clean, modern and open, it was effortlessly chic, more L.A. than London—like their work—thought out and beautifully executed. Leather fitted torso chairs designed by the pair greet you at the glass porch entrance, wood panelled walls and a calming neutral colour palette boast an open plan kitchen living room with a minimalist bedroom and bathroom. Its main space, like a gallery—the home is opened to the public for Open House Weekend—exhibits photography of their works, various painted artworks and famous pictures, enticing the eye toward a trio of floating leather busts from its ceiling. Patrick informs me of the celebrities behind each design—Kate Moss, Paloma Faith and so on—Keir humbly follows. Up a white floating steel staircase to another light, wood panelled room, this is their drawing studio—beyond into the workroom, where I’m shown parts of the work process, sketches, plans, off cuts, and past and future projects. The final step of the tour is an exit off the workroom—I’m taken back by Keirs wonderful display of nature—a roof garden filled with 7 to 800 living plants sophisticatedly set between large glass light panels incrementally up to the top of the roofs peak.

After taking in the views and hearing of the various developments to the house, we went back inside and began to discuss my thoughts for the picture. My mood includes a 1920’s pinup butterfly—and as if anticipated—floating before me ‘The Hermaphroditus Bodice’ a purple and yellow leather bust perfect in its likeness to a butterfly thorax! With a few additional pieces from the archive and some brief care instructions, Keir kindly took to making cocktails as Patrick packed everything up. After we finished drinks, the pair escorted me to the station, pointing out various neighbourhood haunts and surrounding shops they see useful to a stylist’s future creative needs.

The shoot was a major success—the bodice perfectly moulded to the feminine illusion of my Violet Chachki butterfly and forever iconized in an Ellen Von Unwerth image. Patrick proudly referring the piece in which its now known for—an incredible honour.

In the year since, Patrick and Keir have been kept busy—creating nine life size leather, stiletto red heeled mannequins—light through dark—to a 3D scan of French singer Arielle Dombasle, Christian Louboutin’s muse displayed in the “Nude” section of his Paris’s Palais de la Porte Dorée exhibit.

Constantly challenging both craft and conscience, the pair continue to create spectacular creations—a current display of “Transmorphic Super People” figures mix gender with its own changeable armour, its short film Transmorphic Armour Exposition is featured in Miami’s New Media Festival—and more colourful new works morph human and insect. Phallic busts freestanding with negative space between legs and front shard.

The scope and talent of these expert craftsman seems limitless, testimony to the commitment to this industry and the techniques they have developed and perfected together. The best part of this whole experience—beyond discovering such a marvellous world of leather craftsmanship—is to have seen the humility, care, and kindness shared between the pair and the passion, love, and artistry of the brand.

I invite you to view the accompanying imagery and see for yourself why Whitaker Malem is one of my Leather Loves!

Featured image:

Whitaker Malem Hermaphroditus bodice worn by Violet Chacki

Photo: Ellen Von Unwerth, Styling Mike Adler