From saddles to sex toys, an Israeli designer's wild ride
Ilya Fleet, a Ukrainian-born Israeli expat, is one very hot designer, and his leather bondage wear is only turning up the heat.
Designer Ilya Fleet has a dirty mind and love of leather, and he's found a way to couple those two characteristics and make it big.
The Israeli expat, designer of high-fashion bondage wear beloved by pop princesses Rihanna and Britney Spears, made a serious splash into fashion last month at the Paris show of Japanese brand Commes des Garçons.
The boy-toys patrolling the runway of the fashion house's spring-summer 2013 show all had tangerine-dyed hair, festooned with leather headbands and ribbons. Every scrap of headwear was the handiwork of Fleet himself, who spun eye candy accessories into slightly naughty couture.
“I worked with Commes des Garçons on some projects in the past,” Fleet says in a telephone interview from his studio in London. “One project was a horse made entirely of leather that stood in the company’s store in the Dover Street Market in London. When they worked on the latest show, they discussed the idea that all the models would wear ribbons on their heads, and Rei Kawakubo, the head designer, asked to see a few suggestions. I designed seven samples of leather hair ribbons, and in the end she used all of them.”
Fleet, 30, was born in Ukraine to artist parents. He immigrated to Israel in 1990. Of his parents, he says, “They were well-known artists who moved in bohemian circles there. It was from them that I learned how to draw and sculpt, not in any formal school.”
Fleet dropped out of school at 15. He later tried the Israeli army, but was dismissed and went to live in a hostel on Tel Aviv's bustling Ben Yehuda street. The street, a long drag dotted with grocers, boutiques and every array of specialty shop, offers a little something for every type of curiosity.
“That was when I discovered leather and how much it attracted me," Fleet says of his time on Ben Yehuda street. "Near the hostel where I lived was a store that sold leather goods, and without knowing much, I started making bracelets and other accessories out of leather, such as a cigarette box and a lighter that could be tied around the wrist, letting you dance at the club with your hands free. At that same time, I got to know a shoemaker here and he helped me with leatherworking. He taught me how to process it and put on studs.”
In 2001, Fleet moved to London and took a stab at selling his wares. There, in the Big Smoke, he met Robin Coleman, a saddler who taught him how to craft saddles and other items used for horseback riding. The education, Fleet says, was extensive.
“I learned ancient and more modern methods for working with leather and developing products. I learned techniques similar to those used by the classic fashion house, Hermes, where everything is hand-sewn, from the handbags to their classic products such as saddles and bridles,” he said.
His work with bridles, however, took Fleet in an unexpected direction. Around the same time he met the owner of a sex shop in London's Soho neighborhood, and, well, it turns out equestrians weren't the only ones interested in saddling up.
The store owner filed orders with Fleet with restraints, handcuffs, and other bondage accoutrements, all crafted from the same soft leather that Fleet used for his horse equipment.
Two years later, Fleet was selling his leather products to eight sex shops throughout London, including Coco de Mer, a prestigious, err, adult boutique in the heart of London's trendy Covent Garden.
It was a match, if not made in heaven, then made near the Thames.
“It’s a very famous store that supports sexual liberation with fair-trade products, organic ingredients and sex workshops,” Fleet says of Coco de Mer. “The owner, Samantha Roddick, is an amazing woman who promotes sex education, campaigns against trafficking in women and was active in the war against the exploitation of women." The two forged a relationship, and spent the next eight years working together.
And it seemed romance was in not just the shop but also in the air. Not long after Fleet began his racy new line of work did he meet his life partner, Resha Sharma. The two hit it off, to say the least, and one of the first fruits of their relationship was a line of leather and fetish products. The workday, for these two, became the ultimate foreplay: Their handiwork (pun intended) spawned products including whips, restraints, handcuffs, and for the bold and not-so-beautiful, leather masks.
He soon had a following, with Spears and Rihanna two of his biggest – and most exposed – ambassadors.
It didn't take much for Fleet to cross to the darker side, he says.
“Because I had done so many experiments with leather, I started developing innovative stylistic elements in the field. If many of the people who bought these products liked black leather and silver, I brought in fetish products made of brown leather and gold, which hadn’t existed until then. The more traditional sex shops in Soho wouldn’t accept them, but Coco de Mer did, and bought my products, which were very successful with their customers.”
And for an artist, he says, sex products offer an unbeatable playground of creativity. “People have always had sex,” he says. “It’s a field where there are no trends and there’s always a demand for more and more products. The moment that people open themselves to sexuality, they try everything. What’s exciting is that people are sexual creatures, and the products that I make give them inspiration. I talk to my customers and they tell me about their fantasies. For some of them, I make custom items."
Sex, Fleet says, is the ultimate style statement.
“I like this field. It has no rules or laws," he says. "Because of that, I started designing items that were more creative and less routine, objects that integrate with the human body and are still functional, liberated and do not restrict movement. These products flatter the body."
Indeed, the barrier between the bedroom and the fashion world has become increasingly blurry, and Fleet has played a major part in its breakdown. On today's trendiest streets, fetish and bondage items pass as legitimate fashion items, a trend that is noted on runways and in fashion-world productions.
And it's not just the divas who lip sync at the VMAs who are wearing girdles and visor hats. In Israel, models for the fashion house Comme Il Faut this month strutted in leather harnesses, and retail shops will inevitably follow suit.
“Bondage and fashion go together well,” Fleet says, “I think that it’s part of the sexual liberation of recent times, with the breaking of the last taboo of the artificial separation between products that are appropriate for the bedroom and those that are appropriate for street.”
Today, Fleet’s brand includes several main collections. One, aptly called Restraint, is a collection of high-end sex accessories such as masks, restraints, handcuffs and other fetish bits for those who dabble in S&M.
For the more discreet, he offers a line of women's fashion including handbags, belts and tamer leather accessories. For men, there are shoulder bags and belts. There is a line of headwear, including hats and visors.
And the press, like his customers, kept coming back for more.
“The media was enthusiastic over some of my fetish products, like the dog and cat masks, which became iconic, oddly enough. From there I went on to develop the visor, a kind of fun summer hat that has no real practical use. It became very famous and was used for countless fashion productions and magazines," Fleet says.
Just as in the bedroom, Fleet says the angles he could take are endless.
"I am hoping for collaborations with other fashion houses, and I would like to develop into making clothing, art objects and sculpture, for example.” He says. "Commes des Garçons was just the start."