Founded in 2003, the subversive luxury design brand Fleet Ilya offers harnesses, corsets, belts and collars as part of a wide range of leather items. Headed up by Ilya Fleet and Resha Sharma, who met whilst at university, the label was one of the first to defy the often seedy connotations of erotic wear, laying the groundwork for what has become the fashion norm of underwear as outerwear. Drawing on Ilya's background working in leather accessories and saddle making studies, Fleet Ilya is far from the world of icky PVC which lines the streets of Soho. Highly crafted, their leather pieces function as both erotic wear and fashion items, for both the unclothed and clothed body.
Their latest project, Atom, is a photography book created in collaboration with the artist Ekaterina Bazhenova-Yamasaki. Published by SoyaPress on recyclable and ecological paper, five of the brand's chosen heroines are photographed in their private spaces. Here, they wear Fleet Ilya for their own pleasure; Bazhenova-Yamasaki's vulnerable and intimate images seem to suggest that wearing Fleet Ilya provides a heightened sense of self-awareness. Saturated shots of water lilies in China, wilting flowers moulding away in a forgotten pint glass, and cars, juxtapose machinery and commodities with nature suggesting the conflicting ways we all view our own bodies.
SHOWstudio's features editor Hetty Mahlich spoke to Fleet, Sharma and Bazhenova-Yamasaki, alongside one of the book's heroines Anastasiia Fedorova, to find out more.
'in the first encounter, she feels intimidated.....
she is this when she is covered, she is this when she is not'
'this object, unfamiliar to her
the hard texture of skin, is not her born with, but one that gives instant
once it meets the surface of her'
Hetty Mahlich: How did you work together to curate the images for the book, particularly when combining the portraits with Ekaterina's still life and nature photographs?
Resha Sharma: The curation was an organic thought process between us both professionally and through friendship, where the mutual appreciation for each other’s work spurred us through a journey that felt effortless and intuitive. There was conscious intention to deepen the narrative and context of the book, while expanding upon the sensory experience with visual clues in the form of juxtaposed still life and nature images, put in place as an exploration of self, eroticism and leather.
Ilya Fleet: Atom’s curation tells a story, opening on a close-up of our life-size sculptural leather horse, a symbolic piece for the brand and a nod to inspiration deeply rooted in natural forms. The sculptural application of leather in this piece were inspired by the drawings of organisms by of zoologist Ernst Haeckel and remains an inspiration for us as designers. These themes are of importance to Ekaterina’s work also and parallels are often drawn between objects, nature and her portraiture.
Ekaterina Bazhenova-Yamasaki: The curatorial approach of Atom is based on the idea of creating a feeling rather than an image itself. Working closely with Resha, we didn’t want to make just a book as an archive of aesthetically pleasing photographs and text in a printed form. Our aim was to tell the story with an intelligent gentleness, to produce a very tactile object with small details of intimate visuals with poetry by Beata Duvaker as an integral part of the book.
HM: There are undeniable historical connotations between flowers and female genitalia, and also between pomegranates and female sexuality and fertility. Why did you choose to include these images?
IF: Form prevails when I create, and nature does it in a divine way. Atom reminds us that we are part of nature, and that the beauty of the human form in its purest state as sexual beings is natural.
EBY: When it comes to my visual art work it is usually full of symbolism often from food culture and death culture in the West. Quite common, it is a direct confrontation to nudes with images from our environment. The choice of those powerful-in-meaning-images is the balancing act which becomes a symbol of the aesthetics itself - which could conclude in the abolishment of corporeality, eroticism, capitalist and democratic societies.
HM: How have attitudes to erotic leatherwear changed over the lifetime of the Fleet Ilya brand? What associations with the items is the Atom book suggesting in contrast to traditional attitudes to fetish wear?
IF: A lot has changed since the early 2000s when we began our journey; even those who haven’t followed us, any fashion trends or the erotic wear evolution, would have noticed that leather harness aesthetics and kink are everywhere. Somehow the public can't have enough. When we started it was impossible to sell a harness in a boutique or fashion store of any kind that was not focused on erotica.
Thanks to all the creatives and those who have been inspired by the brand, they have boosted this niche and brought it to the masses. It didn't only lighten the aesthetics, but also the sincerity, compassion, warmth, sensuality, enlightenment, elegance, acceptance and many more essential life enhancing attributes that have been present in the leatherwear lifestyle, they are now more understood and celebrated.
The main gate for the conversation is open and there is still a lot to learn. Atom’s visual language speaks to those that seek a reform in sexuality and everything that goes with. What has been oppressed for generations and later exploded in the ugly spiral bomb fuelled by frustration and worse, then morphed into certain porn genres so on and on...sad times for love and love making. Now here is the time of healing, understanding, learning and rewriting on all that matters, what is ok and what isn’t. The new normal is being paved in front of us and we are taking part in that journey.
HM: Anastasiia, how did you feel when wearing and being photographed in Fleet Ilya?
Anastasiia Fedorova: I love leather - it's a big part of my erotic identity. But Fleet Ilya pieces are special – it's almost like wearing a sculpture. It moulds itself beautifully to your body, or more like your body and leather mould to each other to become something new, which creates a unique headspace; very self-aware, meditative and pleasurable, very in the moment. I also think it's very special wearing something created for you, knowing that a lot of craft and dedication went into the piece and that it could potentially be with you for years as they're made to last.
Being photographed wearing Fleet Ilya pieces was very pleasurable. I've worked with Ekaterina a few times, and she always makes you feel very comfortable, cared for and seen. Very grateful to have this moment documented.
HM: Ekaterina, how did you approach directing the five sitters in your photographs?
EBY: For me the process of making art work is not primal, the result is everything and it is very much driven by its concept. To answer the question, I guess my approach of directing the sitters in Atom was to observe and communicate with them and that lead into an intimate documentation of the exploration of how a wearable object can alter the experience of being in your own body and bring a renewed sense of awareness - the intimacy with Fleet Ilya leather pieces, which Resha and I carefully chose for each heroine. That’s quite an energy bonding process for me, I also find it quite therapeutical for both sides.
HM: Could you tell me about the significance of the covered car motif which is recurrent throughout your work?
EBY: It (a car) is like a living creature; you invest money into it, you spend a lot of time in it especially in Los Angeles [where the artist is based], you take care of it, you leave your body fat on its surface. Automatically, it becomes an extension of yourself, and it is an extension of your persona (representative self) in society. Simply saying that is my reference to the intimacy we have with commodities (in a very similar way we have it with our body) renders them self-portraits by way of our projection of subjectivity onto them; but these commodities also convey a portrait of us.
The book is available to purchase at www.fleetilya.com