Poor Charles Macintosh wouldn't know what had hit him if he saw some of the rubbery creations Atsuko Kudo can muster up. From glistening cocktail hats resembling rain-drenched blossoming buds to second skin catsuits crafted from sheer lace-effect latex, Kudo is truly the master, or make that mistress, of high fashion fetish.
Kudo's most recent collection - shown at Old Billingsgate as part of Lingerie London - was titled Restricted Love. It drew inspiration from Wong Kar-wai’s lauded film In the Mood For Love, a story of unfulfilled bitter-sweet romance that has intrigued Kudo since its release in 2000, aptly the same time she set up her latex-only label.
Both the aesthetics and the plot of the film could be glimpsed in the pieces on show. At first glance, the retro tone of the work, which is set in sixties Hong Kong but harks back to the customs and styles of thirties Shanghai, was the most obvious stimulus. The dulled antique palette - including a dusty teal, muted parma violet purple and brassy gold - and fan chain tassel earrings nodded to past orientalism, and contributed to a vibe that was far more pretty than perverted, highlighting how successfully Kudo has moved her latex work away from the typical connotations of buxom porn stars and cheap sex shops. A punchy fuchsia rose print, which decorated a sheer polka-dot mandarin-collared dress, was a more direct appropriation of Maggie Cheung's film wardrobe, reflecting the fitted flowered cheongsam her character sports in some of the more tender scenes. It also nodded to the film's original Chinese title, which translates as 'the age of blossoms' or 'the flowery years'. Similarly the lace-effect blood red all-in-one that opened the show echoed the racier elements of the film, clashing delicate romance with carnal lust - a clever contradiction that ran throughout the collection.
If you looked beneath the surface (a key point of lingerie) the subtexts of the film, including the emotional exploration of ungratified love, appeared to have been the greatest inspiration. The very notion of being held back and restricted from desire is so wrapped up in the sensual appeal of latex. Could there be a more appropriate erotic symbol for emotional restraint than sexual bondage? On the catwalk high collars became neck corsets and waspies became skin-tight armour. Similarly, boots were laced tightly, restricting the wearer, and layers of lingerie were applied to each look, reflecting the emotional complexity and multifaceted nature of sex.
The very root of fetish is, to return to phonetics, 'a course of action to which one has an excessive and irrational commitment'. What can be more irrational than love? Latex, with its demanding application routine (lube and talc are a must), fragile quality (one wrong step and it'll tear) and form-fitting enveloping quality, is a worthy analogy of amour; temperamental just like a relationship.
Luxury lingerie is no new phenomenon - Myla, Agent Provocateur (who showed alongside Kudo), Damaris et al. have all built burgeoning brands off the market for high class drawers - but it was refreshing to see an underwear designer move beyond the cycle of extravagantly decorated boobs and bums and offer up work with the kind of cohesive vision that one would expect at a high fashion show. But that's what makes Kudo's work so unique, she has a fashion relevance and a knack for subtly capturing the style zeitgeist. So the modesty we have seen on the main fashion circuit - think Riccardo Tisci's Spanish nuns at Givenchy or Christopher Kane's demure bow-clad girls - was evident in Kudo's high-necked, caped constructions, which marked a contrast from the spilling cleavage and spangles which died a firm death in fashion a while back but have continued to dominate the underwear scene.
Kudo's exploration of love through the codes of fetish felt fresh and complex. Innovation is no mean feat when you're working within the confines of the bedroom, but Atsuko managed to dream up something new, offering an empowering comment on the way modern women want to present themselves, both sartorially and sexually. The undertone of emotional misery that underpinned the collection was a stark contrast to the triumphant brilliance of the items on show. As The Ones sang in a custom soundtrack - 'absolutely flawless'.