Their names are Patrick Whitaker and Keir Malem, and since 1988 they have been transforming leather into clothes and costumes for the cinema and beyond with their manual skills. “We have always loved the shine of leather and its softness,” they say in this extended interview in which they tell us all about themselves and their art
Hollywood superheroes prefer to dress in leather. ‘Aquaman’, ‘Batman – The Dark Knight’, ‘Captain America: The First Avenger’ and ‘Wonder Woman’ are films that prove this equation. And they represent just some of the works designed and made by the London-based studio Whitaker Malem, founded in 1988 by Patrick Whitaker and Keir Malem, who is described as ‘pop artisans‘. Thanks to their craftsmanship, they make the leather costumes that pop stars and models wear at concerts and galas, while in the film world, they have become sought-after celebrities for the uniqueness of their work.
How did you manage to become a pop artisan?
In truth, we are ‘self-styled’ pop artisans. It is a name we have given ourselves over the past few years. It describes the way we are involved in various areas of popular culture: fine arts, fashion, film and music. We started hanging out in 1986. Keir helped me with my graduation collection at Saint Martin’s School of Art in 1987. There was a lot of leather in that collection, and there was also our first leather bustier. It was vegetable dyed, which we dyed by hand and, somewhat out of desperation, we modelled it ‘wet’ on the mannequin. But, of course, when it dried, it shrunk a lot, but we were very happy with the end result.
But how did you approach the world of leather?
Personally, I had done some sewing with leather at home. My mother was a sculptor, and sometimes she used leather. When I was 17, at Berkshire College of Art and Design in Maidenhead, I made a shoe out of leather and was very enthusiastic about it. I was offered the RSA – Royal Society of Arts scholarship for footwear: I won it. I think I was the youngest person to do it. So much of the knowledge and techniques we apply today come from footwear.
Why did you specialise in leather?
We chose leather because we always thought it was exotic and interesting. We have always loved the sheen of leather and its softness and we like to celebrate it, especially with our raw edge stitching. I think the most remarkable property of leather is that it does not fray. When it is cut, it has a ‘self-sealing’ edge. We also like the way it affects the leather. We don’t try to hide the grain too much, especially if the leather has an interesting texture or grain and we show it so that it can be recognised.
Have you ever used other materials?
Of course! We have worked extensively with fibreglass and other materials, such as nylon. But leather is our first choice, which is what we are renowned for.
What is the process that leads you to the realisation of the works?
Our process is very similar to millinery or shoemaking. Our objects are made of blocks or forms. We also make a sculpture for each piece we work on, which is modelled with ‘wet’ leather. When we are satisfied, we start the process of cutting the pattern, then the leather, etc. Then we sew it, wet-model it and wax it. You should also be aware that most corsets and bustiers have structures sewn into them. In other words: pieces of metal or elastic tubes that support them.
Is the art of wet leather modelling your signature style?
Lately, this technique we have been doing for 35 years is very much in vogue. We were definitely among the first. We also use seaming a lot. I think this stems from our relationship with footwear. We make a lot of use of stitching, which gives an essential language. We believe in seams, we love them, and we like to celebrate them.
To each his own task
How do you coordinate during the development of each creative project?
The process is divided between Kier, who is the cutting master, and me, who sews. We both cut the pieces and did all the special finishing. All the leather we use is hand-dyed by us and our dyeing processes are continuous. We are now willing to use pre-dyed leather. But we achieve much more interesting and specific effects with hand dyeing. We also produce a metal effect on the leather, which we used extensively in Wonder Woman and other works. It is a gilding process.
Do you make everything by hand, or do you have collaborators?
In fact, we do everything. By hand, by ourselves. However, we get help when necessary. For example, for Wonder Woman, where we made over 100 costumes, we also had 20 people supporting us. We worked on it for about a year. But very often, we find that it takes as long to show someone how to do something as it does to make it. We only have a few repetitive actions to do because our designs are unique. We can make the same design in different finishes, but you will never see two identical pieces and we do everything ourselves. Even answering emails… So we can only make about 12 pieces a year.
The choice of leather
How do you choose the leather?
We choose our leathers very carefully and we also moved to our current location in London to be close to a leather dealer, one of the UK’s leading specialists in vegetable-tanned leathers. We spend a lot of time carefully selecting the material. For example, thickness is very important to us. It also depends on the needed stitching; we are always looking for new leathers.
What kind of leather do you usually use?
We use top-quality, brown, shoulder-cut bovine leather, which is the best cut. If the leather is of high quality, there is no need for such processing and surface treatment. It will most likely look better over the years. It will have developed its own patina and character. We like to say that leather has a past (even a thousand years), a present and a future.
The alternatives, the young
What do you think of the vegan movement?
Simply that leather is a by-product of the meat industry. As long as people respect the resources and take care of what they have produced. I think people should be free to appreciate leather products. We have always had a special respect for leather because it comes from an animal and was once the skin of a creature and should be respected. The other important thing is that leather has a future, as it is wonderfully repairable. And repairs can be extraordinary in leather, especially if done with a bit of imagination: enhancing them rather than hiding them.
Do you think you can transmit your art to young people? Is it and will it be possible?
We receive many such requests and we were very, very selective. We have had very few. Many of them want to understand our technique, which is not exceptionally secret. I like to think that the combination of our eye for line, design and form allows us to be as successful as we are. However, we know that passing the process on to someone else might be desirable so that it does not necessarily die with us.
Is it difficult to learn?
I think anyone with some familiarity can also understand what we do from our Instagram profile. There are parts of the process that we are pretty secretive about, but much of our technique comes from experience. The work is very demanding. It requires precision and care. Technology is used a lot today, but I think ‘the hand of man’ is still appreciated. Products made ‘the old-fashioned way’ have a unique charm. (mv)
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