James Greenway, the designer of Atelier Harlem, has a plan.

Latex and eco-friendly fashion are two completely different worlds, but the Melbourne-based designer is ready to revolutionise the way we think. By taking out latex from its S&M connotations, he lures in his magic by turning it into bodysuits, dresses and bomber jackets.

Greenway and I talk about his love for latex, how his mum inspires him and a surprising fact about latex that will blow you away.


How did you start your label?

I was lucky enough to be offered an interview for an internship with Iris van Herpen in Amsterdam half way through my graduate year at university. I had absolutely no money but, I took the risk and got on the plane not knowing whether I'd be coming back a few days later or a few months later. That ticket was worth every penny because I was lucky enough to be successful and during that period, I was exposed to a completely unknown methodology to designing and emitting emotion behind a collection. Amsterdam was kind of where the pieces of the proverbial puzzle all came together; it played a huge part in the birth of the ATELIER HÅRLEM.

Months later, I came back and completed my graduate collection - but, it was like a veil had been lifted [as] I saw with new eyes. The design process was so fluid, almost intuitive - both in my hands as well as my heart.

When I graduated I worked hard - I worked full time at a call centre to build capital for the business during the day, and during all hours of the night I built the foundations of ATELIER HARLEM.

You mentioned that you want to express the characters and emotions of women. As a man, how do you relate to women?

I was raised by a single mother who is my ultimate inspiration. She is a deity in my eyes - truly otherworldly. I think growing up around a constant presence of feminine energy - it has had a strong sway on my design aesthetic. I'm also lucky enough to be surrounded by incredibly beautiful, supportive and inspiring women every day. Each of these women has a preternatural charm to their personality, which seems almost instinctual, untaught. It is fascinating to observe, and I try to reflect this in my work.

There's two lines: ready-to-wear and demi-couture. What made you want to develop two lines under one brand?

I started solely in demi-couture but the pieces I was making, they took hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars to create - they were more works of art than wearable garments.

The demi-couture line is still the heart and soul of our brand. But we wanted to dilute these pieces down into prêt-à-porter, pieces that accessible and available to the general public.

Latex has generally been perceived as the type of fabric used at sex stores and/or associated with bondage. Where did you find the idea of using latex?

There is definitely a stigma attached to latex, which is part of our brand identity. Our aim is to make the material more accessible for women who want to be in control of their sexuality.

It is considered a fetish material but, if you look back at fetish items throughout history -high heels, for example, were once considered a fetish item.

Moving forward in time to 2017, if a woman is walking down the streets in high heels, you wouldn't assume that said woman is on the hunt for a man's measure. High heels are a very normalised fashion accessory now. We're normalising the fetish material, through cut, silhouette and also extensive research on our consumer market.

A woman (or a man) should be able to wear this material on their person and feel as alluring or as muted as they choose.

The way you use latex is treated with old and forgotten techniques. What are some techniques that we no longer use that you want to bring back?

Working with latex is like talking in a secret language. Every garment is made entirely by hand: from the draping of the pattern, cutting the fabric, sealing the seams. There is no machine work involved. It's a very old world way of working with a very new world material. It can sometimes be very challenging in today's millennial, where as a generation we strive for instant gratification.

It's ironic, though, because the material is made to look very artificial. But, the actual source of the fiber is very natural and organic. It's tapped from a tree and is actually considered more environmentally friendly than cotton.

For designers who are unsure of their brand identity, what's the best way of finding one?

Brand identity and design identity are very personal things. It comes from within you, a place in your soul you might not know exists. There is no right or wrong way to discover this, but for us, it was through educating ourselves and reflecting of what we wanted our brand to be. Ask yourselves: "What are your brand's morals? How does it interact with the world?"

We didn't want to just sell clothes to random people over the internet and take their money. We wanted to build an intimate and emotional relationship with our consumer. We wanted to show our consumers that the beginning of our garments is more important than its consumption.

At the end of the day you can design whatever you want, but you have to be able to sell your collection. Have a very thorough understanding of your consumers and their behaviours. Everything you do will be for these people such as every sketch and seam.

What's the one innovation you want to try out that no one else has ever done it before?

For my thesis assignment at university, I worked with a symbiotic bacteria culture from which I "grew" fabric. One major problem with the fermented fabric is that it lacks flexibility, which in turn reduces wearability. The fibre can hold 200 times its weight in water. Once dried, it becomes very brittle; it will break, and this becomes a huge problem for the fashion industry.

We will definitely start looking at using organic chemicals to make it flexible but if it doesn't work then maybe we have to use something that is maybe a little bit "nasty" to the environment - but in the bigger picture, is it more environmentally friendly than the cotton industry is at the moment? The ultimate output of this is, is it better the devil you know or try something that may help in the bigger picture? Hindsight is always 20/20. Society can always look at this positively and say this is a great alternative and it's environmentally friendly but what, if any, are the negative downfalls of this?

You can visit Atelier Harlem by heading here.