The pavement was sizzling, and royalty was taking to the streets of Avenue B. On that recent 90-degree afternoon, the day drinkers were hushed into silence as the Baroness, the pink-haired queen of couture fetishwear, walked by, heels clicking, her A-line lavender latex skirt swishing around her ankles. She knew it, too. As we sat down to lunch, she told me, “People have literally dropped to their knees because of how I look and how I dress myself. I’ve always felt very powerful and clothing-oriented to the point of obsession.”
The Baroness (and that is her legal name, although she was born Varcra Russal) is 70 but looks younger, and for three decades she’s been the go-to designer and tailor for fashion items made of latex. Her boutique, on 13th Street east of Avenue A, is the only all-latex boutique in the country. Step inside, and it smells like your childhood pencil eraser spiked with vanilla. In order to wriggle into her clothes, you need to apply a special lubricant to your skin. A beginner customer can spend $49 on a latex thong; a graceful full-length 1930s-inspired Myrna Loy dress costs $450. Custom designs can run into the tens of thousands. Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Beyoncé, and Nicki Minaj have all worn her clothes, and her creations are all over the FX show Pose. She or an assistant makes every item she designs and sells, from the opera-length latex gloves to the waist cinchers, by hand. She is full of aphorisms, like “Any occasion to dress is an occasion to overdress.”
But the rubber will soon hit the road: Despite a considerate landlord and loyal customers who kept her business afloat during the pandemic, the Baroness will close her storefront and relocate to France at the end of August. Even as there’s latex, latex everywhere — on the runways, on the red carpet, on Pornhub — there’s less of the delicious kink and power-playing, she says, that initially fired her imagination. That, and the rent isn’t getting any lower, and COVID closed down a lot of the parties for which she supplied the clothes. Besides, “I started to become less interested in all the requests for our black Marilyn Monroe top, one of our most popular pieces, in a size medium,” she says. “I started to realize, Fuck this, I don’t want to make them anymore.”
Her raison d’être, she says, has always been giving weirdos confidence and allowing them to feel valued and beautiful in their bodies. She’s English, from Surrey, but her family moved to Los Angeles when she was 12. It didn’t go well for her. “I was made to feel like I wasn’t a good person because of my clothing,” she says. “I was constantly being sent to the principal’s office because I dressed very Mary Quant. I had a white PVC dress with a white spotted tie and cuffs.” She dropped out of school at 13 and, after piecing together bits of an education on her own terms, started sewing. Soon after, she headed to Haight-Ashbury (“I was arrested for using American flags to make patches. They said I was defacing the flag!”), and then, at 21, “I hitchhiked from California trying to get to Paris,” she says. Instead, she settled in the East Village.
It was the early 1970s. The neighborhood was “an open-air drug market with syringes all over the sidewalks. I remember sleeping in Port Authority after a boyfriend couldn’t meet me after my class at F.I.T.,” she recalls. “Living in New York City then was like having someone put their hand on your back and push you off a building — you fell, and you fell fast. That was great for me.”
After working as a designer, selling lingerie-inspired clothes to retailers like Patricia Field, she had a eureka moment when she tried on a red latex dress at a shop on St. Marks Place. “I felt like a sausage in it. But everyone kept telling me how fabulous I looked!” she said. “I realized then that I wanted to design latex clothing that could make women feel sexy and comfortable. Because if you’re not comfortable, you’re not going to feel sexy.” She got the Baroness brand going in 1993 and soon became the go-to designer for pervy partygoers with money to spend. In 2004, searching for a space to open the boutique, she found a storefront filled with squatters that had a toilet in the center of the room. “I had my work cut out for me,” she recalls, and she signed a lease and painted the place an intense blue with lavender accents and draperies.
“By then,” she says, “I was already famous because of my segment on the HBO show Real Sex.” (The episode, which premiered in 2001 and stayed on heavy rotation for months, featured the Baroness placing a man into a “sucky bed,” which vacuum seals your body with only a breathing tube to keep you alive.) Over the past 15 years, her Fetish Retinue parties became the place for wild, BDSM-themed performance art. One attendee recalls seeing the Baroness arrive looking a gleeful, sadistic queen of the May, dressed in purple latex, a sparkling tiara on her head, a pair of enthusiastic slaves following her on leashes in matching costumes.
A domme by nature, although never a dominatrix by profession, she loves the effect of a woman entering a room and flipping the entire power dynamic on its head. Get her reminiscing, and the stories pour out: “At one of my favorite parties, we covered a woman in bubble wrap and liquid latex and everyone stormed the stage to pop the bubbles,” she says fondly. “Another time, we had a medical-fetish theme and we had ‘doctors’ and ‘nurses’ saw off a woman’s leg. There was blood spattered everywhere.”
“The woman only had one leg, obviously,” she added. “But the effect must have been great, because some people thought the whole thing was real.”
Perhaps inevitably, she’s finding her business a little tame these days, now that there’s latex, latex everywhere. “When I started, it was pure fetish,” she says. “Now, it’s more of a fashion item, something to add to an outfit to make it ‘edgy,’ she said. “Even though that’s a large part of my customer base now, I find it kind of offensive.”
But it isn’t just the mainstreaming of latex that’s beginning to bore her. “I was very lucky to float between worlds: the gay BDSM world, the goth world, the business world, the fetish world, the burlesque world, the queer world,” she says. “Now, I’m seeing much less crossover. We had fewer options then. We just wanted to project what we wanted to project and not get shit for it.” The parties have changed, too. There’s more judgment, more focus on just getting off. “More and more, the parties have begun being more male-top-oriented, which means there’s more sex happening there,” she says.
That’s replaced an emphasis on the intellectual aspect of BDSM. “This sounds snobby, but a lot of people don’t realize that this is an arena where the brain is really important. And they’re just responding on a physical level,” she continued. “Mental entrapment is more interesting than physical entrapment.” Also, she says, the parties “were getting too crowded. You couldn’t swing a bull whip in there.”
The Baroness says she’ll likely settle in southern Beaujolais, finishing the move she started 50 years ago, on the condition that she can find a large workplace and the ability to throw intimate parties while contemplating her legacy. “I’ve always been happiest when I see people transform in my clothing,” she says. “They become their true selves — the latex disappears.” She says a Baroness podcast may be on its way.