Fashion Fetish: The Leather of David Samuel Menkes

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Published June 22, 2011

From handmade S&M gear to Lady Gaga’s custom-fit assault rifle bra (and they’re worlds apart, really), David Samuel Menkes is the go-to leather guy for the worlds of fashion and fetish alike. Once immersed in the underground leather scene, Menkes has, over the past 30 years, gone from crafting made-to-measure harnesses, straitjackets and codpieces for his leather-loving friends to creating the haute-est fashion accoutrements one could imagine. The eerie masks he did for French Vogue, and the snakeskin dickies and deadly elongated point slippers he created for Interview, are a far cry from the leather-daddy looks of his early days, but according to Menkes, whose favorite piece to make is a well-fitting pair of pants, he just wants to keep it simple.   Now 57, Menkes got his first whiff of leather 50 years ago, when his mother unwittingly gifted him a pair of lederhosen from Austria. “They were very exciting because they had that flap in the front and, as I got older, it became very important to me. You know, in that guy kind of way,” jokes the designer. The New Jersey native went on to study costume design at Carnegie Mellon and, after designing the looks for a range of off Broadway shows, as well as working for a florist where he built a giant stuffed bunny for Bianca Jagger’s birthday party at Studio 54, he transitioned into fashion. Working on a couture line for the late Frenando Sanchez, a former assistant to Christian Dior who became known for his luxe lingerie in the ’70s and ’80s, Menkes focused on draping and sewing. And while Sanchez’s saucy fashions may have been a subliminal influence, it was the underground bar scene that turned Menkes to a life of leather.   “At the time, I was going out at night to the backroom bars and I got into a group called ‘Gay Male S&M Activists,’ which was a kind of support group for men who were into leather and fetish,” explains Menkes. “I could always make clothes. I started sewing around age 15. So I thought, This is the scene of people I’m hanging out with. Why not see if I can make clothes for them too?” In 1980, Menkes began running his leather atelier out of his apartment. “I have a craft and that’s where I landed. It’s not a fetish for me, as much as it is a profession,” he asserts. Soon enough, word of his professional skills spread to members of the fashion and theater worlds and Menkes expanded from ass-less chaps and studded jocks to the impeccably fashioned costumes he’s always loved. He created a 6-foot wide bondage hood for the head of a Stalin statue for a biennale in Madrid. He designed Alec Baldwin’s costume for the 1998 production of Macbeth (although during his fitting, Baldwin was particularly nervous about the naughty accessories that hung on Menkes’s walls). Currently, he’s working on a range of pieces for Sacha Baron Cohen’s latest film.   Of course, Menkes still retains his fetishistic clientele and makes luxuriously deviant looks upon request. “I don’t want to dress everybody. I just want to dress the person who wants me to dress them. And I don’t want factories working for me. I want to keep it in my hands,” says Menkes of his made-to-measure pieces. But he explains, “The whole leather scene has changed. And I’ve changed. I don’t go out that much anymore and leather’s not as big as it used to be.” Menkes admits that, occasionally he’ll still throw on a pair of leather pants, or a vest. “I never wear the full outfit though. It’s just not me.” However, when asked about his fetish, the designer responds, “I’m a tailor, really.”

David Samuel Menkes: 144 Fifth Ave. #3, New York.  212.989.3706.  By appointment only.