Chances are you have not heard their names, but you have most definitely seen their work. Patrick Whitaker and Keir Malem, aka Whitaker Malem, are craftsmen behind Captain America's nylon horse blanket suit, Wonder Woman's armour, Christian Bale's Batsuit for The Dark Knight, Death Eaters' pointed, snake-etched leather hats, Bellatrix Lestrange's leather corsets, Brad Pitt's skirt in Troy and Madonna's fencing gilet in Die Another Day.
They have dressed British artist Allen Jones' hypersexualised, hyper-realistic sculptures for over 25 years now and have collaborated with fashion visionaries such as Alexander McQueen, Hussein Chalayan, Giles Deacon, Christian Louboutin and Tommy Hilfiger. Apart from creating a Batsuit or two, they have done a Galaxy Ripple campaign shot by Bob Carlos Clarke. Their work has been featured in some of the most iconic fashion editorials - including that woven gilded leather bustier in Herb Ritts and Sarah Jane Hoare's 1989 British Vogue spreads that seemingly, had virtually every fashion student drooling in the 90s. Whitaker and Malem, partners in crime and in life, have spent more than three decades obsessing over the human form, crafting what they describe as body-based sculptures that occupy the fantastic realm between art, fashion and costume.

The duo met at a London house party circa 1985, when "you had fuck all chance of meeting anyone your age." After having an acid-induced revelation, Malem decided to help Whitaker, who was studying fashion design at St Martin's School of Art at the time. Whitaker's 1987 graduate collection set up a template of sorts for their work: masterfully manipulated, finished-to-perfection leather garment-slash-sculptures that Whitaker refers to as "shoes for the body" - he took a course in footwear design before St Martin's.

Traditionally, leather clothing — Whitaker Malem's signature material — is considered to be liminal, between the zones of culture and nature, or what Claude Lévi-Strauss has called, "the raw and the cooked". The more leather is thought to embody this liminal factor, the more it can be fetishised. However, Whitaker and Malem's work is more exploratory than fetishistic, embodying their relentless pursuit of perfection, or at least what perfection could look like.

The duo's 2019 Labia Bustier has recently made an appearance in Doja Cat's artwork for the new Planet Her album, shot by David LaChapelle and styled by Brett Alan Nelson. To mark the occasion, Whitaker and Malem chart their storied career, reminisce on exactly how cunty people were in the 80s, discuss the creative power of today's youth and predict the digital future of fashion. 
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Photo: Kilian O'Sullivan
You have handcrafted some of the most iconic costumes, including, but not limited to, Eva Green's leather armour in 300: Rise of Empire, bustiers for Clash of the Titans, Captain America's nylon suit and Bellatrix Lestrange's leather corset. How creatively fulfilling was the process of making these? Did you ever feel like you had to compromise?
Patrick Whitaker: We have had a lot of creative input on some occasions, and on others, we just had to lift a drawing off the page. It depends on how much you are involved in the process and what you will get out of it creatively. The latter is very important to us since we are not youngsters any longer.
Keir Malem: People come to us for our skill and our expertise. I would like to think that we can pretty much make anything, given time and budget.
P: Yes. Generally, it is time rather than money, and of course, time is money. Our process is quite a low tech one. We do get involved with laser scanning, but it always comes back to the physical process here in the studio where we actually have to pour foam, sculpt it and whittle things away. It is very old-school.
And masochistic…
P: Yes! That's what we have signed up for. And as a business, we are and always have been quite commission-led; we are sort of like guns for hire.
You have done your share of fashion collaborations and have been featured in fashion editorials working with icons such as Judy Blame and photographers such as Terry O'Neill and Herb Ritts. Which one is a more fucked up industry to work in? Fashion industry or film industry?
P: That is a very good way of putting it.
K: I think that fashion is a young person's game. You get a set day, and you have to work towards that day, and that leads to a lot of stress, a lot of late nights and a lot of tearing of hair. With films, you get a build-up and get six weeks of filming, but when the cameras are rolling, you spend something like 250 000 dollars a day, so there is an awful lot of pressure.
P: With films, there are many expectations, many different people to please, from a director to an actor, or actress, to a costume designer, producers and the people around them.
Sounds intense. Do costumes change a lot throughout filming?
P: Yes. For example, I was very keen that Wonder Woman's armour had a navel. We like nipples and navels in our pieces, and for Wonder Woman, we could not have nipples, but everyone thought that the navel was a good idea. It is a classical Grecian sort of thing. But midway through filming, they decided to take it out digitally, and we had to poke the navel out of the leather. You get these weird situations.
Wonder Woman would have looked much better with a navel, I think. 
P: The interesting thing is when you turn up to film places you see fashion references on the wall and when you go to the fashion places you have got film references. The industries look at each other, and it is hilarious to see that costume designers' takes on fashion can be really… just off.
K: And strange.
P: The clue is in the name — it is a bloody costume, and you know, it is really important to differentiate between costume and fashion.
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Rina Sawayama - Photo: Greg Lin - Styling Boyheart.
How do you differentiate between the two?
K: The thing about the costume is that it is workwear. Half the time, we are dressing stunt people, or we are trying to hide a harness. These people work 10 hours a day in that costume, fighting in it and destroying it basically, whereas fashion is much more flippant.
P: The thing about fashion is that it is a statement. It's powerful and intentional. Fashion at its best reflects what the current zeitgeist is and what the current mood is.
Patrick, you have said that you would rather stick pins in your eyes than have your own fashion label or stage a fashion show. Is that still true?
K: I suppose we do have a label in a way; we just don't make collections.
P: We just don't make anything that people buy.
K: We ran our label for ten years, doing a new collection every six months. It was fun, but fashion does rely on handbags, sunglasses and perfumes, and without those things, I think it is very difficult to be highly creative.
P: Back in the day, you made a collection, you showed it, and if you were fortunate, you got some press.
K: Because you were up against everyone else, and you were lucky if you got a little picture in the Standard.
P: In the late 80s and early 90s, we were actually in a unique position for a while because there was literally nobody doing anything like what we were doing. There were, of course, big names like Azzedine Alaïa and Thierry Mugler, and that's who we thought we should be. I was always looking at those designers as a student.
You are very active on Instagram. Do you think social media has positively impacted getting people's work out there? Or was that selectivity and authority of traditional media more beneficial for the brand in the long run?
P: The best thing that has happened, and the thing that is changing the [fashion business] model, is definitely social media. It's changed how people can make a product, show themselves, get the exposure they want and sell directly.
I think it is a much better time for people to do what we do now and obviously, now we see people doing similar projects. But, before, we didn't see that - probably there were other people tucked away we did not know about. But there was nothing like our stuff in that period. It was before McQueen and Chalayan.
K: It was fewer showpieces and more club-wear.
P: Body Map and things like that. Cleverly put together, relatively loose, off the body and not particularly constructed stuff, which was really fashionable. I think we were definitely on the vanguard, and McQueen spotted that, and he was a genius on jumping on stuff.
You worked with Alexander McQueen on his 1997 debut Givenchy show, creating many pieces, including that white leather wing bustier. That kick-started the fashion collaborations, right? How did you meet Lee McQueen?
P: We saw him at nightclubs quite a few times, and he knew who we were from going out. I used to dress up a lot. Like they all did back then, he knew the Herb Ritts pages that we had in British Vogue. Virtually every fashion student had those pages torn out. They were nothing like anything else. And those editorials, in fact, caused quite a furore. Those images caused Versace to threaten to pull advertising in Vogue.
P: Because they did not understand why the unknown upstarts like us were getting these incredible spreads. It made their stuff look shit in comparison.
K: They thought that the editorial was stronger than their ads. Anyway, when McQueen started at Givenchy, he had very grand ambitions, and he did not really have much choice but to grab every person he knew could make interesting things and put them to work. He suddenly had a massive budget, so he went for it. It was one of those collections that people don't jump up and scream and clap at the end. They just sit in stunned silence.
P: You could debate whether it is a good collection or not to this day, but it indeed grew in its interest and importance subsequently.
K: It has become legendary, really. I suppose, in a way, that McQueen show was quite costumey. But there was nowhere to put those kinds of things to be seen beyond the catwalk.
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Photo: Allen Jones.
So where did those costumey clothes live if they did not end up in editorials?
K: I think when we were young, the only place we could really dress up and go out was a nightclub.
P: That's why those nightclubs were so legendary because you would not see those mad clothes anywhere else.
K: But the other side of that was that you had to go on public transport because you had no money and you got a lot of abuse just for being different. That was something you had to take on board: if you wanted to dress up and go mad, you had to take the shit as well.
P: People were really quite horrible to each other back then. It was actually really fashionable to be cunty to people: like the doors of nightclubs and guest lists, not being cool enough to go in and all that stuff. But that was not just on the nightclubs' doors; it was everywhere, and people were not called out for it.
Patrick, you went to St Martin's, so that must have been a safe haven.
P: It is funny because I only fit in so far at St Martin's because I was from a painfully middle-class background. My mother was a sculptor; her brother was a pretty successful TV director who was a TV designer before that, and had worked on sets for Doctor Who in the 60s and God knows what. A rather interesting uncle to have. So I had a very creative middle-class upbringing, but that does not count as cool at a fashion school. Certainly not in the mid-80s in St Martin's.
K: Are you saying you are cool now?
P: I don't think I am cool now at all. I think getting older and having stuck at it for a bloody long time has probably helped.
You worked on Patrick's graduate collection together, right?
P: Although the collection was under my name, Keir helped with the degree show, and there were moulded leather pieces in it, and it was quite a template for what we do now. I was always lucky that I could make things pretty well, and I think that craftsmanship has become lots more revered and respected now.
When it comes to craftsmanship and art, does context matter? When your work is in those blockbuster movies, do you still consider the costumes as works of art?
P: Context really matters. There are bits of those things that I could pull away and say that it's art, but I would be talking about the parts of it. I have always resisted saying we are artists.
K: I don't think we have intentionally made any garment to be a piece of art. We probably try more now to do that, but we have not up until quite recently.
P: When you are a gun for hire, and it is a collaborative thing, it can never be art because there is not enough of one person's view. I think the overall effect can be of art, but I still don't feel confident enough to bestow the title of an artist on ourselves. But then again, I don't aspire to be a designer. I probably do aspire to be an artist personally.
So what do you call yourselves?
K: We have always called ourselves designer artisans. Now we call ourselves pop artisans.
P: But we think it is for others to decide — many things can be considered works of art that were not created as such... It's all so much in the eye of the beholder. But one thing I can confidently say is that we have doubled in an awful lot of popular culture.
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Doja Cat - Photo: David Lachapelle - Styling: Brett Nelson.
I love the Galaxy Ripple advertisement, for example. I cannot imagine anyone doing that today.
P: You are right. That's actually really sad that that is true.
How did that copper leather dress end up in a chocolate bar commercial?
P: It was shot by this wonderful photographer called Bob Carlos Clarke, a British Helmut Newton type. His pictures are very collectable now, and they are very erotically charged. God knows why or how, but he got this campaign. He saw our dress and thought it would be perfect. One random semi-erotic magazine photographer being in a campaign like that for a chocolate brand... That would definitely not happen today.
K: Bob Carlos was actually the one who introduced us to Allen Jones, who we have collaborated with for about 25 years now. He is a proper pop artist.
P: He has definitely been the most important collaborator. Bob put us onto him, and when we met Allen, we suggested that we could leather-cover complete figures for him.
Is that how your leather-covered nude sculptures came about?
K: I think we were doing them before. We were marketing our clothes, and we needed to display them on something, so we leather-covered these stands.
P: We took that process to a fabulous mannequin manufacturer called Adel Rootstein. They took it up as a range, so we have been doing that before working with Allen. That was good bread and butter for Whitaker Malem for many years. We made hundreds of these leather-covered torsos. Anyway, the first sculpture we made with Allen was shown at the Royal Academy and bought by Gary Hume. It was actually displayed opposite Degas' ballet dancer sculpture which was just amazing.
How has Allen Jones influenced your work?
K: Allen's paintings have been a source of inspiration because the quality of his line and his ability to render form, body and movement are exceptional.
P: And his process is very similar to ours. He is very meticulous. Even things that look pretty random and gestural on his paintings are actually totally meditated and rehearsed beforehand. There is a lot of craftsmanship and technique involved. He really did inform a lot of our work in terms of creating tension and lines on the body. He also helped us overcome and promote the use of colour. We became pretty tired of making black leather things. Andrew Logan, a dear friend of ours and Zandra Rhodes, are huge promoters of colour as well, and it is nice to follow all that.
K: I think you crave more colour as you get older.
Why is that?
K: London can be very grey and depressing, and you just need more cheering up, really. When we were teenagers, everything was black, you know, you wore black.
P: Now, I do see more colour in fashion actually than I used to. I love that Charles Jeffrey is always using lots of colours, for example. People are less inhibited about it, which is good. But we are back to black for the Balenciaga collaboration.
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Photo: Claire Rothstein.
Speaking of Charles Jeffrey, you have been working and collaborating with many young creatives over the past few years, like Reece + Dean, Lily Bling, Jazzelle Zanaughtti and Mika Kailes…
P: Young creative people are like oxygen for ageing creative people, you know. And when we were young, we had Zandra and Andrew, Duggie Fields and Allen, and they are all at least 20 years older than us. And then, Lily and your gang are 20 plus years younger than us, so you sort of see where you are in this mix, and I absolutely love it. We are very happy to work with people who are starting out, and it does not have to be a big shoot for a big magazine.
K: I think we have got a lot of knowledge to give, and you know you can certainly help people find their direction.
What is in it for you?
P: Young people are interesting because they have got a different perspective on life. Anthon Raimund said something to me recently, and it was an excellent point; you know, if you don't pass on your skills and techniques, what will happen to them? They will just be forgotten. It is ridiculous, but I have never actually fully seen it that way. We are pretty generous with showing our process on Instagram, but there are a few things we want to keep to ourselves.
Would you want to share your techniques in detail at some point?
K: We would like to self-publish a book sometime in the future, and in there, we will show more processes.
Could you tell me about the Transmorphic mash-up garments you have been working on recently?
P: That really was just the exploration of the sexed body. It was not, per se, [joining] the debate on non-binary identities. We have to differentiate between that and looking at the sexed body as an object which is really what the exercise was. We had this extraordinary experience knowing the Wachowski sisters who made the Matrix films, who are both transgender women. Many trans women keep their penises, which is interesting, and we wanted to imagine what that body might look like.
There was a certain backlash, was not there?
P: We did suffer a bit of backlash from it. Not so much us as Jazzelle Zanaughtti photographed in one of our Phallus belts. Some called it trans appropriation, saying that we were belittling the issue, which is the opposite of what we would ever want to do.
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Photo: Andy Long - Styling: Lily Bling.
How did you respond to that criticism?
P: I did not take the comments down; I simply replied that I had slept with men, women and trans people. I am actually a grandfather. I have had sex with all sorts of people and know them and love them, and I don't see why I am in any better or worse position than anyone else to comment on it or look at it. Because, in fact, it was not meant as a comment, more as a visual exploration.
I know we as a generation have a lot to learn. Still, of course, we are a million per cent behind the LGBTQ+ agenda, but I want to be really careful to remember how recently we have gained the liberties we have. When I first had sex with a man, it was illegal; I was performing an illegal act because you were supposed to be 21, and I was 16 or 17, and that's not so long ago, really.
It is illegal [to be gay and or trans] in many countries still.
P: Absolutely. It is. And worse than that, it is getting pushed back in the places that it is not illegal. In Hungary and in Poland, for instance. We are back to being tolerated, which is precisely what we always were: tolerated. It feels like it is so easy to slip back. There needs to be total equality across the board for everyone, and we need to be careful to safeguard what we have. You know, I was harassed by policemen leaving a gay pub.
That sounds awful.
P: In fact, a policewoman harassed me. I was not even 18; I was 17. And with HIV and everything, we lost loads of friends. It was terrifying. Like Covid, except we were blamed for it, you know.
K: A lot of people thought you deserved it.
P: It was pretty divisive and shocking and mad, and I mean, it is fascinating getting older, and as everyone says, time goes faster and faster as you get older and older. This was over 30 years ago, but it seems like not very long ago to me.
K: Alright, grandpa. I would like to say that we love the way young people celebrate their bodies and are proud of them, and we are wholeheartedly behind that. Our work has been about celebrating the body, and we love the human form, and we find it incredibly interesting. It is incredibly important for us.
Bodies are a touchy subject for many, as we have established, and your work more often than not showcases an idealised body. Has that been an issue?
 P: We have had accusations of a sort of body fascism because of our work. People might respond, 'oh my god, it is a sculpture, and it is a beautiful body. Why is it not a plus-size body?' And I accept that. However, we have actually made plus-size bodies for movies. You know, the human brain is totally pre-programmed to seek out symmetry in faces and bodies. We apparently have a built-in instinct to look for that kind of beauty.
Your design has recently been featured in David Lachapelle's artwork for Doja Cat's new album Planet Her. How did that come about?
P: It all came through Brett Alan Nelson, who is an LA stylist. It was really fabulous. That particular image was built entirely around our piece, which was excellent; the headdress was custom-made by a guy in LA. We sent over Pantone references to try and approximate the colour. It all got built up from there, which was a polar opposite of the situation we are so often in when people ask us to make things for them or their movie, and we have to work in the confines of what they are after. What we cherish the most is that energy of when you have got a very strong piece with a very strong image and a really interesting person. It is really rare. There are literally a handful of pictures in our career which really stand the test of time.
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You could say that it is already an iconic image.
P: Yeah, I was reluctant to use that word but yeah. There are pictures of Doja Cat wearing our piece backstage, and they prove to everybody that the piece is 100 per cent in-camera, which is so important these days because I think people see these things nowadays and think it is done digitally. But having said that, I am interested in doing that now.
Are you interested in digital clothes?
P: Yeah, I think we would be mad not to be. It would be really good for us to have people enjoy wearing it. I know it is a bit corny, but I think that is something very exciting.
 It would be very on-brand, given how experimental your work is.
P: I think ultimately there will be like Google glasses or something like that: you will go to the party or meet someone on the street in shorts and look through glasses and see that they are wearing something completely fucking insane digitally.
But do you think that is going to replace the feeling of actually wearing something? Clothes are such a big part of how we feel in our skin.
P: They are. Again, it is that analogy of shoes, how shoes affect people, how they walk in an utterly different way, their posture changes. The reality is that when you wear something, it sort of completely alters the way you stand, the way you walk and how you feel, which is what wearing things is really about.
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