WE’RE STALKING...RUPERT EVERETT

Good vibrations? More like fabulous.

'Erotic emporiums' like Kiki de Montparnasse are reinventing the sex toy as functional art

LIANNE GEORGE November 6 2006
WE’RE STALKING...RUPERT EVERETT

Good vibrations? More like fabulous.

'Erotic emporiums' like Kiki de Montparnasse are reinventing the sex toy as functional art

LIANNE GEORGE November 6 2006

Good vibrations? More like fabulous.

bazaar

'Erotic emporiums' like Kiki de Montparnasse are reinventing the sex toy as functional art

LIANNE GEORGE

Fashion’s power lies in its ability to lend anything it touches— sullenness, heroin, Jessica Simpson—a sheen of desirability. The more far-fetched the challenge, the greater the glory. So perhaps it was only a matter of time before fashion cast its transformative eye on the seedy and exceptionally lucrative world of sex toys. Earlier this year, when Kiki de Montparnasse, a new luxury sex brand, opened its first retail space in New York’s tony SoHo district, the couture-sawy brains behind the company characterized it not as a sex shop, but as an “erotic salon.” In the realm of consumer goods, they understood, semantics is everything. A “dildo,” for instance, is vulgar. But a US$1,750 hand-sculpted obsidian glass “diletto” is one of the shop’s most coveted artifacts.

The Kiki salon, described as “Louis XIV meets Carlo Mollino,” features hand-carved ebony furniture, lacquer bondage cabinets, and an eclectic collection of erotic art by Helmut Newton, Robert Mapplethorpe and Henri Matisse. The merchandise, displayed gallerystyle, includes a collection of ready-to-wear lingerie, Swarovski encrusted pasties, artisancrafted “instruments of pleasure,” and lubricants sold in elegant black perfume bottles. Not surprisingly, the founders, a couple in their 30s, were reared in the New York fashion industry. Jennifer Zuccarini, a Toronto-born designer, spent her early career working for the whimsical label Nanette Lepore. Her Australian boyfriend, Andrew Pollard, was an executive for Diesel and Miss Sixty. When they conceived their brand—named for the freespirited artists’ model and cabaret singer who haunted Paris’s bohemian social scene in the 1920s—the idea was to remodel something outré by steeping it in the principles of luxury design. “It’s all about context,” says Pollard. “We have a restraining kit—which is something you could buy in a regular sex store with terrible packaging and materials—but we’ve put it in precious lambskin with 24k gold hardware and contextualized it in a more luxurious way. It’s more palatable now for someone to explore being tied up in their bed.” Indeedy.

Traditionally, sex shops—with their bad lighting and grotesque aesthetic—have been relentlessly male-focused, relying on sensory shock, or more recently humour, to deflect the embarrassment of their customers. But a new generation of thirtyish professional women with economic clout and a clinging sense of self-determination is pulling the industry in a new direction. For these customers, and their partners, neon phalluses are not an option. “There’s no empowerment in toys that are so objectifying,” says Pollard. “They’re so overtly phallic. Or they’re shaped like dolphins. The colours are disgusting and the packaging reflects an uneducated perception of what a man thinks a woman should be in a sexual sense.” Until now, the only alternative has been grassroots stores extolling the principles of ’70s sex-positive feminism, such as San Francisco’s Good Vibrations and Good For Her in Toronto. While they’ve done a great deal to promote the virtue of female sexual pleasure, their mandate has always been undermined by its own worthiness. It’s the aphrodisiac equivalent of broccoli.

Shops like Kiki, one could argue, mark the true coming of age of sex-positive feminism: all the fun with none of the fibre. Myla, a U.K.based brand that has a shop in New York, has quietly gained a reputation for its use of renowned industrial designers. Among its bestsellers are the “C-Shell,” a swirl-shaped vibrator by American designer Scott Henderson, and the “pebble,” by Japanese sculptor Mari-Ruth Oda. Another store in the Kiki mould is Coco de Mer—created by Samantha Roddick, daughter of The Body Shop founder Anita Roddick—which has locations in the U.S. and the U.K. “Part sensous sex boutique, part art gallery,” its toys are made of jade and pink quartz and it sells sex-enhancing furniture (“perfect for spanking”) for upwards of $6,000. Jimmyjane, a San Francisco company, sells platinum and gold vibrators etched with 18th-century tattoo art, and Lelo, based in Stockholm, infuses its “ornate pleasure objects” with “timeless Scandinavian form.”

The theory is that in selling tastefully designed products in a welcoming environment, luxury sex brands are empowering women to explore their sexuality in an indulgent, non-threatening way. It’s a level of service that has never existed in the sex toy business. Selling a diletto, says Pollard, should be “no different from selling a pair of Christian Louboutin shoes.” So you no longer have to be male to enjoy sex. You just have to be rich.