"You would be surprised how the average person doesn't understand the mental part of it, but you know what? You see it in more ads than you think," Sheila Rae, owner of Eros Boutique, a brick-and-mortar and online retailer of fetish gear, said. "The average American knows that it's sexy. They know it's kinky. They might not understand the whole submissive/dominant theme, but when they see it, they get it. They just don't know why they get it."
Juli Crockett, marketing director for Stockroom.com, agrees with Rae's assessment of potentially kinky customers. Stockroom.com (also known as JT's Stockroom), headquartered in Los Angeles, has been a leading manufacturer/ online retailer of quality fetish hardware since 1988.
"There are a lot of people that are into kinky play and don't even really know it," Crockett said. "They wouldn't identify themselves as, 'Oh yeah, I like BDSM.' But maybe they like little ass slaps and hair-pulling in the bedroom; still, they wouldn't necessarily go to a leather bar."
Located in Boston, Eros Boutique is the largest retailer of imported latex wear in the U.S., from fashion latex to heavy rubber for serious players. Seventy percent of Eros' latex sales come through the website where the average sale is larger than over-the-counter.
"The cat suits are pretty expensive, but we'll sell five or six a day online and maybe two a week in the store," Rae said. "Rubber is very addictive. Girls are into it more as fashion. Guys just absolutely need it. They're wearing it under their suit."
Like other fetishes, latex is a highly specialized and expensive hobby for enthusiasts. One advantage to having a physical location, Rae points out, is that regular customers can come in and request custom-made pieces, fitted to their specifications. Eros' best-selling, off-the-rack latex item is a men's brief with cock sheath and internal anal dildo, retailing at $99.
Female rubber fashionistas can start at $58 for a plunging black latex bra top, or go all-out in the latex Spiral Gown from London's Torture Garden, with off-the-shoulder detailing and ball gown hemline — at $495, this dress could go from trendy nightclub to gothic dungeon with the snap of a whip.
Syren, the most prominent latex fashion house in America, was acquired last year by Stockroom.com, and specializes primarily in latex couture.
"It's best known for the Michelle Pfeiffer 'Cat Woman' costume from the 'Batman' movies," Crockett says. "That was actually a Syren design and we still are doing a lot of designs for Hollywood and music videos, which is a great aspect of the business and lots of fun. Pamela Anderson keeps showing up in Syren latex gowns.
"And now we're adding more of the rubber bondage gear and cat suits and all of that. We're actually trying to get on a season with launching the new lines of both fashion and gear, too. When we renovated the Syren store, we had a big grand opening and fashion show with all the new designs which have been so well-received."
Mainstream fashion designers like John Galliano, Jean Paul Gaultier, Helmut Lang and Alexander McQueen have frequently used latex to create edgy, modern designs, as well as incorporating other kinky looks into their couture lines.
"Even [Ralph Lauren's] Polo — the girls are in riding pants and holding riding crops and it's very sexy," Rae said, describing pony ride fetish, one of the oldest but still most popular. "But Madonna took it right out of the box. She just put it right out there because she's Madonna."
Eros Boutique outfitted Madonna last year for her equestrian-inspired "Confessions" tour and a 58-page photo layout in the June 2006 issue of W Magazine. The trend-setting Material Girl requested human-sized saddles, bits and bridles, riding crops, latex panties and gloves.
Another kinky trend that seems on the rise is electro stimulation, according to Rae and Crockett.
"We probably have had a 30 percent increase in our electro sales in the last six months," Rae said. She attributes the growing popularity to word-of-mouth and attempts by manufacturers to make packaging and equipment more user-friendly. Rimba, an entry-level electro gear manufacturer (in terms of price and selection), recently revamped the look of their boxes.
"It didn't look couple-oriented," Rae said. "Now the packaging has a girl on the front and a boy on the back. It's more friendly and mainstream. Before the packaging was scarier and you felt that you had to be an engineer — it looked like something you'd see in Eastern Europe."
Last summer, Stockroom.com became the exclusive U.S. distributor for Paradise Electro Stimulation (PES), and since then, Crockett says they have also noticed an increase in consumer interest and sales. Utilizing the Syren store location as the site for several educational seminars on fetish play, she says a recent class in electro stimulation was standing room only.
"So many people are interested in electro play and it is one of those ones where you want to be informed because it's a little bit cost-prohibitive," Crockett said. "Just to start, a PES power box is between $400 and $500, and then all the attachments can be anywhere from $45 to $100- plus. But it's a real incredible kind of play and goes so well with the whole concept of BDSM."
Stockroom.com recently launched Kinklab, a separate website featuring their new line of entry-level gear.
"Creating this new brand — from the modeling and the look of the site and the logo — it's suggesting this really fun, experimental scientific laboratory energy that is more accessible," Crockett said. "It's directed towards couples and we have a men's line."
Packaged in clear plastic tubes and bags that can be reused for storage, the company adapted several best-selling items to offer exceptional retail value. It was especially important, Crockett explains, for the customer to be able to see the actual product, in order to reassure the consumer in terms of quality and to demystify any intimidation associated with fetish play.
"To let them know exactly what they're getting before they buy it," Crockett said. "When you're dealing in sex toys and bondage gear especially, and you're dealing with the consumer on such an intimate level — you can't disappoint people because they won't come back. If they have a bad experience in such an intimate way, you could really scar somebody by giving them a bad experience."