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The Wonder Woman Effect

By Melanie Abrams

Gal Gadot as Diana in the action adventure
Warner Bros.
Gal Gadot as Diana in the action adventure "Wonder Woman".

Gal Gadot, DC Comics and the whole Justice League gang are not the only big winners from “Wonder Woman,” the film franchise that has already taken in more than US$780 million globally; it just seems to keep on giving (and is already gearing up for a sequel).

The latest beneficiaries of the movie’s halo effect: Whitaker Malem, the London leather designers behind the superheroine’s metallic leather armour as well as the armour for her fellow Amazons. They are this season’s breakout British brand.

“Wonder Woman is our calling card at the moment,” said Keir Malem, 52, sitting with his partner, Paddy Whitaker, also 52, in the loftlike ground floor of their two-story home and atelier in Dalston, East London.

Dotted around the walls are mementos from their travels mixed in with seminal artworks from the 20th-century Italian maestro Lucio Fontana and a 1970s 3D spotted torso by the British pop artist Allen Jones. The two men, who uncannily look and dress alike, had just returned from a five-month stint making more leather armour on location in Australia for Wonder Woman’s sister movie, “Aquaman,” scheduled for release in December 2018.

Just upstairs from where they were sitting was the atelier where the Wonder Woman armour, commissioned by Lindy Hemming, the film’s costume designer, was born.

The two work at side-by-side desks, and pictures adorn the main wall, including a close-up of the Wonder Woman costume made before it was metallicised. Torsos fitted with leather corsets litter the room, while hidden at the back is a vintage 1950s Singer sewing machine, bought at North London’s Chapel Market for 60 pounds in 1988. On it, Malem said, “everything is done, even though it wasn’t made for sewing leather.”

Whitaker MalemIn an undated handout photo, items from Whitaker Malem, the fashion brand in London behind the metallic leather armour worn in “Wonder Woman.”
In an undated handout photo, items from Whitaker Malem, the fashion brand in London behind the metallic leather armour worn in “Wonder Woman.”

Called “beyond cool” by New York magazine, Wonder Woman’s armour has become a breakout star in its own right. “We were allowed to go close to the body and do sexy armour, which is unusual, as a lot of armour is massive,” Malem said.

Rihanna’s stylist, Mel Ottenberg, asked to borrow a moss-green shearling corset for the kickoff of the star’s jewellery collaboration with Chopard at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.

The veteran costume designer Sandy Powell, known for films like “Shakespeare in Love” and the coming “Mary Poppins Returns,” asked Whitaker Malem to design armour for her latest film, “The Favourite.” (They couldn’t do it because of “Aquaman.” “We were gutted,” Malem said.)

And the arty French Double magazine featured Joan Severance, the model and actress, wearing one of their moulded black bustier collaborations with Allen Jones in its current spring/summer issue. “We’d never been in that magazine before,” Malem said. Now “we’re exposed to a whole new audience.”

Even Donatella Versace riffed on the Wonder Woman look in her recent couture collection, with a corseted catsuit glittering with nearly 8,000 sequins and a gold leather minidress.

Though best known today for their film work, which has included Luke Evans’ red leather jacket in this year’s “Beauty and the Beast,” as well as the 2008 “Dark Knight” bat suit, Whitaker Malem began life as a fashion house in 1988, focusing on leather. The designers had met by chance at a house party in London two years earlier; Whitaker was studying fashion design at Central Saint Martins and Malem was acting at the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn, northwest London, after dropping out of a hairdressing course at the London College of Fashion.

After two runway collections and after dressing such names as Paula Abdul and Cher in leather, however, the two were still struggling to make ends meet, and moved into collaborating with other fashion designers. They made a gold leather dress for Alexander McQueen’s spring/summer 1997 Givenchy collection, and a leather eagle bustier for Tommy Hilfiger’s spring/summer 2000 Red Label.

“Our biggest fashion mistake was that Isabella Blow asked our PR to be given one of our dresses and we wouldn’t let her have it,” said Whitaker, referring to the late famed British stylist and pointing to a photograph of the gold chain mail dress with a gold moulded ivy leaf leather bustier in one of their scrapbooks. “Maybe, had we given it to her, things might have been different.”

Still, it was a learning experience that helped them embrace their newfound Wonder Woman fame.

Malem and Whitaker are now focusing on personal fine art work, funded by their movie fees, which largely involves male and female bodies fashioned in leather and spliced together to create a wall sculpture.

“We hope that the people who think this Wonder Woman stuff is cool are going to want to have it on their walls when we sell it,” said Whitaker, pointing out the superhero overtones of an idealised hermaphroditic body.