I’m wild about John Willie.
So much so that when I made Vanity Fair’s prestigious International Best-Dressed List, I apparently stumped readers for name-dropping John Willie’s women as my greatest fashion inspiration. On stage, JW is always there in spirit—but no greater than the ovation “Lipteese” number I do, riding, bronco-style, straddling a whopping, sparkling red lipstick.
And, of course, the little devil is at my shoulder as I creative direct my hat collection for Hood London or my signature lingerie and glove lines. Or when I get dressed, morning or night.
Little was left to the imagination when it came to the curvaceous women that JW so meticulously penciled. Yet it was what was on the outside—a second skin of chiffon and leather, silk and satin—that drew me in. The man knew clothes. And stockings. And shoes. Especially shoes, a fetish he also expressed through another enterprise, a footwear line called Achilles. He sold the seductive soles via ads in his magazine BIZARRE. Designing was one way to ensure that the flesh-and-blood models whom he photographed, including his muse and second wife, Holly Anna Faram, were suitably laced up from tilted toe to the uppermost tippy top of the thigh.
Willie had a signature style when it came to fashioning the fantasies he conjured by way of graphite or camera film. There were the oil-slick long gloves and wide patent leather belts; pencil skirts cut up to here, and the snuggest of cardigans unbuttoned down to there. His illustrations also revealed a sense of haute drama, as in the case of a black gown with a tiny waist and sweetheart neckline, surprisingly paired with a white gossamer blouse with long puffed sleeves and a high neck. It’s only one example in a dress code so informed by Forties and Fifties femme fatales with shades of Victorian and Gibson Girl femininity. The latter also showed up in the ruffles on tightly pulled corsets and the endless leather-covered buttons on boots with the most vertiginous angled heels.
It could all be the liner notes for a New York or Paris runway. Yet here it was in the pages of a “dirty” magazine. Today, it all looks as chic and exciting as ever.
JW’s eye for style forever hooked me when I discovered Bizarre, Sweet Gwendoline, and the rest of his universe at around age 20. Reb Stout, also known as Rebecca H. Heels, introduced me to Willie and contemporaries such as fellow artist Bill Ward and model Bettie Page. Reb schooled me on fetish fashion and art. He was already in his 60s when we met in 1992 through a fetish wares and media house where he helmed many of the operations both logistically and creatively, and I modeled for free corsets and other fetish wear. Among other lessons, my late friend imparted that sexual exploration is best served with a streak of humor. I couldn’t agree more.
JW dished it out with a wink and nudge, even in the most explicit of scenarios. Here are women—in charge or in distress—behaving badly. The fantasy role play accompanied by speech bubbles laced with JW’s deadpan Brit humor made everything more intriguing, witty. I always loved reading the letters to the editor in Bizarre, too. JW insisted they were authentic reader letters. Whatever the truth, they are a hoot. He made fetishism fun.
While Sweet Gwendoline acted the distressed damsel through endless storylines, not all of his buxom protagonists played this role. The clever Secret Agent U89 (changed from U69 to sidestep censoring) and the dastardly Countess had the upper hand on them all. To wit, even Gwendoline’s responses seem to reveal she was in on the act, too. JW might have been a man, but that didn’t necessarily mean men were his primary audience.
Case in point is the original John Willie painting that greets visitors entering my home. Acquiring an original JW is near impossible. Granting me the impossible was a bondage master, well known in that community. He agreed to sell it to me when I moved into this home in the Hollywood Hills some years back.
Now framed in gold and black, the painting depicts a redhead who has managed to keep on her intricately laced-up boots over fitted jodhpurs, a broad belt and opera-length gloves. Earrings dangle. Missing is any semblance of a top. Her pert breasts point to the left, while the squiggle of a whip she wields over her head is at the right. The target is a brunette, up against a split-trunk tree, tied up from wrist to just above her ultra-high stilettos.
The woodsy motif of this work pairs perfectly with the forestland mural covering the walls of the foyer. To those at my front door, it conveys: Welcome to my world.
📸 Albert Sanchez
Thank you, Dita Von Teese