Zahira isn’t the name her parents gave her, but a name she chose for herself. Now in her late forties and the mother of two grown sons and a teenage daughter, she has been known as “mum” for most of her adult life. Originally a painter, multimedia artist and musician, she was seduced by the possibilities of leather as wearable art, blending the authority of the material, as she puts it, with the femininity of the boudoir.
Zahira met her partner, photographer and fellow musician Idris De Angeli, some six years ago in Greenwich Market, where he was selling glassware. Zahira was working in an antiquarian bookshop nearby, and she speculates the inspiration behind her work with leather hails from her days spent handling the beautifully carved leather-bound books, some of which are over 300 years old. “The beauty of their craftsmanship and longevity were striking,” she says.
Shortly after meeting Idris, Zahira set up a market stall making flowers and arrangements from torn and discarded leather jackets. Having been a belt maker back in the 1980s, Idris knew where to find materials and fittings and, as luck would have it, he held on to his old leather hand tools. Together they made their first waist-cincher and Zahira’s Boudoir was born.
Photography by Idris De Angeli and Ian Felton
Suddenly, they needed space to work. Idris was teaching yoga at Trinity Buoy Warf — a most unusual arts quarter in the Docklands, comprised of colourful reclaimed shipping containers that are refurbished and used as studios. This multi-skilled pair had already formed friendships with several of the Warf’s residents and loved the vibe. When a suitable studio became available, they leapt at the chance. Zahira says, “I love the site, it’s so charged with history. We have London’s only lighthouse, and of course the river views, which I find very calming. Also, the community here is great. There are other artists and musicians on site and it’s nice to be able to step outside and chat to like-minded people.”
Zahira’s artistic background lends a distinctive approach to working with leather. “I look at the body like a sculpture. Each one is unique, and I love the fact that, even though I may repeat a design, the leather will always do something different to the wearer. The more you work with leather, the more alive it becomes. I get very excited by all the possibilities that leather has as a material. You can carve it, emboss it, mold it, and paint it.”
Zahira enjoys collaborations which “stretch the creative boundaries between different art forms.” A recent project with art photographer Claire Swindale and make up artist Becky McGahern was particularly harmonious. “The three of us came up with the same concept about skin and tattoos — what’s dead, what’s alive, what’s soft and what’s structured? It worked out beautifully, and the lines between craft and art were merged.”
Photography by Claire Swindale
One short article on Zahira’s Boudoir described the brand’s philosophy as “celebrating adulthood rather than eternal girlhood.” Questioned on this subject, our leather-clad lady agrees with the sentiment. “Advertising is aimed at women, making us dissatisfied with our curves and the way our bodies change shape when we have children. We are bombarded with imagery about being young and thin, but what’s really important is being healthy in body and mind. Aging is a natural process, and we can be old and sexy with all of our wrinkles and greying hair. I design for many women in their 40s, 50s and 60s, and I can put on a corset and feel sexy without dyeing my hair.”
She goes on to say, “That’s the one thing about the fetish scene — you find the women within it embracing themselves no matter what size or shape they are. What’s more powerful than a woman who feels confident in her own skin? I enjoy doing the fetish shows because, unlike America, which has a mainstream tradition of items made with heavy leather, the UK seems to fear it on the whole.” It was while working the fetish event scene that Zahira noticed the vast majority of goods aimed at the community were mass-produced, of poor quality and with little imaginative flair. This is something she very consciously set out to change, in addition to traditional fetish imagery. “Much of the designing is done by men for men — it’s what they want to see us in, rather than what we want to wear ourselves. Why can’t we wear things that are beautiful and feminine, but still remain playfully functional?”
Photography by Idris De Angeli
Just like the antique books she encountered at the market, Zahira strives to create pieces with serious longevity, which she hopes will be admired and used for centuries to come. “The leather industry used to be such an important part of London’s history, but very little of that is left.” She believes that educating people in crafts leads to an understanding of the skills and dedication of artisans, and she relishes the opportunity to pass on her expertise. Enabled by Zahira’s workshops, many of her students have gone on to start their own businesses making and selling all manner of leather goods. “I personally have an interest in steampunk and combining modern technology with traditional craft. I’d like to aid future generations to define their own sense of individual style and to empower people with a new set of skills.”
Zahira’s one-day leather corset making workshops run throughout the year and cost £150. Visit zahirasboudoir.com for more info.
Many thanks to Zahira and Idris! Check out their fine work in the Seller’s Items below.