At 10 years old, Corinne Franco had the most fashionable dolls in the neighborhood. The East Los Angeles native learned how to sew in the factories of downtown L.A., where her entire family — all immigrants from Mexico — worked, cutting patterns and putting in long hours on sewing machines for various manufacturers. Making clothes was second nature for her, and she enjoyed the entire process, from drawing to stitching to dressing her "babies" in sweetly coordinated handmade ensembles.
As Franco got older, creating clothing became the saving grace of her adolescence, when what we wear means so much. If her family couldn't afford a trendy look, she'd simply make it herself. She soon started not only following what was in fashion but exploring outsider looks too, inspired by music, clubs and alternative culture.
These days, the "dolls" Franco adorns are real, confident, sexy women — dominatrices and gals who just want to look like them, pin-up babes, bondage, burlesque, punk and goth freaks, glamazon drag queens ... and, more and more lately, some of the most famous females in the world. After a few decades in the clothing business, the designer has made a name for herself by bringing subversive style elements — in particular those of the fetish scene — to the mainstream. Her designs are seen on stars in videos and in real life, especially those known for sexy, body-conscious looks: Nicki Minaj, Kim Kardashian, Fergie and most recently Arianna Grande (who wore Franco's silver latex design to the MTV Music Awards).
Franco also is known around L.A. as Venus Prototype (the name of her line, before she recently changed it to Bizarre Fetish Couture) and she's been a fixture on the club scene for years. Though she never set out to make clothing for celebrities, doing so has become a full-circle transition, since it was a pop star that inspired her the most growing up.
Madonna's street-chic moxie marked a pivotal cultural moment that continues to influence fashion to this day, and not just in the obvious retro ways. Her fearless fashion hodgepodges (which incorporated punk, frilly señorita lace looks, girly Lolita touches, old movie star glamour and, later, a bold BDSM aesthetic, to name but a few incarnations) made a huge impact on all of us who grew up in the '80s and '90s but especially those working in fashion. Big hair bows, bustiers, fingerless gloves and black rubber bracelets are where it all began, of course, and like many young girls of the era, Franco was obsessed with it all. "She was my idol," the designer says. "Anything Madonna did, I wanted to do a version of it."
A couple decades later, the little girl who transitioned from making doll dresses to Material Girl miniskirts and crop tops for herself saw her fashionable aspirations come full circle: She scored a gig doing outfits for Madonna's Oscar party at manager Guy Oseary's estate. For the party's servers, she created a black-and-white play on the classic uniform with shirt and tie. All were done in Franco's signature latex and matched what Madonna wore that evening by another designer. It was a big deal not only because of who it was for but also because it brought the designer exposure to a whole new kind of clientele. It also was another shot at success after a period in her career that seemed bleak.
Out of high school, Franco attended FIDM in downtown Los Angeles. After graduating, she got a job designing for a major corporate brand, Yes Clothing, starting as an assistant and quickly transitioning into head designer. "At 19 years old I was designing a collection that would be shipped out to every department store in the entire country," she remembers. "I got more orders than ever before so they had me do it. I was able to target the customer — we were doing junior dresses — because I was that customer at that time. They paired me with a big merchandiser and I learned a lot."
Franco says learning the merchandising side of the fashion business helped her later when she ran her own company in her 30s. As a 20 percent owner of the brand Hot Tempered, a division of a company called City Triangles (still in business) in the early 2000s, Franco found success but also a lot of stress, especially when it concerned her business partner at the time. "He started to get not very friendly, and was not very nice to our employees," Franco explains. "At that time I had hired my mom, and family, and people that my family has known since they first came to Los Angeles."
She decided to get out, but to do so she had to sign a noncompete clause that mandated she not work in the corporate fashion business for two years. The underground custom fetish world, which had always fascinated her, was another story, however. And that's when she got into working with latex.
The sultriest fabric in fashion (figuratively and literally), latex was mostly an underground medium at the time. It molds to the body like nothing else, and whether it's worn as is or polished with oil for a glossy finish, it evokes a power and eroticism that's hard to convey to those who've never actually worn it.
Franco is arguably L.A.'s queen of latex. Not only did she spend her two-year break from mainstream fashion apprenticing with Andy Wilkes — the original owner of Syren latex before it was sold to the Stockroom company, and the man who created the iconic catsuit worn by Michelle Pfeiffer in Batman Returns — but she later took latex to a new level, developing a process to laser print designs on rubber (lace prints, animal prints, polka dots, stripes, art). She says she's the only designer to do this in the U.S.; she even provides other designers with made-to-order materials. When you see a printed latex garment from another designer out there, they likely got it from her.
How latex, a fetish-fashion staple, has come to be a go-to for mainstream awards-show garb and paparazzi-ready nights on the town is debatable, but Franco credits renowned stylists B. Akerlund and Brett Alan Nelson for their forward-thinking experimentation, and for hiring her on various small projects for the likes of Britney Spears, Janet Jackson and Christina Aguilera.
"I got a call from Akerlund to make 37 outfits for the 'Milk Money' music video, which was Fergie's comeback a couple years ago," Franco recalls. "She asked if I could print denim onto latex. I did this photographic print on latex shorts for Kim Kardashian, and this was shortly after she had her baby. Even though she looked great, she was feeling a little self-conscious about her body, so I made them with a corset inside. We were able to cinch her waist down an additional four inches. The blogs went crazy and everybody was talking about it. That was the outfit that got me attention in the entertainment industry."
Soon Franco was making outfits for superstars for photo shoots, more videos and for tours, which required attending rehearsals and making sure her latex pieces are reinforced for stage wear and (hopefully not) tear. At the same, her Venus Prototype persona and brand kept up its presence in L.A.'s underground.
Franco has thrown dozens of fashion shows locally over the years, most often at fetish- and bondage-themed events but also at clubs such as Miss Kitty's Parlour, where the uber-popular drag duo the Boulet Brothers of Amazon series Dragula got their start.
Making outfits for the drag community is a newer endeavor for Franco, however. Her latest creations, giant inflatable latex wigs, were all the rage at this year's RuPaul's Drag Con after she presented a fashion show there. Providing a cartoony, avant-garde complement to Franco's unique body wear, the wigs have been used in arty photo shoots and by queens performing onstage ever since. They might not even have existed if it weren't for another kind of "queen" by the name of Minaj.
"I was called in to make Nicki look like a doll for a video," Franco says. "So I designed a bunch of these wigs for it but they didn't end up using them. I was really hurt. I cried. I probably didn't get out of bed for about a week because I spent so much time with my daughter and a team of people making these wigs. Then I was like, you know what? There's another purpose for them. Shortly after that I heard that Drag Con was coming up, so my daughter and I made a pop art collection targeting the people who would wear such wigs. They're expensive pieces, but drag queens have the budgets. It was kind of taking my work into that drag, pop art direction I liked."
Pop art and pop stars aside, Franco's Bizarre Fetish Couture is, at its core, about what turns the wearer on. With the help of her daughter, Violet Vargas, who she says recently became her co-designer, Franco continues to embellish both kinky club kids and iconic superstars. Her current obsession is with the 1940s, which is where the aesthetic she's been championing most of her career began — in the infamous Bizarre fetish magazines and books by John Willie. Franco changed her brand name in homage, and it is this theme that she will display on the runway as part of Latin Factory's all-Latin designer event to be held at the Globe Theatre during L.A. Fashion Week.
"My thing is, when making clothes I want to know what is your fetish?" Franco says. "So whether it's being a pony girl, whether it's being a bunny, or something else, I want to create these fetish fantasy costumes for people who have different ways of expressing themselves."
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Expression and allure and spectacle is what high fashion is all about, especially on the runway, and this ultimately trickles down into everyday wearable trends. Corseted waists, buckles, bows, grommets, cutouts, thigh-highs, stilettos, restraints, masks, animal print, lace prints — fetish fashion is no longer a naughty secret thanks to stylists who recognize the talent and creativity of designers like Franco, and thanks to influencers and famous figures willing and wanting to push the envelope with what they wear.
Franco's recent work can be seen in photo spreads on the likes of Tyra Banks, Mariah Carey and Paris Hilton, and she just made some printed latex pieces for Beyoncé to wear onstage, plus more printed logo work for Gucci and YSL. She's also in the process of interviewing for a certain fashion competition TV show, which next season, she says, ups its prize money package and will feature established designers like her. She'll surely "make it work" if she is chosen.
"Growing up in L.A., and coming from a family that has worked in the fashion business and working with people who have known me since I was a kid, means so much," Franco reflects. "I wouldn't be doing my own collection or this kind of work if I didn't have that. When I need something, they really go above and beyond to try to help me bring my vision to life, and I'm so grateful and so thankful. I've accomplished what I have thanks to a powerful team around me not only supporting what I do but letting me explore all of my ideas with no boundaries."
Corinne Franco's Venus Prototype/Bizarre Fetish Couture fashion week presentation will take place during the 2018 Latin Factory Fashion Show at the Globe Theatre, 740 S. Broadway, downtown, on Sat., Oct. 13, at 5 p.m. Tickets at Latinfactory.brownpapertickets.com. More information at Bizarrefetishcouture.com.