Words By Stevie Mackenzie-Smith Photography by Iringó Demeter
Stevie Mackenzie-Smith meets the married couple behind Fleet Ilya
“We often find that we’re in conversation with people about really sexually intimate things.”
It is late summer in London, which is to say that hot buses are full of wet necks and upper lips, corner shop ice cream freezers are low on the good stuff, and the intermittent rain showers still call for the carrying of an umbrella. It’s the perfect time to get away. Resha Sharma and Ilya Fleet are just back from France, and have the laidback, contemplative air of two people who’ve been spared negotiating a hot city in the summer. They hitchhiked through parts of Normandy, landing at a quiet farmhouse in Aquitaine. It’s quite a change from Dalston home to the atelier from which they’ve run their luxury subversive leatherwear label, Fleet Ilya, for over 15 years.
They visited a nudist colony, where naked families biked together and mundane business transactions took place in the buff. Sharma re members a young ice-cream seller who looked like a “Pre-Raphaelite painting,” but the older bodies made an impression too. They have left her thinking about different creative directions they could take with the brand’s editorial photography; currently Fleet Ilya’s Instagram feed leans toward a moody and austere kind of beauty, with lithe, harnessed bodies arranged on modernist chairs. “People were so confident, and all looked so different,” Fleet says. “It was a very liberating place.”
Fleet was born in Ukraine and brought up in an artistic household in Jerusalem, where being around unclothed life models was a regular part of his childhood. He recalls an early understanding of transiencehe remembers his sister rushing to tell him about the nearby Chernobyl nuclear disaster when he was four, and how people stopped drinking tap water and eating fresh vegetables and fruit. His father, who lost family and friends to the Holocaust, devoted his adult life and artwork to commemorating the atrocities of war. How did those early impressions affect him? “It makes you realise that anything could happen, and life is now,” he explains.
He first became interested in the yielding potential of leather when he was a waiter working above a leather supplies shop. Used to helping his sculptor father lug unwieldy, monumental sculptures from studio to
gallery, leather seemed a forgiving and functional material in comparison. He started to make small, practical accessories like lighter holders and cigarette cases. After moving to London at 20 he studied saddle making. He commuted weekly to a small town just outside Coventry once the land of naked rider Lady Godiva taking long, winding bus journeys through the countryside to learn from the best. “He was very patient,” says Fleet, remembering his teacher. “He taught me my very bad English and we somehow managed!” He learned how to smooth and bevel, how to get a saddle to sit close but comfortably on a horse.
Sharma, who grew up in West London, remembers as a child being struck by how different her parents were from each other. Her father was the liberated “party animal,” while her mother was “not at all open with her body.” She turns to Fleet in the chair beside her, and over the sound of the August rain pummelling the studio’s plastic corrugated roof, she observes: “Within your family, the body wasn’t something to be ashamed of or hidden.” It was, she believes, what drew her to Fleet and his creative upbringing.
Fleet and Sharma met in the early 2000s at Nag Nag Nag, a notorious electro night thrown every Wednesday at Soho-based queer club Ghetto. Run by Jonny Slut, it celebrated selfexpression and sexual fluidity. Boy George was a regular, as was the community of messy freaks and art students who barely batted a neon lash if they bumped into Kate Moss in the bathroom.
“It was quite a moment when we met,” Sharma says, remembering the gravitational pull toward the enigmatic stranger who was “wearing sunglasses in a club it was ridiculous!” (Today, Fleet wears a navy T-shirt, sturdy white jeans and Nike sneakers; Sharma is in an elegant cream coloured safari jacket the discerning uniforms of busy people with good taste.) At the time, Sharma was a student at Central Saint Martins and Fleet was selling handmade belts and bracelets to Soho’s independent sex and fashion shops. “It wasn’t like it is now,” he explains, “many of them belonged to families and were very welcoming.” He could often
be spotted walking through Soho with a roll of leather on his shoulder. “Ilya was almost like a cult leader at the time with his vision,” says Sharma. “He was so driven. I really believed in him.” They joined forces after she graduated, drawing on Sharma’s training in visual design to make erotic leatherwear that communicated the freedom, tolerance and self-expression they’d found within the Nag Nag Nag community.
They worked with brown leather and brass, in contrast to the glossy black and silver fetish wear that dominated Soho shopfronts. The newly opened sex boutique Coco de Mer became an exclusive stockist, Sienna Miller wore one of their harnesses over a black woollen riding coat. Fashion magazines found that these designs paired with covered skin and froufrou dresses were a way to soften the taboo of bondage wear. Through trial and error, and without formal training or pattern cutting skills, Fleet applied saddle making principles to leather fitted for the human body. He made wearers feel comfortable and safe but powerful and sexy too in smooth, flexible leather, like a second skin.
They worked tirelessly, often through the night. “It was blood, sweat and tears for many years,” Sharma explains. “We challenged each other in a way that we wouldn’t in a platonic partnership. We pushed each other as creatives and as individuals.” Fleet adds: “We didn’t have parents who could support us we both felt a responsibility to help our families, especially because they weren’t doing great at the time.”
Fleet Ilya offered a new, refined kind of fetish wear, distinguished by the absence of seediness. It could be worn in bondage play, or as sartorial accessories in highend nightclubs. The collection gave people the chance to wear a private side of themselves out in public. “Just by existing [as a brand], I feel like we’ve given a lot of people freedom, even within our social circle,” says Sharma. “We often find that we’re in conversation with people about really sexually intimate things, because of what we do.”
People’s readiness to open up about their experiences, or attach explicit photographs to heartfelt emails of thanks, revealed to Sharma and Fleet the lack of opportunity for sex to be talked about honestly and openly. The harnesses, the strap-on underwear and saddles were providing customers with a deeper level of intimacy they might not have experienced before. “The action of closing a collar or closing the lock, dressing or undressing it’s a big part of prolonging the [sexual] experience. It makes it a ceremony, a ritual. It makes it serious, intimate and involved,” Fleet explains. “Sometimes submitting is the most powerful thing,” says Sharma, “It’s freeing.”
One client wrote to tell them about the life-changing power of their strap-on. They find deep fulfillment in these exchanges. “I love people,” Fleet explains, “I love knowing where they’ve come from, what they’re doing and their capabilities. I want to make things for them to be useful.”
It’s easy to see why people open their hearts up to them. They have a magnetic, almost spiritual energy that’s stimulating to be around. Later, over a take-out box of onion rings, Fleet talks of the time they motor- cycled around India, conjuring an image of the two of them, hair whip- ping around, holding each other in forward motion. The tolerance that launched their business has helped them grow as a unit too; it’s the grit that keeps propelling them.