“Fetish is not fashion.”
Wojciech Lendzion and Patryk Markiewicz are working at ReFForm, a fetish store in the Polish capital of Warsaw, Wojciech as store manager and Patryk as customer advisor. If you want to know more about the fetish market in Poland these two are the guys you want to talk to. And we did just that.
Is there a big fetish market in Poland?
Patryk Markiewicz: Poland is a special country. It is hard to compare because the situation in our country is special.
Wojciech Lendzion: Yes, there is room for fetishes. So far, fetishes have been expressed most openly by sexual minorities, above all by homosexuals. But now we observe a larger group of heterosexuals who are also looking for these products and enjoy them.
Is there a lack of places like ReFForm in other Polish cities?
Patryk: It’s true, there are no such places in some regions and there won’t be for a long time, but I think that there is potential. As we all know, Warsaw does not represent the entirety of Poland but people here feel comfortable and talk freely about what they enjoy, they’re just able to talk about it. Sure, the situation is very different in small towns or in the countryside. Fetishism cannot choose; a person may fall in love with a fetish who has a seriously limited access to this sort of products and no people who share these interests. But there is room for fetish, so there is potential.
Wojciech: In our store, we enjoy sex. Sex is not a requirement or obligation, it is fun. If we enjoy sex, regardless of its form, we are more convincing. The atmosphere is very casual. We try to show people that BDSM is not evil. If you use it in a smart way, BDSM can be nice and pleasurable. It is appreciated by foreigners who are often surprised that there are stores such as ReFForm in Poland. Many people say that ReFForm feels like a combination of places in Berlin and Amsterdam – cities where fetish is accepted.
People who come from countries in which sexuality is not so exposed are often also surprised. Yesterday, we had a customer from Israel and she wondered how she should pack her products before travelling back home. Customers from Arabic countries often wonder and think about how to cross a border with a vibrator, etc.
How did fetish enter the Polish market? Did ReFForm play an active role in this development or was it a different story?
Patryk: I am sure the ReFForm store played a big role. The range of products we offer in ReFForm are of top quality, comparable to goods available in Berlin, Amsterdam, or London. There are restrictions, e.g. with regard to premises, but I think that our store has had a considerable influence in this field. It also plays a crucial role in promoting fetish, we participate in fetish events, we sponsor them. ReFForm tries to be present in every event of this sort, also abroad.
The products in our store set us apart from other shops which do, say, an outwork. The products they offer are usually of poor quality. In my opinion, these places are intended for people who would like to start dabbling in fetish but do not know how to do it. I think that people who visit such places at the beginning of their fetish adventure often get disappointed and shy away from further contact with rubber, leather, and the like.
It is obvious that it is not only about fetishism itself but its relation to a vast array of sexual practices. But an ‘outwork’ attributed to fetish stores often discourages people; they often watch things on the internet, watch videos. They see things they like, they’d like to have, but the quality of the products provided by such small stores does not correspond to the quality they expect. And so they turn away from fetish because they simply do not want to waste cash.
Wojciech: In Poland, homosexuals relished the West in the early 1990s and started copying western standards and behaviours, and this is how fetishism appeared in our country. It all started with homosexuals, for sure. The appetite for fetish in Poland resulted from trips to the West.
It all depends on how we understand fetishism. It is a very broad term. ReFForm definitely contributes to shaping fetishism in Poland, but the question is whether this has any impact on the customers’ behaviour? Not really, after all fetishism is part of our sexuality and we cannot force people to like some things against their will. You cannot just change – either you are a fetishist or you are not.
ReFForm’s target audience can be found among those customers who are interested in rubber and leather and those who enjoy BDSM. ReFForm has a considerable influence on this part of the fetish world, it helps shapes and develops this niche.
However, in Poland we mostly favour sports clothes and sneakers, perhaps because they are relatively inexpensive. To influence this large group of people, we would have to sell sports footwear which we do not have in our stock. Another restriction to our influence is a limited range of clothing products, because we only offer clothes for men.
Has ReFForm always taken this approach?
Patryk: The story of ReFForm is very long. I have only been here for two years of this history. Before that, my duties were fulfilled by somebody else, the store was also smaller. Our needs were limited. What is happening now is that customers’ needs are becoming more pronounced. In the past, our business was a niche, people didn’t know that they could buy such things. Well, the store is changing, we have developed significantly and it is already a bit cramped, I guess. Taking into account the product range and sales figures, we can say that we have taken a big step forward.
Wojciech: In the early days of the store’s operation, ReFForm was an online shop only. It was only after about eight years that the brick-and-mortar store was opened. In such stores, you can see, touch, and fully appreciate all products.
How do you pick the products you sell in your store?
Patryk: Me and Wojtek, the manager, place much emphasis on familiarity with the needs of our regular customers who have a comprehensive knowledge of our products and know what they can purchase. We try to understand these regular customers, we ask ourselves would they buy a particular product or not.
Also, we often base our decisions on our own experiences, that is, we simply think: Do we like it and do we want to have such a product in our store and sell it? Of course, what is most important is the knowledge of this business. It may be a small business but still… Our orders are not made at random, they are well-thought out because we do this with a specific customer in mind.
Wojciech: We follow our own feelings and customers’ questions. Customers often ask us about products in a specific style, or about items they want to use for a specific purpose. These suggestions have a substantial impact on our offer.
So you know your customers and their needs very well?
Patryk: We do. Based on how well I know a customer, I can suggest certain products to them. Sometimes, I can tell that a specific item would fit him well. This is rare, but it happens. Thanks to the fact that I know my customers, I can be sure that my suggestions will be appealing to them.
Do ReFForm customer know what they want to buy when they come in or do they rely on your suggestions?
Wojciech: Customers always come to buy ‘something to supplement something else’, for example when they like spanking, they look for something suitable. They do not tell me exactly what they need, they walk around, look at various products and then, based on their experience, make a choice.
Patryk: It is obvious that ReFForm also has other types of customers, not just our loyal regulars. There is a wide range of visitors with a wide range of attitudes towards our products. I think that the same applies to any other store. All stores that sell goods must expect that some people have no idea of the products while others know ‘too much’. There are certainly many people whose knowledge is in between these two extremes.
What do you mean when you say ‘too much’?
Patryk: You know, sometimes customers happen to be very demanding or talk about things I should not be concerned about, they often feel like showing off a bit, even with regard to topics that are completely unrelated to a toy they wish to buy. Sometimes customers express their opinions on technical aspects, e.g. on silicone, starting from production and ending up with moulding, etc.
So some customers are very demanding?
Patryk: There are many different customers. It’s like in any other store; you walk around and don’t know what to buy, but sometimes you enter a store and you know exactly that you need this particular thing. The same happens in our store. There are customers who spend two hours in our store, look at lots of products and ultimately buy nothing. There are however others who find products online, are interested and ask if they can buy it in the traditional store as well.
What are your most popular products? Is there one product or group of products which attracts the most attention?
Patryk: I cannot say that there is a ‘top’ product, that 50% of all sales we make are due to one specific item. It is like a wave. Like in any other business which involves sales, there are periods of increased demand for particular things. For example: Summer is approaching and people look for t-shirts, tops, etc. Before Christmas, many customers come here to buy a gift, they often do not know others’ preferences.
Like in any other businesses, people sometimes make bad shopping decisions. It is really difficult to buy an intimate present if you do not know what a given person enjoys. We try to be flexible. We do not trick people into buying products they will not be satisfied with.
Even if a product does not satisfy the user’s requirements 100%, we must make sure the product is not the item which will be left unused. Of course, it is all about hypothetical requirements, after all if you buy an intimate present, you can never be sure.
Wojciech: Customers mainly expect a wide range of products. Even if they do not know what to buy, they expect a vast selection of items to choose from.
“Customers mainly expect a wide range of products.” – Wojciech
Do many customers come back, and do these recurring customers change over time? Is ReFForm a brand for scene insiders?
Patryk: Well, we have a loyal group of customers. Sure, there is a number of regular customers who value our discounts. Sometimes when a product becomes available in Berlin, they want to buy it here because they have already gained an attractive loyalty discount. So they wait a bit longer and buy it from us.
Change? Sure, they change. Well, maybe we cannot call it a complete reshuffle. But when I talk to a customer for the first time, I try to make him or her feel important. I try to create a special atmosphere. I think when they get my advice, they feel like coming back for more.
Customers often do not know what they want to buy, then they walk around the store and get an idea of what we have on offer and if a need arises, they think ‘aha, I saw it in ReFForm’.
Wojciech: Customers come back for many reasons. We have prepared a special programme for regular customers and the customers who have such cards value them a lot. Word of mouth is another important tool – people tell their friends about us: ‘Oh, you can buy something for BDSM there.’ Is ReFForm for an inner circle of scene insiders? Well, an average person would not find us by accident because our store is located in a basement. We can say that it is for insiders but the number of people interested in BDSM is growing. Customers change but I think that 50% of our customers have already visited our store before.
How old are the ReFForm customers?
Patryk: Of course, you need to be adult, but we just are unable to record everyone’s age. It often happens that customers look younger than they are, which is nice. Sometimes we are surprised to see a customer in his/her seventies. Eighteen years of age is the minimum but I treat older customers aged 50 or 60 equally.
Wojciech: Briefly speaking, I’d say that the age of our customers ranges from 20 to 50. Interestingly, in Poland young people are getting more and more interested in fetish, including students. A student’s life has its own charm, people are into expressing their sexuality and often visit ReFForm.
An elderly customer is not a surprise anymore?
Patryk: No, absolutely not. But it is not the most common thing either because this group is certainly smaller than people aged 25-35. Bit is not a rarity. What’s more, I’m glad that people who were raised in times when sexual needs were a taboo are courageous enough to visit ReFForm and ask about things which were non-existent back then. This sort of customer is often aware of his/her needs, or is aware that he/she cannot do some things even though they want so bad. I do respect such customers because they are not pressed by social restrictions and habits.
Wojciech: People get sexually aware at various age. I was surprised when a daughter visited us to buy a prostate gland massage device. A doctor recommended such treatment but her father was ashamed of purchasing it. Her daughter had no difficulties in this respect.
Can anyone afford fetish products or do you need to have wads of money?
Wojciech: Wealth might be a problem. While BDSM items are available at reasonable prices, fetish outfits, e.g. leather or rubber items, are a different story. Anyone can afford sports clothes because their prices correspond with prices in stores with branded sports clothes. If you fancy leather, you may need to save some cash before you purchase your first piece of leather clothing. Students, whose interest in fetish is on the increase, may find it difficult to buy those products due to limited funds.
Patryk: We are now talking about fetishism in general which is a very broad subject; even the mobile you are using now to record us can be someone’s fetish. It all depends on what you feel, what you enjoy. Of course, there are fetishes which do not require much investment, but our fetishes, such as leather, rubber, sports clothes, are not cheap. You can start from something smaller, cheaper, but the quality of our products is high and this entails higher prices.
Everyone can afford some fetish. Fetish is something redundant for those who do not enjoy it. Generally speaking, I think you can – you even should – try it. I encourage anyone to do so. But it’s a bad idea to devote your entire salary to ‘check what turns you on’.
“It all depends on what you feel, what you enjoy.” Patryk
You are saying if you realise that something specific attracts you, you shouldn’t resign. So high prices are an obstacle that can be overcome?
Patryk: By all means. You can start from something cheap, and with time save up enough to buy the items you want so bad. And don’t spend all your money. But if you buy a product, it is advisable to go for something more expensive and solid than a poor quality product that will discourage you. You should always remember about safety.
Speaking of safety, do your products have all required safety certificates?
Patryk: Sure, a number of specialists ensure the quality of these products.
What’s more important to ReFForm customers? Quality or price?
Patryk: Well, the quality of these products is actually on the same general level. Sometimes our customers pay attention to aesthetics. If I propose something, say, a wide range of functions, programmes, etc., but the design is outdated, then a customer may choose something cheaper but highly aesthetic. The products whose price is below 400 zlotys (roundabout 90 EUR) are the most popular, but the range of customers is expanding, and students, for instance, are able to purchase top-quality items.
The price is also essential, but as far as expensive products are concerned, if they are costly because they are good, then the price doesn’t matter. The price is secondary in such situations. A product must satisfy all customer needs.
Wojciech: I reckon that many pay more attention to the price. The price works wonders but the customers who are fully aware of their fetishes and sexual behaviours choose luxurious products due to their quality.
They know that these items will serve them well for a long time and will give them pleasure. They know that they want these products and. A first-time buyer usually goes for the cheaper products and moves on to more costly items later on. An experienced customer will save some cash to buy an expensive product.
“Customers who are fully aware of their fetishes and sexual behaviours choose luxurious products due to their quality.” – Wojciech
Are ReFForm customers attached to brands? Do you meet Mister B fans, for instance, who come to your store and look for items of this brand, i.e. are they into a specific line of products or is the manufacturer unimportant?
Wojciech: No, they clearly care more about the quality and if a product fails to satisfy their expectations, they may not buy an item from brand again. As for sports clothes, it’s different, they happen to be loyal to brands – workmanship, material texture, and the like. For instance, if a customer has branded shorts, and these shorts are very comfortable and look good, the customer will look for another piece of clothing of the same brand.
It is pretty clear with regard to textiles but how can you be attached to a brand of nipple clamps? You choose things that have a different grip or cause a different kind of pain. A brand is not so important in this regard, the priority is the purpose.
Patryk: Some customers choose to collect certain types of products, they are consistent in their purchases, but there are also others who pick one brand today and another tomorrow. For instance, if they have already bought a Mister B product, and they want to have something else, something Mister B does not offer, then a brand is not important. The customers will not wait until Mister B sells something like this. The range of products is wide and everyone can find something suitable.
What can you tell us about sex in Poland? Do the Polish people like to experiment, are they willing to use your products? Or are there some clear lines the majority do not want to cross?
Wojciech: Polish people like to experiment in bed but are afraid. Well, it is not that they think they do something wrong, but they simply do not know how to do it. They are ashamed to ask, and they are afraid they may hurt themselves. They think that if they ask about it, they will be at the centre of attention.
Many people refuse to try a fetish even though they discover they like it – they are afraid they may do something wrong. People ask about something but when they hear the answer, it is the end of the conversation, they do not want to know how to do it and enjoy it. It is all about shame; they shy away from an item, but then come back and want to see it again.
Women are usually more open than men. Men say ‘I just want to look around’ and they do not start the conversation, while women walk around and readily ask questions. Women are courageous and highly interested in men’s sexuality. Surprisingly, it is women who ask questions like ‘how does it work?’, even though they will not use it! For instance, women are also more interested in how urinary tract units or masturbators work.
Patryk: They like to experiment, sure, but in our country, there is a strong traditional impact, we do not talk about certain things, we sometimes even do not think or do not want to think about them.
So there is some kind of barrier in Poland and fetish is not popular?
Patryk: It is not, you are right, it is not a common thing. Fetish is much more popular in foreign countries than in Poland. Leather pants can be a problem to some people, e.g. a woman at the bus stop may give you a strange look, wondering ‘Why are you wearing that?!’. Although Poles are tight-lipped about these topics and still think that some things we should only do at home, there is a progress when it comes to public interest in this field.
ReFForm is sometimes like a test balloon for this culture, some sort of ‘Poland in a nutshell’ in which people are open and aware of their needs but you also see people who have no idea where to start, who have never thought about it or who disrespect it. There are also people who claim it is inconceivable – sexual practices which require the types of accessories you find in our store are beyond their understanding. It is too much for them, they do not understand that there may be people who enjoy it.
There are also customers come at ReFForm who are swept in by accident and go on to become regular customers. They are shocked at first but realise it is the store of their dreams. There are also others who feel disgusted and want to leave immediately. Such people usually accompany people who know what they want. ‘Owing to force of circumstance – you came here with me, so let’s visit the store!’. Everybody is different.
“Fetish is much more popular in foreign countries than in Poland.” – Patryk
How do you promote a store which sells such unusual products?
Wojciech: It is important that we have a direct contact with the fetish world, through contact with people at various events. It is advisable to establish contact with such people, follow these events, read all sorts of publications related to widely understood BDSM and fetishism. This is how people discover their sexuality, because they think like: ‘Nah, I will go there and see what’s going on’. They are curious and visit a place where they see fetishes, talk about them. When people get a professional answer to their questions, they get interested.
Patryk: A discount policy helps, for sure. Customers know our discount policy and know that some things can be easily accessible. It is hard to advertise sex in general. Of course, advertisements are full of sex, but sex itself is a difficult product. If we do it literally, we are likely to suffer, after all it is not something you can promote like painkillers. These products are intended for a specific group of customers and I cannot imagine ReFForm or its products to ever be advertised on television.
You want to go for very specific events and involved people. I cannot image that we will ever try to approach random people with an offer – people who have no idea of what we do.
Advertising in widely-read magazine makes no sense, then?
Patryk: An advertisement in a widely-read magazine is fine, provided that it is neutral. One person will read it, another one will not – fine. However, I’d rather focus on people who look for our offer instead of advertising to random persons and count on their preferences. It is possible that somebody will stop purchasing a paper because of an advert. A widely-read paper may be a good platform, but you know – if you want to show more, show what it really is like, it is advisable to show it only to those who want to learn about it.
There are many fetishes. How does one enter the fetish world to find something suitable and not get lost?
Wojciech: Thing is that in Poland, there are no media for fetishists only. Usually, there is a circle intended for fetishists. Fetishism is non-existent in the media, it is more of a supplement to BDSM which is a wider category.
Can you imagine a magazine dedicated to sniffing socks only, or women and men in leather? No, you can’t because our market is not ready yet. Few people are ready to talk about their sexuality even though that is such a big part of their life. People look for things on their own, it is all about shame, so the best way of entering the fetish world is a specific and professional talk someone like us who knows the ropes.
Patryk: First of all, you should find your own answer to the question: What turns me on? It is the most important thing. If you just walk around this huge world of fetishism, it is like walking in the video shop and renting films without having any idea what it is about, and then you try, try and try, but it makes no sense.
Fetishism is something you cannot learn; at least that’s is my point of view. I think fetishism is something you are born with, or if not born, you acquire certain things, certain behaviours and so on, very early, and then you develop them as you grow older. For instance, when I was a child I found some things attractive – of course they were not related to sex back then but it was something I felt.
A smell, a smell is very important. Even when you are an adult, when you smell something, you have certain associations and remember things. There are things that are rooted in us. You can tell that you are a fetishist very early in your life.
“The best way of entering the fetish world is a specific and professional talk someone who knows the ropes.“ – Wojciech
This means that fetishism is a lifestyle as well?
Patryk: Well, I don’t think it is a lifestyle but if you are aware of your needs and ready to call yourself a fetishist, you are courageous. Imagine you saying: ‘I am a fetishist’. You can easily say it in our store, you can do it with ease among friends who know everything about you, or during a party for fetishists, but you will never say you are a fetishist on a tram. On the tram, you can manifest it but people do not need to know that a thing you wear turns you on.
I take it rubber and leather are the main product categories in ReFForm?
Patryk: Sure, the smell of leather is very nice, and leather as a piece of clothing or accessory – these things are impressive. Also, latex is another big category. Latex products are pretty expensive, but they are getting more and more popular. I discovered latex not too long time ago and it really is a nice experience.
The market has its own currents and the manufacturers strive to satisfy the customers’ needs, and when we take into account latex products now, we see that western brands are the market leaders, but nonetheless, Poland offers some well-made latex products as well. And this is good news. Sure, these are small enterprises, but there is demand.
The final important fetish is sports clothing, that’s for sure. Clothes, sports footwear. More and more people claim that classic fetish is out of their range but as far as sports clothes are concerned – it is close to fashion. At this point, we can say it is a lifestyle. The clothes we sell can be worn for a party or when they go out. It is not something that makes people go ‘Oh my God, look what he is wearing’.
Wojciech: Like I said before, there is clearly a large group of sneaker fans in Poland. Shoes, socks, sports clothes, these fetishes are the most popular, no doubt about it. It is because they are relatively cheap and easily accessible.
Are there any Polish brands in ReFForm?
Patryk: There aren’t, not really. As a store, we can’t carry products from a manufacturer that doesn’t have a sufficient logistics background, even if they are Polish. Usually, these are people who are fascinated and simply want to dabble in it. We could not sell their products on a regular basis because they are often tailor-made. For someone who manufactures these things at home, it is impossible to offer a product in various sizes. And as for rubber they use, it’s pretty standard. I’d love tailor-made products in the store but so far, our offer is standard. Of course, there are discrepancies in terms of sizes, but we try to have the entire range of sizes in the store, and if that’s not possible, then at least one so customers can form an opinion and make sure the product meets their expectations.
What is the connection between BDSM and fetishism? Are they closely related or are these totally different things?
Wojciech: Everyone has their own understanding of these terms. We should remember however, that fetish is not necessarily one specific thing or item. A fetish is a stimulus which turns us on. It is a smell, taste, feeling, behaviour – everything can be a fetish. BDSM can be a fetish as well. Many people associate dominant or submissive behaviours with rubber outfits because they saw them in pornographic films. BDSM is naked however. You don’t need leather clothes to enjoy BDSM.
Patryk: Fetish and BDSM can be two different phenomena, can be independent from one another. As far as I am concerned, if you like BDSM, you must have some fetish. Having your fetish is cool but with time you feel like meeting other people who share your preferences.
So we can indeed say that fetish, in a way, is a lifestyle?
Patryk: Yes, these things overlap. As for BDSM, fetishism often adds a visual aspect to a BDSM session. For example, rubber is not my fetish, but a man in rubber clothes who is standing over me will impress me. These things are rooted in us and this fetish may enrich and add colour to such BDSM session. It will certainly be ‘hot’. Our products are not intended for all people, because not all people feel like exploring their sex life. People are simply afraid of it. I am not saying that every single person has to try everything, but if you know that something turns you on, I think you should try it – and that’s where we come in.
How do you envision the future of fetishism in Poland? A ReFForm in every Polish city?
Patryk: Yeah, that would be cool [laughs]. I’d like this niche to develop, I’d like people to say ‘I am a fetishist’ and think it is natural, just like ‘I am left-handed’. I am a left-handed, ginger, bald gay with a gap between my teeth and I don’t roll the ‘r’. If you say ‘I am a fetishist’, I don’t think it is unique and I’d like other fetishists to think the same.
Wojciech: It all depends on the prosperity of the average Pole. More and more Polish people enjoy fetishes, they are more and more willing to put things on and try new things, but they cannot afford it yet. There is a room for fetish and, even in Poland. Many people who can afford it go shopping in Berlin or Amsterdam. It is not because the range of products is wider there but because they will not meet their friends and don’t have to be ashamed to ask questions. I’d like these people to visit us in the future.