ISSUE 35 FALL/WINTER 2019/20 OUT NOW         ISSUE 35 FALL/WINTER 2019/20 OUT NOW    

New York: Club Kids

Words by
Dalya Benor
From Issue 35 – FW 2019/20

A visual journey down the psychedelic rabbit hole that was New York club culture in the early ‘90s, the book documents the outlandish take on fashion, incisive sense of humor and careless joie de vivre that defined a youth movement. Dalya Benor outlines their fluid approach to conventions surrounding gender, music, drugs and style that paved the way for future generations.

“If you could establish an identifiable look that was all your own, you got a lot of respect on

the street and in the clubs. A good look will get you everything in New York City. They may not remember your name or what you do, but everyone in the city takes note of good style.”

— Walt Cassidy

With a lineage that starts with Max’s Kansas City and ends with The Cock, New York: Club Kids (2019, Damiani) is a visual journey down the psychedelic rabbit hole that was club culture in New York in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, occupying a specific time and place that left an indelible mark on cultural history. Riding off the coattails of a formative nightlife scene cemented by the likes of Studio 54 in the late ‘70s, the Club Kids entered the ‘90s with an outlandish take on fashion that stretched the limits of convention and imbued the doldrums of daily life in New York with a biting, incisive sense of humor.

A far cry from their counterparts of the minimalist ‘90s, for the Club Kids, every night was an excuse to serve looks of the highest order, donning costumes that ranged from demonic party punks to body-painted dominatrices carrying saws that made Halloween look like child’s play. In fact, in a 1993 interview on the Joan Rivers Show with Club Kid ensemble Michael Alig, Amanda Lepore, James St. James, Leigh Bowery and Ernie Glam, Rivers closed the segment by asking them what they do on Halloween. In unison they responded, “We don’t go out! It’s the most depressing time of the year for us.”

While a seemingly careless joie de vivre possessed the Club Kid persona, the attention to detail and elaborate planning that went into their after-dark attire tells a story of meticulousness that fed into grandiose personas and grander ambitions. Anchoring the scene were the barons of cool-kid culture, whose freedom of expression and fluid approach to conventions surrounding gender, sexual orientation, music, drug culture and style paved the way for future generations. Everyone from Björk and Chloë Sevigny to designer Patricia Field, costumer Zaldy Goco and Lady Miss Kier were regulars, with club owner Peter Gatien providing the playground in which they played. Gatien, who owned such legendary nightlife institutions as Limelight, Palladium Club USA and Tunnel, seemed to pick up where Studio 54 owners Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager left off, providing the setting for an entire era of free-spirited hedonism.

But like Rubell and Schrager, Gatien encountered his own opponents to the Dionysian behavior his nightclubs constituted. In 1996, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani revived the long-outdated Cabaret Law from 1926, in an attempt to scrub the city clean and erase nightlife culture in New York for good. That same year, Club Kid promoter Michael Alig and his roommate and drug dealer Robert “Freeze” Riggs murdered Angel Melendez, another drug dealer. Rather than focusing on the crime committed, the police used this as an opportunity to nail Gatien, commencing a federal investigation to prove him as the kingpin for selling ecstasy throughout his clubs. Gatien was ultimately found guilty of tax evasion in 1999, and was deported back to his native Canada. Like its predecessor Studio 54, Gatien’s kingdom had burned bright and fast; the closure of his empire left a gaping hole where vibrant nightlife had once been, ridding the city of an entire cultural lexicon.

While conventional society was less than accepting of their eccentric tastes and penchant for wild partying, the Club Kids found respite in their house of worship, the discotheque. As a safe space in which to release inhibitions of the highest order, the nightclub served as a sanctuary, with participants forming a tight-knit community, linked by a devout belief in the power of the dance floor. While relations were sometimes touchy—there was always a dose of healthy competition that ensued—the gauntlet of Club Kid culture birthed adopted families with bonds that were stronger than blood.

Written by the artist Walt Cassidy, aka “Waltpaper,” who was a stalwart of the Club Kid inner circle and Alig’s former assistant, this seminal history is authored with brazen aplomb and bittersweet nostalgia, unearthing rare photos and archival material that surprises and delights. The book is a treasure trove of juicy anecdotes straight from the belly of the beast. (Waltpaper writes, for example, that one of enfant terrible Alig’s favorite ways of getting back at his critics was to offer them “glasses of free champagne that sometimes turned out to be his own urine.”)

You might not have been there, but within the pages of this book, you can feel the frenetic energy, the pounding of the music, and the pure, unadulterated euphoria from the dark temples of culture.

New York: Club Kids, a catalogue exploring the artistic, fashion-conscious youth movement of the 1990s New York City nightlife scene, was recently published by Damiani.
All images courtesy of Damiani.

Dalya Benor is a freelance writer and copywriter based between Los Angeles and New York.

 

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