Happy Campers

Taylore Scarabelli on Vaqueraoke: A Return to Oz at MoMA PS1

Jade Boulton. Photo: David Moses.

THIS YEAR’S JEREMY SCOTT­–FILLED MET BALL MOODBOARD seems to be confusing those who have yet to get through “Notes on ‘Camp,’” Susan Sontag’s six-thousand-word listicle. Will attendees be obliged to cover themselves with swans and safety pins? Is camp simply a bouffant of sky-high wigs and sequined shoes? Or is it some kind of insider code that fashion’s worst-dressed victims don’t understand yet seem to indulge in regularly? “The best gossip I’ve heard in LA is that celebrities are declining Met Ball invitations due to the ‘weird theme’ and ‘ugly clothes,’” Patrik Sandberg, creative director of CR Fashion Book, tweeted recently.

The Kardashians might be “Kamp,” but that doesn’t mean they get it; Bryn Taubensee, Patric Dicaprio, and Claire Sullivan of the “fashion fan fiction” collective Vaquera certainly do. The trio, who gained notoriety for their over-the-top terry-towel gowns and Tiffany bag dresses, is about to be featured in the Met Costume Institute’s annual fashion exhibition. Last Sunday, they staged Vaqueraoke: A Return to Oz, a play-cum-karaoke musical based on America’s campiest tale for MoMA PS1’s Sunday Sessions.  

The line outside the VW dome was already full of dully dressed fashion girls clutching pink “ozmopolitans” when I arrived for Vaqueraoke’s second showing. Other than the drinks, the only thing camp in sight was an influencer in Balenciaga sunglasses and checkerboard Vans posing for a photo against a wall. In the museum, Andre Walker browsed the galleries, as did DIS Collective members Lauren Boyle and Marco Roso and their adorable twins. Near the bar, I ran into artists DeSe Escobar and Stewart Ouu, among a few others, and we exchanged some stories about the “rave” at a circus training camp the night before. It wasn’t that good.

“Ozmopolitan.” Photo: Taylore Scarabelli.

The stage inside the dome was set with a fully stocked vending machine that read “REFRESH!” and a small electronic disco ball. The musical, a bildungsroman apt for a brand whose clothes often play with tongue-in-cheek references to teen grunge fashion (one of Vaquera’s latest shows was hosted in a Chinatown public elementary school), began with a karaoke-style read-along story projected onto the dome’s walls. There were video clips of flying chickens, references to Arvo Pärt and nostalgic odes to a dusty old karaoke box. But beyond the introductory tale and a few spoken words between acts, the “play” was mostly made up of the kind of karaoke you hear at Upstairs Bar (previously known as SWAT bar) during an afterparty for a downtown art opening—with a similar cast of characters.  

Acts included Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Jade Boulton and Victor Vegas (the Ruby Red Slippers), a rendition of “The Ballroom Blitz” from actors and producers Leah Hennessey (the Scarecrow) and Emily Allan (the Tin Man), “I’m Eighteen” sung by SSION pop musician Cody Critcheloe (Toto), and an over-the-top Guns N’ Roses cover by artist Candice Saint Williams, who made an excellent wizard in an absurdly large black blazer and matching trousers. (Missing in action was stylist and designer Akeem Smith as the Crystal Ball, who had romanced a high-pitched, off-key rendition of Celine Dion’s “All by Myself” in an eighties-inspired opalescent ruffled lamé dress—according to Instagram. “He just left after the first show,” one of the performers told me. “I guess he was over it.”)

Leah Hennessey and Emily Allan. Photo: Taylore Scarabelli.

There were sentimental acts too. Vaquera stylist Emma Wyman’s eleven-year-old sister, Siena, played the role of Glinda’s Wand, singing both “Over the Rainbow” and “Wide Open Spaces” in an oversize star-spangled dress. Then there was Dorothy, played by Zsela, the up-and-coming singer and sister of actress Tessa Thompson. Her unplugged rendition of “Like a Prayer” reminded me of the token girl with a good voice who makes a fool of everyone at karaoke. She looked cute in Vaquera’s take on the iconic cone bra Jean Paul Gaultier fashioned for Madonna.

Back in the sound booth, Alex Lopez, aka DJ Bebe, a frequent Vaquera collaborator and resident DJ at DeSe’s downtown Club Glam party, mixed songs while a friend danced alongside in the booth, as if they were at China Chalet. For Vaquera, collaborators are friends, and friends are models and DJs and artists, and whoever is the most outrageous gets the part. If camp is private code—what Sontag refers to as “a badge of identity among small urban cliques”—then Vaquera most certainly has the password. This became clear at the karaoke afterparty in Chinatown, where a small group of the designers’ friends started wailing Ariana Grande songs into competing microphones. “If we have a good show, it’s always a bad afterparty,” Sullivan told me. “It always happens that way.”

Candice Saint Williams. Photo: David Moses.

VW dome at MoMA PS1. Photo: Taylore Scarabelli.

Akeem Smith. Photo: David Moses.

Leah Hennessey. Photo: David Moses.

Zsela. Photo: Taylore Scarabelli.

Zsela. Photo: David Moses.

Siena Lopez Wyman “Glinda’s Wand.” Photo: Taylore Scarabelli.

Cody Critcheloe aka SSION. Photo: David Moses.