Look Book

Walt Cassidy. Photo: Serichai Traipoom.

LAST STURDAY, I attended a book launch that was actually a reunion. Club Kids—the real OG kind—whipped out limelight-worthy looks to celebrate themselves as featured in the pages of New York: Club Kids (2019), Walt Cassidy’s new 376-page love letter and impressive archival photography project.

“I haven’t seen you in like [X] years!” rang out more than a few times as colorful legends of lost New Yorks brushed past racks of $400 clothing at the packed Opening Ceremony flagship on Howard Street. While the crowd was twice as gay and twice as old as that at your typical OC capsule-collection drop, it was far more youthful in spirit. Some attendees went full Club Kid—makeup, platforms, and wigs—while others wore the drag of more professional recent lives as designers, writers, and mothers.

Misa Martin, Jo Reynolds on David Ilku’s balcony in Project X, 1994. From New York: Club Kids (2019).

Cassidy, metamorphosed from his Waltpaper persona into a buff, conventionally attractive multidisciplinary artist who runs a jewelry company, held court in a plain black long-sleeve shirt and colorful Nikes. A key goal of the book project, he said, is to add dimension to the oversimplified media narrative that casts the Club Kids as Gen-X hedonists who got so twisted up in drugs and nightlife that their reign necessarily ended in murder—an account popularized by James St. James’s book Disco Bloodbath: A Fabulous but True Tale of Murder in Clubland (1999) and its film adaption, Party Monster (2003), which starred Chloë Sevigny, Seth Green, and Macaulay Culkin. A panel featuring Desi Santiago (Desi Monster), Jenny Dembrow (Jennytalia), Sidney Prawatyotin, Zaldy Goco, and Jojo Americo did help humanize the now middle-age crew; however, it did little to dispel and much to reinforce the lovable notion that they were, in fact, a bunch of Gen-X hedonists who got twisted up in drugs and nightlife (just look past the murder, already!). From communal living situations at places such as Hotel 17 and the Hotel Chelsea—jokingly described by Prawatyotin as “ketamine insane asylums of fashion and beauty”—the band of misfits would assemble looks, storm clubs, hit afterparties, and repeat. Five nights a week.

Though the evening supposedly celebrated a book release or an Opening Ceremony capsule collection, or both (depending on which press release you read), the panel barely mentioned either, and attendees’ hands were full of vodka sodas and iPhones rather than the relevant ephemera. Just like back in the ’90s, the personalities in the room were the main event. Embracing the spirit, the former Heatherette designer and celebutante Richie Rich donned a sequined police cap, a dollar-sign necklace, and a cape, while the more professionalized moderator Mel Ottenberg and host Humberto Leon opted for low-key faded denim looks. Patricia Field, matching her top hat to both her glasses and her hair, aptly deemed the night “a family affair.” Perched on the staircase in the center of the packed shop was an enigmatic figure, in an inflatable bat headdress and knee-high teal boots, who turned out to be Americo. “We created our own creatures,” Jennytalia remarked at one point during the panel. “We were walking pieces of art.”

Alongside Cassidy’s corrective memoir of the era, the many previously unpublished photographs featured in New York: Club Kids of artists better known (Charles Atlas, Joseph Cultice, Linda Simpson) and lesser known (Alexis DiBiasio, Stephan Lupino) give well-deserved second lives to the revelers’ particular one-night-only art. Yet the Club Kids’ cultural impact is much larger than any photobook or Opening Ceremony–sponsored party for a few hundred guests can capture. I wasn’t even alive during much of the period discussed by the panelists, yet, as a chronic partygoer and general consumer of youth culture in 2010s New York, I exist resolutely within the bygone era’s fuzzy afterlife.

And the thing is, I don’t have to go to a Susanne Bartsch extravaganza to see their influence on display—I can simply open Instagram. After Andy Warhol, the Club Kids can probably claim the most credit for popularizing a certain art-as-narcissism/narcissism-as-art that pervades this city and digital feeds the world over. But Cassidy makes sure to stress to me how “the Club Kids were sort of the last subculture of the analog world.” “What makes the book charming and romantic is that it feels fully occupied. It feels lived in.” Emerging at a moment of plentiful digital photography but little internet access, their colorful personalities had to be experienced in real time, in real communities, and now, finally, in a photobook whose snapshots ooze with that ever-elusive quality: authenticity.

At the afterparty a few blocks away, on the rooftop of the new hotel Sister City, the crew love continued. While the space itself emblematizes the architecturally crude gentrification gobbling up Bowery—lacking that very attribute, authenticity, that the book so powerfully exudes—the multigenerational crowd more than compensated with their looks, their excitement, and their nostalgia for a vanished era. Yet, besides DJs Joey LaBeija and Dicap, few current club fixtures showed. The only two original Club Kids still promoting parties downtown—Sophia Lamar and Amanda Lepore—were, unsurprisingly, absent. Tonight was a celebration by and for an analog generation—aptly so.

Some of the most enduring images of the Club Kids are of their irreverent television appearances on such talk shows as Phil Donahue’s and Joan Rivers’s that scandalized Bush- and Clinton-era America. When I got to chat with Alexander Galan, who helped compile and publish the book with Cassidy, he called these appearances the closest thing the Club Kids had to a “viral moment.” For the most part, they were a subculture. Unless you lived in downtown Manhattan or had access to the exclusive rags Interview or Paper, their world wasn’t yours to know, at least not intimately.

When Michael Alig was released from prison several years ago, he lamented the influence he and his band of outsiders have had in an op-ed in the New York Post. “Here I am in 2014,” he writes, “experiencing the special brand of hell we’d satirized and helped create—a superficial world of likes and dislikes.” Nowadays, you don’t have to move to New York to live in that superficial world or pursue a career in art-as-self. The medium is in the palm of your hand, and your audience is the world.

Desmond is Amazing. Photo: Serichai Traipoom.

Onyx Noir and guest. Photo: Serichai Traipoom. 

Jojo Americo. Photo: Serichai Traipoom.

Richie Rich. Photo: Serichai Traipoom.

Joey LaBeija. Photo: Leandro Justen.