This is the twentieth installment in HuffPost Gay Voices Associate Editor James Nichols’ ongoing series “After Dark: NYC Nightlife Today And Days Past” that examines the state of New York nightlife in the modern day, as well as the development and production of nightlife over the past several decades. Each featured individual in this series currently serves as a prominent person in the New York nightlife community or has made important contributions in the past that have sustained long-lasting impacts.
HuffPost Gay Voices believes that it is important and valuable to elevate the work, both today and in the past, of those engaged in the New York nightlife community, especially in an age where queer history seems to be increasingly forgotten. Nightlife not only creates spaces for queers and other marginalized groups to be artistically and authentically celebrated, but the work of those involved in nightlife creates and shapes the future of our culture as a whole. Visit Gay Voices regularly to learn not only about individuals currently making an impact in nightlife, but those whose legacy has previously contributed to the ways we understand queerness, art, identity and human experience today.
The Huffington Post: You hail from Australia. What did your journey to becoming a fixture in the NYC nightlife scene as an artist and designer entail?
Claire Fitzsimmons AKA Ms. Fitz: My journey into nightlife segued through the fashion industry. I worked as a stylist and and art director and although my work was very creative, I had a hard time monetizing it because my portfolio was so off the wall. I did a lot of editorial and video work but the brands with the dosh [money] couldn’t trust that I wouldn’t take a shoe and pull the tongue out and make it into a hat, or cast a plus-size female model with facial hair — or something. So I had limited options for my career in Australia [laughs]. I moved to New York City to explore my dreams of entering into the fashion and art world and finding a niche of likeminded freaks.
Even back home it seemed to me that the most creative people in the world were congregating in the clubs of New York City. They were the ones I read about in Fabulous Nobodies — they worked with Pat Fields, they were door girls, they were friends with Leigh Bowery or were part of the Club Kids. I was drawn like a magnet to the mythology of the scene. In my mind, the art scene, the fashion scene and New York nightlife were the same thing. It never occurred to me that they might be anything but completely intertwined.
I arrived in New York in 2009 and the scene I had imagined was not what it had once been — it was the middle of the recession and the late 2000’s were not kind to NYC nightlife. I retreated to the Internet and began posting my looks in colorful gif format on my style blog. That was during the period when having a style blog could still be a “thing.” Through that online exposure Susanne Bartsch and her assistant Joey Labeija hired me for my first gig in 2012. I was also working at Paper Magazine as an event producer at the time and everything kind of just fell into place.
How does your work as a fashion designer and stylist intersect with your role as a prominent person in nightlife?
My background as a style artist means that I use my body and my clothing as a statement and expression of my art, and that’s a medium that translates well in the nightlife environment. I work very hard on my looks for events. They are primarily custom-made and there is a character that I’m building or creating. In nightlife you’re only as good as your last look — and I take that as seriously as one can (while there are still wars and people dying of hunger in the world).
How do you view the spectrum of work that you produce? What tends to be the focus of your work?
My art work is still primarily fashion-centric and motivated by my obsession with style as a tool for expression and dissent. I studied Political Philosophy at University and I’d say that I’m a feminist artist who uses fashion to create a vocabulary. I like to consider the intersection between subverting personal style, fashion-as-branding and artistry. Technically speaking I work with a lot of color and patterns — mostly thats a personal preference — but I also think that color and humor are great tools for sticking it to the man; which is ultimately what I’m trying to do.
You won the title of “New York’s Best Nightlife Personality” at the Annual New York City Nightlife Awards in 2012 — what was your career and role as a nightlife personality like at that time?
Let me preface this by saying that my friends and family back home are baffled that this is even a real award, and also very impressed and bemused that I managed to wrangle such a fabulous/dubious title!
At the time I had been thrust into the scene with Susanne Bartsch and was also working with Lady Fag, was helping throw the Dizzyland parties with my good friend Trey LaTrash and also was doing Frankie Sharp’s Westgay parties. I kind of had it all going on and was loving being in the thick of it — and that award really topped off the experience.
You were recently asked to curate a showing at Superchief Gallery during New York Fashion Week. How do you feel like fashion intersects with the art world?
Fashion and art are the same thing to me, just different incarnations. I aimed to curate a show during NYFW that brought together the current zeitgeist in art and fashion — which I believe are net-based artists creating their own clothing and art that incorporate ironic statements on commercialism. Themes that I personally find endlessly interesting in relation to the fashion world are brand obsession, consumerism and celebrity worship, so I created works that explored those themes. My piece for the “Limited Edition” show is titled “ICONS” and featured beautifully constructed remakes of iconic celebrity red carpet looks from repurposed sportswear.
How has the Internet influenced your development as an artist and designer, as well as your work?
The Internet has been central in influencing and disseminating my art. We live in a time of the Wild West of the net; it’s largely unregulated and we can share information freely. I don’t think it will always be that way and we are lucky at the moment. I find it kind of ironic and a really interesting statement on the human condition that we use this mind-blowing opportunity for dissent and communication to take #selfies and make people famous on Instagram for their butts. I’m not saying there is anything wrong with it — I’m just super inspired by the concept of digital narcissism, specifically pertaining to women’s rights and feminism and how we see and sell ourselves online.
The most significant way that the Internet has changed the world of art is primarily in the medium, and less so the content. Artwork that exists only online or digitally is a difficult sell and nobody really knows how to make money off of it — and mostly people give it away for free. It’s much like when music went digital; nobody knew how to monetize that either. I’m looking forward to hearing about new platforms for sharing, downloading and purchasing digital art.
The Internet is also changing the face of fashion, primarily in the method by which people are exposed to it and consume it. People want to purchase instantly and online nowadays, and this certainly wasn’t the case in years gone by. There used to be Fashion Weeks where only editors and buyers could see the new collections, then six months later the items would hit the stores. Now consumers view the collections at the same time as industry and the items need to be ready to be purchased instantly with a click. It’s changing the production, the marketing and sales schedules dramatically, and will eventually overhaul the way the industry works.
The artist and fashion brands who can adapt to these changes are young, smart and tech savvy, and they are flocking to digital spaces to share ideas and goods. Our generation has been burned by the financial crisis, unemployment and bleak prospects and, consequently, the ideas that are valued and being shared right now are anti-commercial and community driven.
How do you see what is happening in nightlife today as building on a historical legacy of artists, performers, musicians and personalities over the past several decades?
I think it’s essential to know your history and understand the legacies of those who came before you, regardless of your field. I love being regaled with history from my friends who were part of the Club Scene in the 90’s and have been lucky to work professionally with a number of the pioneers, including Desi Monster, Zaldy and the Paper Mag team. I get cranky when some children don’t bother to learn about the artists who paved the way for them!
New York is currently seeing a second wave of nightlife and it’s happening in raves and warehouses out in Brooklyn. It’s similar in many ways to the first wave. I mean, we’re still broke artists dancing around in dark rooms wearing stupid outfits. But particularly in regards to fashion, I think the queens seem more colorful and garish — and there’s also a cyber street style element that wasn’t so prominent in the first wave.
What current projects are you working on?
I’m currently in the early stages of producing and curating the second annual “Bushwick Gone Basel,” which is a gallery group show in Miami Basel. We’re partnering with Brooklyn venues and galleries to bring the brightest, talented underground artists from our neighborhood to Basel who might not have the resources or connections to have their own show at the festival. If you’d like to be on board to help or support, hit me up!
What do you see as the future of nightlife in NYC, particularly in terms of the way that it intersects with fashion?
Fashion has always drawn from the underground for trends, and in terms of the future of nightlife and fashion in NYC, increasingly we see established labels who want to connect with a cool young aesthetic (like DKNY or Diesel under the direction of Nicola Formichetti) reaching to the scene for inspiration and muses. Its a mutually beneficial understanding, if the artists are compensated appropriately. I think we’ll see more of that — it’s an exciting time to be involved.
For more from Ms. Fitz head here to check out the designer’s website. Missed the previous installments in this series? Check out the slideshow below.
“The whole point of the Club Kids was, I thought, to subvert the establishment. But it’s actually impossible to subvert the establishment because once you reach a certain point you become the establishment. Then, by definition, you haven’t subverted it –- it’s just assimilated you. It’s impossible to subvert the establishment… In 1995 things had become so utterly decadent -– it really was ‘Mad Max’ almost. Walking through a luxurious nightclub like Tunnel that was decked out to the nines and everybody beautiful, young and high on drugs at 8:00 a.m. — literally stepping over people laying on the floor and ignoring them like it’s the most normal thing. I can’t think of many things that are more decadent than that. But I really did think, ‘It really can’t go any further than this. Further would be death.’ And it really was for a lot of people.”
–Michael Alig, The Original Club Kid
“Nightlife is a huge influence on me and the art I produce. The whole idea that you can change your appearance and become something else was demonstrated to me by the nightlife community, who also encouraged my own exploration of ideas. Nightlife has motivated and supported my development. The people I’ve met have inspired me and many have influenced and changed my perspective of the world, gender identity and personal style. I hope to inspire and motivate others by what I do in the same way.”
–Ryan Burke, Artist and Nightlife Personality
“Patti Smith once said in an interview that there are always these pockets of time where everything sparkles, and things are done because people believe in something… My time as a punk kid, and as one of the Club Kids, is elemental. It informs all of my work as an artist. The commitment to integrity and authenticity that stems from street and scene culture is reflected in the formal qualities of my artwork. It can be seen in the materials, and the objects feel occupied. There is a sense that life has been experienced within the work, fueled by personal narrative. When I compare pictures of myself, as a Club Kid, to my current artwork and jewelry, there does seem to be a lot of continuity. The cycling, the concept of life as one master work, permeates.”
–Walt Cassidy AKA Waltpaper, Artist And Former Club Kid
“The worlds and the outfits and the scenes we create are primarily elaborate escape routes from a reality that we didn’t create and most of us want less and less to deal with… so in time we build our own reality. In this type of expression there is also a subconscious push for truth and evolution. A lot of times it’s hard to deduce men from women in a nightclub. And that’s a wonderful thing because we are heading into a time in which we’ll depart further from gender roles, which also gives way to compassion and acceptance. It’s a microcosm that I’m happy to be part of.”
-Muffinhead, Artist and Nightlife Personality
“Queer nightlife has been an ongoing cultural hotbed for decades, if not centuries, if not from when time began and a small group of outsiders, queers, artists, and madmen took a corner of a cave for themselves and “carried on” as we used to say in the 60’s to the 80’s… What is called queer history is really just a part of countercultural struggle that was not striated by sexual orientation. That was a ’70s concept to divide people up into separate groups. Queer History is a history of Bohemia — it is a history of resistance to mediocrity, injustice and assimilation.”
–Penny Arcade, Artist and Nightlife Personality
“I see a lot what is happening today in nightlife as a representation of the past. I find a lot of work in the museums from the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s being reflected into today’s kids — though I am not sure if they are aware of it or not. It seems pop culture has slowly infested the queer waters and the only music performed to is Top 100.
I love that music myself, but I go out into the nightlife for the second-better-life. The mirrored reflection of pop-culture. The perverted royal finger to what is normative.
Now you have to search within the nooks and crannies to find anyone brave enough to be honestly queer.”
–Acid Betty, Artist and Nightlife Personality
“I would want the kids to know that even though we assume things must have been horrible for gays in the past, that’s not 100 percent the case. When it came to nightlife in the 70s, for example, to me it was the peak of gay nightlife. It was a fabulous time to be gay in New York City. Sure, things like “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” or gay marriage weren’t on the table — they weren’t even conceptually thought of as ideas yet. But beyond that if you were fairly affluent and doing well, you had a hell of a time being a gay New Yorker. The clubs, the bars, the opportunities were enormous and it was just a wonderful celebratory post-Stonewall time of exploring different freedoms.”
–Michael Musto, Cultural Critic and Nightlife Personality
“[The club] is like going to an art gallery/community center/wreck room… that’s what keeps nightlife alive, in my opinion. All of these different tribes of people just coming together like a community center or a wreck room at these places that are only open at night, that you have to sacrifice your next day for or your health even sometimes. But it makes it better because everyone wants to be appreciated, everyone wants to be loved and nightlife is the shit with no make-up. It’s like a founding father of art. Like that club Area way back in the day and how they did all of those installations. Studio 54 still rings a bell, the Sound Factory is still making noise. These places they don’t go unnoticed.”
–Leo Gugu, Stylist and Nightlife Personality
“Over the course of just several years, drag transformed from an underground art form into a mainstream phenomenon. In the mid ‘80s, drag was thriving in the East Village, including the annual outdoor festival Wigstock. Then drag expanded to the entire nightlife scene; all of the clubs were clamoring for drag queen hostesses, go-go dancers, door people, etc.
When RuPaul hit it big in 1992 with her song ‘Supermodel,’ it triggered an incredible amount of pop culture attention for the entire downtown drag scene. Every magazine and television talk show was heralding this new “trend,” and there were a zillion drag-themed music videos, movies, television shows and fashion shoots. It was the first time that drag really broke through to the mainstream. Out of that era came the club kids, ‘Paris is Burning,’ RuPaul, Susanne Bartsh, Amanda Lepore, Leigh Bowery — all of these things and people that are still iconic on today’s nightlife.”
–Linda Simpson, Drag Queen Celebrity and Nightlife Personality
“I have a theory that there are always certain types of people in nightlife. If you look at nightlife now, nightlife ten years ago and nightlife twenty years ago you always see these categories of people… I like to think that whomever had the first party in New York invited all the people that were the pure raw forms of these different styles of people and everyone has been trying to recreate that fabulous party since then.. The beauty is looking at how the “glam queen” was glam in the ’80s and what it means to be a glam queen now.
The various genres of queens all find a way to relate to the current culture they live in and respond to that in some way.”
–William Noguchi, Artist and Nightlife Personality
“The very first time we ever saw RuPaul he was wheatpasting pictures of himself all over Atlanta that said ‘RuPaul Is Everything.’ What, at the time, seemed a brassy hyperbole has proven to be prescient.
Because today we are all Everything. We are all brands. And not just artists and celebrities — all of us.
That original punk promise of Manhattan Cable is being made good on: You can have your own TV channel on YouTube. Yes, Kodak has gone bankrupt but without a doubt this is a golden age of photography. Just look at people’s Instagram accounts.
This is the golden age of content.”
–Randy Barbato & Fenton Bailey, AKA The Fabulous Pop Tarts and World of Wonder Founders
“I think the truly innovative people that I’m seeing are playing around with gender and sexuality. I think that’s what our generation has to offer — the idea of acceptance and blurred lines of gender. It’s causing discussion, debate, new laws to be made and it’s causing more art. THAT is the movement that’s happening and I’m so glad that The Huffington Post is seeing it. It’s groundbreaking and I’m grateful that you’re not afraid and I’m grateful that you are present for the incredible change I hope to see. The world is changing and I hope that the bigots jump on this evolution because you’re going to get left behind.”
–Domonique Echeverria, Fashion Designer and Nightlife Personality
“I think NYC nightlife is in good hands at the moment. It’s a different time. We can’t expect everything to be like it was yesterday. Yesterday is gone! Tomorrow is waiting for all of the young new artists to take hold of and create something new and wonderful so that we all can continue to grow and experience art, music and an exciting nightlife scene that will hopefully once again make NYC the center of the universe. NYC nightlife is here to stay. It can sometimes go up and down like a roller coaster but it will always keep right on a rolling. Long may it reign!”
–Jayne County, Transgender Musician and Nightlife Icon
“There’s a movement amongst nightlife “personalities” to identify as artists. We approach our nightlife personalities as living art, and often have conversations on how to expand what we do in the club to a gallery setting. For many of us there are aspects of our work that just aren’t for the club — that’s why there’s the push to blur the lines between art and nightlife. To take the emphasis off the booze and sex and put the artists and personalities at the forefront — to create happenings.
Moving the work into a gallery setting allows me to present work that does not always fit into a club setting. There are aspects of my work, such as the live collage/painting performances, that require a more focused environment to experience the work in it’s entirety. A gallery gives us, as artists, more control over the details and participation with the audience. It the next step in the development of the work as a whole.”
–one-half NelSon, Artist And Nightlife Personality
“We live in an age where people are becoming increasingly detached from social interaction. No matter how loud or messy, nightlife spaces are some of the few places left where conversations happen. People can put a face to different viewpoints and lifestyles. With the ever-increasing number of queer subsets standing up to be counted, it is essential that we all know what’s going on within our own community. The queer community coming together for any reason is important and, unfortunately, very rare. Nightlife spaces are a sort of neutral ground for communication to take place — even if that communication is through a haze of drugs and alcohol, muffled by thumping base.”
-Erickatoure Aviance, Artist and Nightlife Personality
“Look at your history and you’ll learn more about who you are inside. Then look inside yourself and ask yourself who you really are. Are you the boy that really wants to go to bottle service clubs? Or do you have more to offer? And a lot of people learn these things as they go along and I think it’s important to realize we are much more powerful than we think we are. We are selling ourselves short by fitting into what society wants us to be.
It’s great that you have marriage -– but what could you really be?
We are the shamans of society. We’re here to show them you don’t have to go by the conditioned way of living. We’re here to show them you can live your life in a very authentic way. That’s what I think gay people are here for. And of course, to enjoy sex as well. Why not? [laughs]”
-Kenny Kenny, Visual Poet and Nightlife Icon
“The most important thing coming out of nightlife today is that it’s still coming out. With all the dramatic changes politically and financially over the last 30+ years, the legacy of New York nightlife still exists. And even though our parties are often held in some of the most elitist “bottle service” clubs, for one night a week the door opens and you don’t get in because you are rich, famous or work in PR — you get in because you’re a radical weirdo dressed to the tens, or friends with someone who is. Yes, it has changed, but we’re all here together committed to keeping New York weird.”
–Daughters of Devotion, Artists and Nightlife Personalities
“Know your history. Know your icons. Yes, the ‘Drag Race’ girls are all majorly important, but learn about the trailblazers who paved the way for them (and you). The Holly Woodlawns, the Jayne Countys, the Teri Toyes. Give them the homage they deserve. And know that no matter how creative you think you’re being, somebody else usually did it first. And that somebody was usually Leigh Bowery or Rudi Gernreich [laughs].
But whether it was the Club Kids, the New Romantics, the Mudd Club kids, the punks, the Factory crowd, the Dadaists, the Surrealists, the Bright Young Things, or the Macaronis, know that you are standing on the shoulders of giants.
And once you know your history, you can go out and create your own.”
–James St. James, Original Club Kid and Nightlife Icon
“It’s important for people to dream big and not limit themselves, and also for people to be aware that their existence is political if they like it or not. Queerness is not just about gender or sexuality — it’s about an awareness of infinite possibilities of lives that can transcend gender norms, spiritual and religious understandings, social class limitations, political understandings.
To be queer has always meant that the individual is constantly deconstructing whatever barrier, limitation or label confines them, in order to be open to the moment. It’s extremely important.”
–gage of the boone, Artist and Nightlife Personality
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