Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn has never had a globally renowned fashion week, but at The Lab on this sweltering Thursday night in June, the wooden floorboards at the warehouse-cum-club have been turned into a makeshift runway. As bootleg house remixes of Lil Wayne, Huey and The-Dream play, a procession of guys, dolls and trannies command attention in tailored streetwear. They show off perfectly refined pauses and turns and perform studied, fabulous head flips as professional and glamorous as any couture model.
But this is just the warm up. It’s still only 2 AM, and the party’s got a good five, six hours left in it. Every twenty minutes a new crew rolls up, looking stretched, focused and probably too young to be out this late on a weeknight. By three, the ubiquitous vogue ball MC named The Legendary Selvin Kool Aid Givenchy commands the mic and begins announcing other
doyennes of the scene in time to the never-faltering rhythm. Members of each house—Ninja, Mizrahi, Xtravaganza, Chanel—stride to the floor as if they’re being summoned to a royal line up. And as they hit the prime focal point, they begin to vogue. But what follows is nothing as primitive as “strike a pose.” The dance has evolved from the intricate hand motions and couture walks of its early days to complex, even acrobatic, displays of technique and style. There are the pirouettes of ballerinas and body contortions worthy of master yogis. These dancers are not amateurs. The signature move, the dip, is also the most impressive: coming off a back-bend or a quadruple spin, voguers propel themselves onto the floor with mach force and land flat on their backs—one foot tucked behind them, one foot straight out or hovering in the air. By now the dip is an expected bit of choreography—in a battle, it’s the requisite move for maximum judge impressing— but it never ceases to look fantastic, an otherworldly mutation of the catwalk strut: part model, part aerialist, part angel.
Shayne Oliver vogues, but says he doesn’t dip. His friend, Raul Lopez, accuses him of modesty. Together, they are the proprietors of the innovative fashion design collective Hood by Air, known for their unexpected (and sometimes aerodynamic) unisex streetwear. Part of The House of Galore, they are energetic, wordly New Yorkers who strut into The Lab with the confidence you’d expect from vogue children who’ve been doing this since junior high. They were two of the first graduates of Harvey Milk High, a LGBT school, after it became accredited by the New York public school system in 2002, and they still practice voguing in its gym. Tonight, Lopez is reserved, kicking it on the sidelines in a black metal folding chair and giving sweet greetings to friends, but Oliver is all performance. Wearing tailored shorts and a blonde vest that matches his dyed bangs (which he sometimes sprays up into a platinum high-top fade), he plants his hands on his hips gracefully and walks, he plants his hands on his hips gracefully and walks, back and forth, giving hand-on-face poses at each end of his promenade.
When the vogue ball circuit emerged in New York some twenty years ago as an outgrowth of the NYC drag scene, it was a space for mostly black and Latino, gay and transvestite men. Balls were both a refuge and a place of aspiration, where its denizens could dream about living freer and more fabulously. They became a place where class, gender and culture intersected and turned fluid. Most people’s perception of vogue culture comes from director Jennie Livingston’s 1990 documentary Paris is Burning, an excellent historical foundation on one aspect of the culture in its nascent stages that barely speaks to what’s going on in vogue circles now.
Vogue and ball culture is still centered around the dance, but the ideals have changed, particularly in the realm of fashion. The emergence of hip-hop transformed the feathers and sequins of yore into rhinestone belts, high-end jeans and silky braids, Jim Jones style. “It’s turning into something new,” says the 21-year-old Oliver. “When Paris is Burning came out, vogue was about being Dynasty, it was about daytime TV, it was about feeling white women. And now for the kids in The Clubhouse [a Harlem vogue spot], it’s all about feeling Rihanna and Chris Brown. It’s like Dynasty comes to Marcy Projects.”
Hood by Air designed the “Banjee” T-shirts for disco darlings Hercules and Love Affair, and Oliver and Lacole, a fellow Hood by Airist, performed vogue forms at Hercules’ fi rst-ever show in Brooklyn a few months back. (There were no dips, but there were some consistently strong poses atop a speakerbox for, like, an hour.) Banjee is an old word for hood gay, essentially, but for the shirts, they updated it. “Things are way edgier and more street, and people don’t get that,” says Lopez. “People think we’re being, like, queens, but now there’s like this whole homo-thug influence. The queens have now made the streets their own in their own way. We call it ‘banjee cunt.’”
“‘Banjee cunt’ is, like, a faggot,” Oliver elaborates. “Back in the day it was ‘butch queen,’ but we don’t really use that anymore. Banjee’s like, more feminine guys that will wear a fitted and tight jeans and sneakers. Clothes that, if a straight person saw on a banjee cunt, they would make fun of it. But then if Kanye West saw it, took it, put it on, it would be different. They have to see someone that they idolize and understand wear the same look that a butch queen has been doing for years before they can adapt to it.”
If black culture is the epicenter of popular culture in America, vogue culture is the hypocenter. Having been jacked almost from jump—Madonna is the queen of cultural interloping, and “Vogue,” with its premise scrubbed-clean, may have been her interlopingest moment—it’s easy to see why, despite the scene’s survival for over two decades, the culture has largely remained underground. There is the spectre of homophobia, to be sure, but there’s also an inherent desire for the scene to remain exclusive. It’s difficult to get people to even discuss it; while reporting this story, interviews were repeatedly cancelled, day trips undone. But Lopez and Oliver, who initially had concerns about being misrepresented, also recognize their influence on the mainstream. “Boys that are in the ballroom scene have influenced hip-hop culture in an immense way,” says Lopez. “Things that [straight] boys do now, the queens were doing way back, but they never get credit for it.” And, as usual, it’s the younger generation that has kept ball culture fresh. As hip-hop and street culture begins to glom onto ’90s fashion, borrowing style, ideas and slang from the era, the voguers, with their roots in the actual ’90s, have been developing their own language (“white woman” is a verb that means “doing something a bourgie white woman would do,” “fierce” means “dead” or “not hot,” “done” means “hot”), creating their own music (clanging, dramatic house with a slight Bmore club influence) and innovating the very idea of what gender could, and should, mean.
Being gay and banjee in 2008 is a very different experience than being gay and banjee in 1988, and vogue culture has evolved accordingly. “A lot of people treat Paris is Burning as like, an archetype of gay culture in the same stereotypical way as if you looked at a blaxploitation film and tried to say it was the epitome of all black culture brings to the table,” says Lopez. “It should be credited as the first media that showed it, but like any culture, it metamorphosizes. Culture has changed and it’s not, like, everything. It’s not the only thing that represents a gay male.”
Still, balls reminiscent of the old ways live on. On a Sunday night outside of Escuelita, a longtime NYC club near Penn Station, the walk from the train to the bar feels like 1989. Kids lamp outside bodegas, vagabonds yell at one another by the bus stop and a creepy drunk old dude follows me halfway down the block until I double back and whiz past him. Inside the club, Kool Aid Givenchy prepares once again to holler the diva mantras: “Legendary!” “Work!” “Girl you are DONE!” Before the competitions begin, there’s a drag performance by Jennifer Evisu, who lip synchs to India.Arie’s cover of Don Henley’s “The Heart of the Matter.” As she pantomimes the song, a procession of voguers unravel scrolls painted with the names of family who passed. They remember members of the houses of Ebony, Infinity, Milan. They remember the legendary dancer Willi Ninja. They even remember Sean Bell, the young, unarmed man murdered by cops the night before his wedding. This, too, is a reminder of the old New York, of communities devastated by AIDS, and a warning to its current children.
But soon, Vjuan Allure’s “Robobitch” is on the speakers and Kool Aid’s ready to get things poppin. It is 1:52 AM. Even on god’s resting day, revelers keep rolling in, eventually numbering five hundred. After an hourlong intro in which every house in existence is summoned to walk the floor, the battles begin. This time it’s not dance, but looks that catch a win and a cash prize. The categories include Butch Realness, Prettyboy Realness, Schoolboy Realness…It’s always realness, where competitors try to look the most like the actual thing, be it a woman, a gangsta or, indeed, a schoolboy (defined by Kool Aid as “a boy going to school that is real”). In the Queen Realness category, Lola Balenciaga, stunning and leggy in pum pum shorts, takes the prize. Realness indeed. The only thing you might ever mistake her for is a supermodel.
Oliver and his crew prefer the dance, and the culture around it, to the balls, generally operating outside of established clubs like the one at Escuelita. “We went to the gay high school and, like, those are, like, our Wonder Years. So of course we’re gonna appreciate it,” he says. “But we also transcend into other walks of life, trying to do things outside of the scene.” For now, they’re just trying to build Hood by Air into the go-to creative for the Banjee generation. “You know when somebody’s a banjee cunt,” says Oliver. “You know when somebody can turn, because even when they’re not dressed that way, it’s the way that they carry their body. You see the world in a certain way and so you act upon the world in that way. And it’s noticeable, in whatever you do.”